The UFC returns to Australia this weekend for UFC 243, and as much as it pains me to say this, it’s a pretty weak card for what should be a marquee-level pay-per-view event given it’s taking place at the Marvel Stadium in Melbourne. For those who’ve forgotten, the last time the UFC visited that venue was for Ronda Rousey vs. Holly Holm back in 2015 – and the show drew a record attendance for the promotion of 56,214.
Sure, Robert Whittaker vs. Israel Adesanya is by far the biggest fight in the history of Australian MMA, as it pits the Aussie champ Whittaker against the New Zealand based interim champ Adesanya, but outside of that fight? Well, Dan Hooker vs. Al Iaquinta sounds cool I guess.
It must be added, also, that the show was initially bolstered by the return to Australia of former Women’s Bantamweight champ Holm, who was booked to rematch former title challenger Raquel Pennington. That fight has since been nixed due to an injury to Holm, however, and as of writing the UFC have only confirmed four main card fights.
Here are the predicted outcomes for UFC 243: Whittaker vs. Adesanya.
#1 Robert Whittaker vs. Israel Adesanya
It’s quite possible that Robert Whittaker might be the closest thing to a cursed champion that the UFC has ever had. For those unsure as to how we got to this point, here’s a short history lesson.
‘The Reaper’ first captured the Interim Middleweight title back in the summer of 2017 by outpointing fellow top contender Yoel Romero. A unification match with then - full champion Michael Bisping was mooted, but never happened as Bisping faced – and lost to – Georges St-Pierre instead.
‘GSP’ vacated the title rather than face off with Whittaker, and so the Aussie was upgraded to full champion status in December 2017 without actually unifying the belts. That was fine, and his first proper title defence was booked in February 2018 against Luke Rockhold. Unfortunately, Whittaker injured himself prior to the bout, and a match between Rockhold and Romero was put together for an interim title.
Romero won that one – but missed out on the title due to a botched weight cut. A rematch between Whittaker and the Cuban was then booked for UFC 225, and despite taking some insane punishment, Whittaker prevailed. After recovering from that, he was booked to face Kelvin Gastelum this February – only to be sidelined once again, this time with a serious hernia and collapsed bowel.
No replacement could be found as the injury happened so late in the day – and so we come to the second part of this story. That show – UFC 234 – was then main evented by Israel Adesanya’s fight with legendary former champ Anderson Silva, and when Adesanya won handily, the UFC booked him in an interim title fight with Gastelum at April’s UFC 236. And in one of the greatest title fights in UFC history, ‘The Last Stylebender’ came out on top, setting up easily the biggest fight in Australian MMA history.
Up to speed? Okay. So how does this fight play out? For me, it’s a tough fight to pick. Prior to the fight with Gastelum, Adesanya was largely unproven against elite-level competition. Sure, he’d picked apart mid-range fighters like Derek Brunson and Brad Tavares, but they’re too good – not great – Middleweights, while Silva is obviously years past his prime now. The Gastelum fight however showed us a lot more than anyone could’ve been expecting.
Firstly, it showed that Adesanya’s pinpoint striking style – somewhat similar to Silva’s, but with less kicks and slightly less flash – could definitely work against top-level opponents. It showed that he could keep a ridiculous pace over a 25 minute fight – something that’s clearly going to be needed against Whittaker. And interestingly, it showed us that he could defend takedowns pretty handily and also that he’s got an apparently iron jaw, as Gastelum hit him with some huge shots, even knocking him down, but couldn’t put him away.
Unfortunately, Gastelum was also able to expose a couple of flaws in his game, a couple of chinks in the armour of a man who up to that point had almost looked unstoppable. Essentially, Adesanya was fine when he was able to dictate the range of the fight, but when Gastelum really pushed forward and committed to his punches, he was able to land surprisingly clean shots and even drew ‘The Last Stylebender’ into brawling exchanges at points.
You can bet that Whittaker was watching that fight very closely, and would surely have noticed everything good and bad that Adesanya did. One of the more underrated fighters when it comes to game-planning, I’d almost certainly guess that part of Whittaker’s gameplan for this fight will be to push forward aggressively and attempt to catch Adesanya in the same way that Gastelum was able to do.
Could Whittaker replicate that gameplan? It’s tricky to say. On one hand, he’s faster than Gastelum, a superior striker and I’d argue he hits harder. He’s also up there with the likes of Chuck Liddell as the most ruthless finishers to ever step into the Octagon. But on the other hand, he doesn’t carry the same takedown threat that Gastelum did – something that may have been playing on Adesanya’s mind and causing him to struggle to read Gastelum’s timing.
More interestingly, while Whittaker has overcome some dangerous opponents since his move to 185lbs – the most notable being Romero and Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza – it must be said that the last time he fought a pinpoint striker like Adesanya was back in 2014, and it led to his last loss, a TKO at the hands of Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson.
Now, Thompson and Adesanya don’t exactly have the same style – Wonderboy’s leaping in, leaping out karate technique is different to Adesanya’s more unorthodox striking game – but it’s also fair to say that Whittaker hasn’t fought as good a striker since; Uriah Hall and Romero are both excellent in their own way, but both men have flaws that Whittaker was able to capitalise on – flaws that Adesanya seemingly doesn’t have.
I feel like Whittaker can win this fight, but he’s practically going to have to fight perfectly to do it – he simply can’t let Adesanya snipe at him from range in exchanges, which means he’s going to have to be on the attack, but unless he shoots a lot of takedowns early in the fight – something he doesn’t tend to do – that style could leave him wide open to eat some nasty counters.
Throw in the fact that Whittaker has undoubtedly taken more punishment than Adesanya in their respective careers, and I think the more likely man to end up in trouble in this fight is ‘The Reaper’. I could be badly underestimating him but I’m leaning towards Adesanya catching him with some hard counters and taking him out midway through the fight.
The Pick: Adesanya via third round TKO