It was the contest many expected. It was the result many foresaw, too – but it arguably shouldn’t have been.
Robert Whittaker was not himself when he surrendered the UFC middleweight title to Israel Adesanya on home soil in October 2019. The burnout and pressure that had plagued the Australian prior to his Melbourne clash with the Nigerian-born New Zealander seeped into his performance that night, when a record UFC crowd watched Adesanya knock down Whittaker in Round 1 and finish him in Round 2 to take the gold.
Since then, however, Whittaker had made the necessary adjustments inside and outside the Octagon to position himself as the rightful contender to his rival. Three fights and three wins against elite opposition carried the 31-year-old into the main event of UFC 271 in Houston, Texas this Saturday, where most fans and pundits expected a much more competitive bout between Whittaker and Adesanya, with the former champion ready to tap into his calmer mindset and honed wrestling skills to – most likely – take the “Last Stylebender” the distance, if nothing more.
The most common prediction was that Adesanya would still emerge victorious, but that is where things get complicated. Because yes, Whittaker did take Adesanya the distance, and yes, Adesanya did emerge victorious; but whether the champion actually did enough to legitimately fulfil that latter prophecy is up for debate.
Amid “Adesanya” chants in the early phases of the fight, Whittaker employed much greater patience than in the rivals’ first clash. Again, it was an approach that many had anticipated, though Whittaker’s calmness almost cracked as Adesanya exhibited the speed and versatility of striking that have made him so popular – and which caused Whittaker so many problems two-and-a-half years ago. Whittaker was treading the fine line between patience and passiveness, and it will have been concerning for the “Reaper”’s supporters to have seen him look so downhearted after the first round, in which the Australian was dropped by a well-timed jab and saw his lead leg swell from a barrage of low kicks.
But before long, Whittaker began to establish the gameplan that he had hardly kept secret. As well as catching Adesanya with jabs off more creative entries than in their first meeting, Whittaker found the takedown. He was unable to keep the 32-year-old down for long, but close rounds are often decided by big moments. As such, Whittaker might just have edged the round, and he might have stolen the third, too, having responded to more leg kicks from the champion with increasingly effective jabs and another takedown.
Furthermore, Whittaker’s stark reactions to Adesanya’s every feint – likely a result of flashbacks to their previous encounter – became ever more contained as the fight progressed. By the fourth round, the scene was the same but the soundtrack had changed; again Whittaker stuck Adesanya with stern jabs, again the champion effectively targeted the challenger’s legs, and again Whittaker secured a takedown.
This time, the Australian leapt onto his taller and rangier opponent’s back, seeking a choke, but the same recovery that Adesanya showed after his opponent’s takedowns was on display in denying Whittaker the submission. Round 5 was almost a replica of its predecessor – just as Round 4 echoed Round 3, and Round 3 resembled Round 2. It was another narrow frame, potentially decided by one last takedown for Whittaker.
The main event came to an end with the rivals grappling against the fence, though the clinch gave way to an enthusiastic hug after the final buzzer sounded. Despite their often antagonistic relationship, mutual respect has underpinned this rivalry and was clearly only reinforced by this dynamic contest.
Whittaker wore a frustrated expression as the judges’ scorecards were revealed – 48-47, 48-47, 49-46 all in favour of Adesanya – and the crowd’s reaction suggested that they were similarly bemused by the decision.
Whittaker’s performance, however, was always likely to be more important than whichever numbers might have followed it. In doing justice to his skillset and mentality as a mixed martial artist, Whittaker was surely able to finally banish the demons that descended during that October night in Melbourne almost three years ago.
What awaits the “Reaper” is unclear, while Adesanya will welcome a fresh challenge in the form of Jared Cannonier, who knocked out Derek Brunson earlier in the evening.
The sands of the UFC’s middleweight landscape might not have shifted on Saturday night, but the storm in Robert Whittaker might just have settled at last.
Full UFC 271 results
Israel Adesanya (C) def. Robert Whittaker via unanimous decision (48-47, 48-47, 49-46)
Tai Tuivasa def. Derrick Lewis via second-round KO (elbow, 1:40)
Jared Cannonier def. Derek Brunson via second-round KO (elbows, 4:29)
Renato Moicano def. Alexander Hernandez via second-round submission (read naked choke, 1:23)
Bobby Green def. Nasrat Haqparast via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27)
Andrei Arlovski def. Jared Vanderaa via split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28)
Casey O’Neill def. Roxanne Modafferi via split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28)
Kyler Phillips def. Marcelo Rojo via third-round submission (arm bar, 1:48)
Carlos Ulberg def. Fabio Cherant via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27)
Jeremiah Wells def. Blood Diamond via submission first-round submission (rear naked choke, 4:38)
Maxim Grishin def. William Knight via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27)
Douglas Silva de Andrade def. Sergey Morozov via second-round submission (rear naked choke, 3:24)
Jacob Malkoun def. AJ Dobson via unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28)
Ronnie Lawrence def. Mana Martinez via unanimous decision (29-27, 29-27, 29-28)
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