In what seems like manifest destiny, a trans-Tasman clash for the UFC middleweight championship between champion Robert Whittaker and recently crowned interim champion Israel Adesanya is taking shape as the most prolific Oceanic fight in history. An ill-fated twist of events mere hours before UFC 234 in February forced Whittaker out. Had it not, Whittaker vs Adesanya could have passed us like ships in the night.
The main event at UFC 234 was set to be Whittaker defending the title against former welterweight upstart and streaking wrestle-boxer, Kelvin Gastelum, who coached on The Ultimate Fighter: Heavy Hitters season against Whittaker. If not for a serious hernia and collapsed bowel, that could have proven fatal upon competing for Whittaker, we could have been looking at a very different title picture and one not set to break Australian combat viewership records.
Lower on the 234 card was Israel Adesanya against the formerly heralded “Greatest of all Time”, Anderson Silva, which was promptly bumped into the headlining slot. Adesanya, before a victory against Silva, was by no small measure a shoo-in for the next title shot against the winner of Whittaker vs Gastelum. Immediately Gastelum petitioned that Whittaker be stripped and went so far as to claim himself the new middleweight king via forfeit. UFC President, Dana White, admitted the idea was entertained before ultimately leaving the title firmly around the waist of the current champ when recovery time was revealed to be between four to six weeks.
With Gastelum completing a full training camp for naught and Adesanya continuing to live up to the activity that preceded his rise of six wins in as little as fourteen months, an interim title fight at UFC 236 on April 13th was slated just two short months after Whittaker’s inability to compete. As fate would have it, Adesanya put on a hearty performance to rout Gastelum via unanimous decision after a troubling opening stanza and surmounting numerous challenges on the way.
To the dismay of those who suspected Adesanya was smoke and mirrors at the time, he met the best that the American wrestler had to offer in the pocket and continued his rally towards a seemingly inevitable date with the champion. Whittaker maintains the title, Adesanya defeats both the former GOAT and the one-time challenger to Whittaker’s title only to secure a date for the unification of their respective titles on Australian soil.
Whittaker might have several accolades to his name, however, the fact that he went 2 rounds with Yoel Romero, possibly the most feared man in the higher weight classes, is a testament to his composure and meticulous ability to stick to a plan in the heat of combat.
Whittaker’s mutated striking style consisting of a traditional bladed karate stance and willingness to engage in the pocket is a conflicting blend of two seemingly opposing approaches to striking that give an interesting benefit: dictating the pace of the fight.
Whittaker can and does blitz into true karate form yet will swing in close to the dismay of those he just swallowed the distance on. His same side punches – think right-hand punch with right footstep into southpaw, rinse and repeat to orthodox with the left and vice versa – create opportunities to land with power whilst negating space in a division he was once thought to be too small in. This also negates the potential for opponents to create a dominant angle on the champ, for as soon as it is realised “The Reaper” will soon enough take it away.
An offensive example of this is Whittaker vs almost anyone in the middleweight division where he reigns. Take his most dominant victories and although the ending will seem different, the catalyst is almost always stemmed from an opponent throwing from an unadvisable angle.
Whilst defensively against Derek Brunson, Whittaker angled out into southpaw when pressured against the cage and let rip a same side (left) had that connection and sent the rushing Brunson reeling into a TKO shortly thereafter.
As the rounds progress, Whittaker will maintain the same side concept yet will throw an added kick to the head, which can be seen in his stellar performance against Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, Yoel Romero, and Derek Brunson. Whittaker throws, steps into range anticipating a retreat and then immediately delivers a shin upstairs after opponents begin to find comfort in this cadence and rhythm or try to develop some pattern recognition.
It is this cadence and rhythm that allows Whittaker to read the fight and find pockets of time to occupy space left unchecked by opponents. If he is between kickboxing and clinch distance, he will let fly with intelligent head movement and classic slip and rip boxing. Within these exchanges, Whittaker will either force opponents onto the back foot and connect, or force a scramble should they prefer a panicked reactive takedown attempt.
If you’ve seen the Romero fights, you’ll know that Whittaker has a seasoned understanding of how and when to tip the odds of a grappling exchange where no immediate advantage is clear for either party. His ability to read and manipulate distance from his bladed stance allows two distinct advantages when grappling:
- Frames can be readily established and maintained to facilitate or deny grappling advances.
- His rear leg is almost always out of reach or can be used dynamically like a boat rudder to create opportunities to scramble.
Now there’s no real illusion here that Israel will instigate a takedown outright, however, should Whittaker entertain the grappling with his ability to close distance he is more qualified to use his dynamic scrambling ability to strike and attempt to drown Adesanya.
