The UFC has a new face, and it is distinctly lacking ginger hair and an Irish brogue.
In Marvel Stadium, Melbourne on Sunday, the remarkably marketable and talented Israel Adesanya dethroned Robert ‘The Reaper’ Whittaker in his outback yard to claim the UFC middleweight championship and assert himself as the man Dana White’s promotion needs to get behind.
The UFC 243 main event marked Whittaker’s (20-5) third attempt at a title defence in his native Australia, and the third time was not to be the charm for ‘The Reaper’.
Previous bouts were scrapped due to the 28-year-old sustaining injuries late in the day – in fact, injuries have proven greater antagonists in Whittaker’s UFC journey than most opponents – and as a result he had last fought in June 2018.
By contrast, Nigerian-born New Zealander Adesanya (18-0) came into this fight off the back of an electric entry into the UFC, with a staggering six wins from six fights in 14 months and without a loss on his record. Most notably, the Kiwi defeated his idol, the legendary Anderson Silva, in February before overcoming Kelvin Gastelum two months later in a fight of the year contender for the interim middleweight strap.
Versatile and vivacious in the Octagon, always attempting to explain his nickname, ‘The Last Stylebender’, by way of physiology-defying kicks, stubborn takedown defence and – for his opponents – painfully precise striking, Adesanya has been one of the UFC’s breakout stars this year.
For that reason, Adesanya was perceived as the young lion in the lead-up to this fight, despite being two years older than Whittaker.
Perhaps that assumption was not only drawn due to Adesanya’s recent arrival in the UFC, but also soft-spoken Whittaker’s aura – that of a wise warrior. ‘The Reaper’ nearly had his own soul taken in two career-defining clashes with the hulking Cuban muscle crisis that is Yoel Romero, but miraculously survived 10 rounds with the middleweight division’s resident monster to eek out two decision wins – the first with a ruptured knee, the second with a broken hand.
The unlikelihood of any man surviving 50 minutes of brutality against Romero – let alone winning twice, let alone doing so with serious injuries – cannot be overstated. It is a testament to Whittaker’s unquestionable qualities, resilience and mental fortitude in the ring. And while the Aussie is less flashy than Adesanya, his skillset is no less eclectic; Whittaker is a mixed martial artist in the truest sense of the word.
So Adesanya – whose precision stands out far more than his power – would give the champion little cause for fear, according to Whittaker’s supporters. For fans of Adesanya, it was the physical toll of Whittaker’s battles with Romero that would apparently leave the ‘The Reaper’ worn down and there for the taking, along with his title. The neutrals were split down the middle, and many bookmakers had the same odds on both fighters – a genuine rarity in the sport.
As it turned out, Adesanya didn’t need power, for that precision of his would prove Whittaker’s downfall.
In a first for the UFC, Adesanya danced his way to the ring surrounded by backing dancers (Whittaker walked), and his relaxed manner fed into the fight, enabling the lanky, rangy fighter to do what he always does; make reads, find his timing and punish his opponent.
Whittaker pushed the pace early on, entering with jabs and looping left hooks on his 6’3 challenger, and he appeared to be on his way to securing the first round on the judges’ scorecards before Adesanya sat him down with an uppercut on the buzzer.
Whittaker was not dettered, however, starting the second round well and sending Adesanya scrambling with a few combinations, but as the frame progressed the challenger began to put a tax on his foe’s strikes, returning each one with a cleaner shot of his own.
‘The Reaper’ was closing the distance on Adesanya, who possesses a seven-inch reach advantage, quickly and throwing with serious intention, but as Conor McGregor famously said: “Timing beats speed, precision beats power.”
Whittaker snapped Adesanya’s head back with a sharp jab midway through the round, but missed with his attempted follow-ups, and the challenger sent ‘The Reaper’ back and forth – as if he were on a string – with a right hook, left hook salvo that ended the champion’s night and his title reign.
A salient narrative heading into the fight was that one of these two combatants would be exposed; Whittaker, after all his injury struggles, for having never been a proper champion, or the cocksure Adesanya for failing to live up to the hype.
While Whittaker was far from exposed, it was Adesanya who shredded any notion that he was all-hype. The 30-year-old, who only signed for the UFC last year, has enjoyed a prophetic ascent to the top, verbally mapping out his climb with frightening accuracy, then physically realising those claims with the frightening accuracy in his hands.
His victory on Sunday makes him just the second African champion in UFC history. In front of a record UFC attendance in Marvel Stadium, he called for a crossover with Marvel Comics after his hand was raised. He recently joined Paradigm, the management company whose chief star is McGregor.
Adesanya knows his value to the UFC and Dana White will be keen to cash in.
With all of McGregor’s recent troubles, the UFC President – and Paradigm – may just want to think about leaving ‘The Notorious’ in the past, where his greatest moments remain, and backing Adesanya all the way.
‘The Last Stylebender’ rose to the occasion Down Under, and he will keep on rising.
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