UFC 243 saw a clash between two of the best middleweights in modern MMA. Then-champion Robert Whittaker took on Israel Adesanya. Their match had been highly anticipated since it was Whittaker's first fight after a year's absence. Meanwhile, 'The Last Stylebender' rose through the ranks and captured the interim title.
The unification bout took place in Melbourne, but even with the overwhelming home support, 'The Reaper' came up short. 'The Last Stylebender' knocked out the Australian in front of over 57,000 people. Since then, Adesanya has defended his UFC title thrice.
The former champion has also found success since returning to the octagon in 2020. Whittaker has fought his way back into title contention. Currently on a three-fight win streak, 'Bobby Knuckles' is looking to reclaim the UFC middleweight strap. However, the champ has no intention of losing and wants to lap the division.
While Whittaker has improved his skills, Adesanya has the ability to adapt and overcome adversity. Here are 5 reasons why the rematch at UFC 271 will play out differently.
#5. The former UFC middleweight champ is free of health issues
From 2014 to 2017, Robert Whittaker blazed through the middleweight division and became champion. However, he ran into serious health problems after his second brutal contest with Yoel Romero in 2018. A day before his scheduled bout with Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 234, the Australian was rushed to the emergency room.
He had an abdominal hernia and a collapsed bowel. The incident could have been fatal for Whittaker and it took him months to recover. The Australian later also spoke about how he battled depression during the UFC 234 fight camp. In contrast, Israel Adesanya fought and won eight fights between 2017 and 2019.
'The Reaper' played into Adesanya's strengths as a counter striker, chasing him across the octagon, trying to land a big shot. However, since his loss, 31-year has been free of any major health issues. Whittaker hasn't picked up any minor injuries from his last three fights either and is a much fresher fighter.
#4. Robert Whittaker's game plan is going to be different
During their first meeting at UFC 243, Adesanya dominated the Australian. He was calm and reacted well to Whittaker's offense. 'The Reaper' had opened the bout aggressively and threw every shot with maximum power. Whittaker did not change his approach even when he started to take a lot of damage from the Nigerian's counters.
As Daniel Cormier pointed out during the fight:
''A lot of big actions by Robert Whittaker... throwing big, looping punches, not being as straight as he normally is.''
'Bobby Knuckles' quickly wore himself out, slowed down and suffered a knockdown at the end of round 1. In round two it was all over.
Catch the full fight here:
According to Whittaker, things will be different in the rematch. The 31-year old has sharpened his striking and ground game and won't rely on a singular approach. He told MMA Junkie:
''I guess my whole headspace is just, utilize the tools and the opportunities that I’m given in this fight.''
Watch the full interview:
#3. The former UFC middleweight champ plans to utilize his grappling
Israel Adesanya has been an unstoppable force in the middleweight division. He has decisively defeated every title challenger with ease. The Nigerian native is an exceptional striker who utilizes his reach and kicks to dictate the distance in every fight. The Kiwi is also arguably the best counter puncher in the UFC with near-perfect takedown defense.
However, many believe that in March 2021, Jan Blachowicz revealed how to exploit Izzy's biggest weakness. Blachowicz edged ahead every time he took Izzy down. Robert Whittaker believes he can do the same and in an interview with MMA Junkie, said:
''I would love to be able to get him on his back... he can’t use his long arms and long legs to hit you.''
However, unlike the former UFC light heavyweight champ, 'The Reaper' won't have a weight advantage over the champ. It'll be interesting to see if the middleweight can take Izzy down and hold him there.
#2. Robert Whittaker has improved his striking
While grappling may be the answer against 'The Last Stylebender', the former champ is looking to utilize all of his skills. Whittaker was already a capable striker when he faced Adesanya for the first time. However, the Kiwi utilized his reach advantage to disrupt Whittaker's flow.
His most recent performances prove that the Australian has been working on his striking. 'The Reaper' showed his improved accuracy and timing against Jared Cannonier and Kelvin Gastelum. These specific improvements may prove valuable against Adesanya as he is a master of feinting and movement.
'Bobby Knuckles' has also hired Hall of Fame boxing coach Johnny Lewis to help him prepare for his rematch. Lewis believes that the 31-year old has made progress in every aspect of boxing and is punching harder than ever. He is confident Whittaker can go toe to toe with the champ in boxing.
#1. The UFC middleweight champ has been strengthening his weakness
The UFC middleweight king is primarily a striker and has never actively taken a fight to the ground. Critics have repeatedly claimed that the Kiwi's grappling skills are not on par with his striking. However, accomplished middleweight wrestlers like Derek Brunson and Marvin Vettori have tried and failed to take the champ down.
'The Last Stylebender' has impeccable takedown defense. Adesanya utilizes his speed and makes it hard to secure double leg takedowns. Even when opponents get hold of a single leg, the Nigeran scrambles out immediately. Only Jan Blachowicz successfully used his strength and size advantage to take the champ down multiple times.
However, Izzy has been working hard to improve his ground game. In his rematch against Marvin Vettori, 'The Last Stylebender' stuffed almost every takedown attempt. In round 3, he even reversed a rear-naked choke. In a recent clip posted to Twitter, the UFC champ can be seen practicing his takedowns. It seems that Izzy will be ready for Whittaker's wrestling.