Upon standing, Whittaker frames on the head of opponents to delay their rise and allow ample time to swing his signature right straight into a lead hook, again in the pocket. His ability to switch from the accelerator against a wounded Jacare, the clutch against a wild Brunson or the brakes against a rampaging Romero paint a larger picture of the fight IQ in Whittaker’s possession.
Accompanying his otherwise unique striking acumen, the champion provides an enigmatic stylistic matchup for the man known as “The Last Stylebender”.
Not since Alistair Overeem has such a celebrated, pure breed striker graced the cage and Adesanya does so with the resume that would make the dutchman blush.
Adesanya is a refined mix of Taekwondo, Thai shins and true Dutch kickboxing creating an offence layered and fraught with danger. Dutch kickboxing has been criticised for being too rote and the combinations and attacks are too set in stone, denying a natural cadence to the fight and forcing attacks. In this regard, Adesanya is an anomaly, organically letting his offence flow through him.
He will also dare to begin long-chain combinations with “coach killing” attacks like naked knees and low kicks with no set up to instigate a reaction and several chained attacks after. Usually throwing slow strikes such as kicks with no set up is a sure-fire way to give your coach heart palpitations, however, there is an underlying reason. A strategy perfected by Prince Naseem Hamed, let them think you’re throwing shots that can be cleanly countered, but what Adesanya is throwing is bait to counter-the-counter.
Of course, not all of Adesanya’s attacks begin like this, as he can reservedly settle for a reliable long 1-2 and does so more often than not, save for the odd kick from outside. But put a bookmark on this and we will return to it later…
His go-to strategy is also better described in a short story.
Israel can slow the tempo of the fight while asking questions with feints, and wrong answers incur a harsh penalty. Feints facilitate a designated reaction until the opponent stops biting, their reactive sensed dulled to the ruse, then Adesanya will make good on the feint and throw the strike with full force, answering the question.
"When does a feint stop being a feint?"
A feint is not a feint when you stop reacting to the threat, then the threat becomes real.
If the feints do not have the effects of dulling reactions, Israel’s opponents can be on the overly defensive. Even Anderson Silva had overblown respect for the smallest movement of Adesanya’s hips and shoulders in an attempt to anticipate an incoming strike. At times this fight was at a snail’s pace although you could cut the tension with a knife. Like a director in a thriller, Adesanya had us wondering what was next as the tension and pressure built in each lull between exchanges.
A mental game where he dictates the rules.
The heart of Adesanya’s pressure is psychological. The threat of the attack, feints, filling negative space, angles amplified by the fact that he never settles into a singular stance. Therefore, the amount of data he can put into the minds of opponents instantly doubles, triples and so on until opponents hit a breaking point and turn to water.
The beauty of his style is not seeking to press the finish, but overwhelm and treat each exchange as a singular instance of an overall greater picture.
A compliment to this is his manifestation of psychological pressure. Taunting opponents with hands down, baiting them in to throw while maintaining the mindfulness to evade & counter with the most likely attacks from the current stance he employs. This doubles as a means for digging the underhooks on takedown attempts at range e.g. Rob Wilkinson and Tavares. He is rarely caught with hands down and taken to the mat either.
No true striker entering MMA has shown the evolution Izzy has to become a natural in the cage, especially in as little time. No longer a “kickboxer who does MMA”, he has savvy takedown defence instincts and has become a true cage general.
Take the Derek Brunson fight for example – a common opponent of he and Whittaker. Whilst Whittaker chose when to step on the gas and when to hit the brakes, Adesanya was simply not in the line of fire. Izzy never moved in a straight line and when cornered by the competent wrestling in Brunson, he used his developed cage awareness to navigate back to the centre and begin his tirade of strikes again.
This is the seed of a much larger road map in Adesanya’s game; takedown defence begins with your positioning in the cage. His most desperate opponents attempted takedowns in the open, unable to corral Izzy to the fence or wade into his considerable range to clinch.
The results were in favour of the Nigerian.
Even successful takedowns on Adesanya without backing him into a corner has left a glaring hole for him to escape his hips, set frames, and retreat directly away which would be impossible were the fence there to contain him. Again, his ring general status continues to elevate his already stellar striking resume.
His combination of rhythm, timing, and variety feed opponents into his labyrinth of techniques at an unfamiliar cadence. No one in 17 professional mixed martial arts fights and only a handful in his illustrious kickboxing career has managed to read the Adesanya code and deliver a loss to the NZ based Nigerian phenom.
Will Whittaker hit the gas on Adesanya or will Izzy put Whittaker in the matrix?
Find out this Sunday.