When Robert Whittaker meets Israel Adesanya in an attempt to unify the middleweight championships in Melbourne in the early hours of Sunday morning, the South Auckland native will step foot inside the Octagon for the first time in sixteen months.
We last witnessed Whittaker tussle with Yoel Romero in an instant classic rematch last June, and despite suffering a broken hand early in the bout, the 28-year-old managed to edge out the Cuban with a majority decision. Paired with then number-one contender Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 234, Whittaker was forced to withdraw from the headlining spot on fight day, due to an abdominal hernia and collapsed bowl.
That’s where Saturday’s opponent Adesanya enters the fray. Scheduled to meet Brazilian phenom Anderson Silva in a co-main event matchup, the two were drafted into a curtain-closer in an attempt to save the card. Adesanya would go on to take a decision over ‘The Spider’ before besting the aforementioned Gastelum in April to seal the interim title, and set up this weekend’s Oceanic clash with Whittaker.
Whittaker, who is unbeaten since his move to 185 pounds back in 2014, has trumped the likes of Ronaldo Souza, Derek Brunson, Uriah Hall, and maybe most impressively, has twice scored wins against the previously mentioned Romero. In both fights with the Olympic silver-medallist, Whittaker was put through the absolute ringer. Spending a greulling total of fifty-minutes inside the Octagon with the explosive striker, the experience Whittaker has gained from facing somebody like ‘The Soldier Of God’ not once, but twice, has to be astronomical. We’ve seen huge improvements in the Aussie’s defensive wrestling and grappling, and sheer heart and will to continue in both contests.
When paired with the stance-altering Adesanya, Whittaker meets a striker who shares some similarities with the last man to defeat him at welterweight, ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson. Granted, the karate style of Thompson is not as planted per-say as Adesanya, but the constant hop from conventional to southpaw alters the rhythm of a fight. In recent showings, Whittaker himself has imposed the early fight direction and pace, particularly in his Fight of The Year with Romero last summer.
The use of oblique kicks or front leg kicks has mitigated lateral movement, which ultimately led to the slaying of Jacare Souza. The Brazilian was pinned against the fence and was met with a snap right high kick, reminiscent of T.J. Dillashaw against Dominick Cruz or his initial clash with Cody Garbrandt. Badly hurting the wily grappler, Whittaker went on to finish with strikes, earning his first world championship tilt.
When we dissect the ever improving kickboxing of Robert Whittaker we must take into consideration the use of that right high kick. Throwing from orthodox, the technique is incredibly clean with little if any telegraphing. Against Derek Brunson. Whittaker threw the jab, stepped to his left, before launching his right leg upstairs. In his rematch with Romero, Whittaker once more set up the high kick with a jab and step to the left. If Romero’s chin wasn’t impeccable, I’m comfortable with the fact that we would have witnessed almost certain stoppage.
Adesanya may have the larger and considerably more dynamic striking tools in his repertoire but the pressing-style of Whittaker will force circling from Isreal and a reset within kicking range. The slick hands of a fresh Kelvin Gastelum forced some issues for Adesanya early and late in their April barn-burner, particularly counter hooks. In the majority of his fights, Whittaker sets up exchanges with a feint, usually a feint of a conventional jab and then swings with a left hook, which will prove pivotal to close distance against the longer Adesanya.