The UFC 271 main event serves as a rematch between two of the most decorated and successful middleweight champions, the reigning champion Israel Adesanya and the former champion Robert Whittaker, both known for their abilities to go through wars and overcome adversity.
Ahead of this weekend’s pay-per-view, UFC lead play-by-play man Jon Anik provided an in-depth preview of the two warriors to Mike Pendleton for The AllStar.
Looking back at the first fight
The first time that Adesanya met Whittaker, he was the interim champion challenging for the undisputed title, and the New Zealand area fighter was in enemy territory. The fight took place in Melbourne, Australia, home territory for Whittaker. Led by a spectacle that included a memorable walkout by Adesanya, Anik recalls the pageantry and the greatness that was displayed at UFC 243 in 2019.
“To call an event at that stadium [Marvel Stadium] which was so vast, it’s almost indescribable in terms of the venue, and the pageantry, and Izzy’s walkout, and everything else but all of that felt elevated because it felt like one of the biggest middleweight championship matchups in UFC history.
“I know people get upset in superlatives and historical terms, but when you look at the body of work now of both of these men, what Izzy has done since in successfully defending the belt three times, Whittaker in some respects re-inventing himself but I think that’s probably a stretch. I cannot wait. Regardless of what it does on pay-per-view, this is one of the biggest championship matchups in any division that we can put together, there’s heat on it. I can’t wait, I can’t effin’ wait.”
Israel Adesanya: The standard at middleweight
Although he was unsuccessful in his bid to become a two-weight division champion, Israel Adesanya has been perfect during his run throughout the middleweight division. As he prepares to possibly face familiar opponents in future rematches, Jon Anik labeled him the standard at 185 pounds.
“Well, all of his title defenses have been dominant and at this point, he’s undefeated in the weight class, his only professional loss is at light heavyweight. I think Robert Whittaker is a Hall of Famer and it took him [Adesanya] less than nine minutes to be that guy, and he did so pretty decisively.”
“Certainly this week you’re gonna hear a lot of people picking Whittaker apart, taking issue with some of his recklessness or reckless abandonment in the first fight. But, Adesanya is a special, special striker. Some people get criticized for giving him too much credit and then you have another group of people who can’t wait to see Alex Pereira who’s very green in MMA, knock him off the perks like next week.”
The champion embracing challenges
Throughout his meteoric rise in the UFC and middleweight division, Adesanya has challenged himself against the biggest names, and most dangerous threats the division has to offer. In doing that, Anik says he believes the champion is cut from a rare cloth.
“I just think there’s a special, undeniable quality to Adesanya in our fighter meetings, in the Octagon, and I just like the fact that he wants all of the most important scouts on his resume. That’s why he wanted [Yoel] Romero, or Anderson Silva, or Paulo Costa, who people like me thought was going to be the UFC middleweight champion. I love that he’s fighting Whittaker a second time, I think both guys end up in the Hall of Fame.
“I don’t think Whittaker should be +225 [underdog] against any man in the world, but if you’re asking me who needs to be more perfect on Saturday night, I think it’s Whittaker even if he has more ways to win, I think he has to be more perfect.
Israel Adesanya’s place in middleweight history
Facing all the names he has in a division that has seen the likes of Whittaker, Chris Weidman, and most notably Anderson Silva reign supreme in their championship tenures, Jon Anik believes the current champion has a special legacy at 185 pounds.
“I think sometimes people get frustrated when we try to speak legacy or historical terms when a guy might have 10 to 12 UFC fights left. I don’t know if Adesanya is going to have that many fights left, but in a lot of respects, he’s just getting going even though he’s accomplished a lot of great things.
A potential close out of this series matchup
With Israel Adesanya already owning one victory over Robert Whittaker, Jon Anik detailed how the champion is seeking closure, even despite the fact that he took the title from Whittaker with a second-round TKO in their first meeting.
“This sport is crazy, it’s so unpredictable, not like slip on a banana peel unpredictable necessarily but the whole legacy can kind of change on a dime this weekend. Adesanya needs closure this weekend. If he can finish Robert Whittaker or beat him 49-46 or 50-45, he closes out this series. In terms of Robert Whittaker trying to become a two-time UFC middleweight champion, this would amount to probably an 18-month, if not two-year championship setback minimum. Whittaker’s going to have to go win at least a couple of fights and hope someone knocks Adesanya off the perch. Whittaker wins, we’re looking at a trilogy, depending on the style points in which Whittaker wins, maybe people start to knock Adesanya.
I think it’s a stretch to talk about Adesanya in a conversation with Anderson Silva right now, just based upon the length of Anderson Silva’s reign and how dominant it was. I think his most competitive fight is this weekend.”
Robert Whittaker 2.0?
Since losing his title, Robert Whittaker has compiled a three-fight winning streak over the likes of Darren Till, Jarred Cannonier, and most recently, Kelvin Gastelum. Although all three fights went to a decision, Anik discussed how many have said the former champion has re-invented himself.
“I don’t think it’s been drastic changes, but the numbers would tell you that it has been. Whittaker has landed 22 takedowns in his last three fights after landing one, in the three fights leading into the first Adesanya fight. So the numbers would tell you that he’s mixing it up a lot more, he’s going for takedowns a lot more. I don’t think he’s going to force takedowns, I think he’s going to have to be very clean in transition.
I think what a lot of us are curious to see is if he is able to take Adesanya down which is certainly no guarantee, physically how does he hold up?”