An estimated 60,000 people will be on hand Saturday at the Marvel Stadium in Melbourne to witness the unification fight for the UFC’s Middleweight title between champion Robert Whittaker (20-4) and interim champion Israel Adensanya (17-0).
Whittaker, 28, returns to the ring for the first time since June 2018 when he defeated then no. 1 contender Yoel Romero via split decision at UFC 225.
Adesanya, 30, is undefeated as a professional and has won four of his six UFC bouts since Whittaker fell to injury last year.
“This matchup is phenomenal, it’s a coin flip to me, and that’s why the odds are dead even,” TSN’s MMA reporter Aaron Bronsteter told Let’s Talk Sports Radio. “It’s a perfect storm. You have it in Australia, you have an Australian fighter versus a New Zealander in front of pretty much what I think will be 60,000 people.”
Adensanya most recently knocked out Kelvin Gastelum in the fifth round at April’s UFC 236 to earn Fight of the Night honours and the interim UFC Middleweight title. Previously, he was elevated to the main event of UFC 234 where he once again earned a fight night bonus for defeating former middleweight champion Anderson Silva via unanimous decision.
With a combined eight UFC finishes and eleven decisions between them, the main event features two disciplined strikers with vastly different approaches: the Karate Black Belt of Whittaker versus the Muay Thai Kickboxing of Adensanya.
“They’re both known as strikers, but their striking styles are very different,” said Bronsteter. “Whittaker likes to be able to time his opponents and throw counters. Then you have another guy who likes to throw counters in Israel Adensanya, but in a far more unorthodox fashion."
Standing 6’3 with a reach of 80 inches, Adensanya will look to keep the Aussie out of range with his counter strike approach and a 6.5 inch reach advantage. Holding a 76% finish percentage and exactly zero wins by submission, 'The Last Stylebender' is expected to strike at his customary cerebral pace.
“I think both of these guys are the kind that like to feel out their opponent,” said Bronsteter. “They both like to counter, so it may be a little bit of time before it gets going. The odds of this going over 3.5 rounds is even. These guys aren’t going to come flying out of the gate. They are very good adapting to the fighting style of their opponent, but because they are both that sort of fighter, I think there will be a feeling out process in order to get the edge over their opponent. It is such a close fight, and it could just be who feels better that day.”
Whittaker’s best path to victory may be via knockout.
At UFC 236, Adensanya was momentarily wobbled by Gastelum’s offense, absorbing 136 significant strikes to the head over five rounds, and Whittaker may need to utilize the same power that knocked out both no. 7 middleweight Jacare Souza and no. 9 Derek Brunson in order to finish Stylebender and become the UFC’s undisputed Middleweight champion.
Earning back-to-back decision wins over one of the most powerful mixed martial artists in the sports, Yoel Romero, Whittaker has proven he can stand in the pocket and throw with the best in the weight class. A hulking Romero, however, does not move, with the same fluidity of Israel Adensanya.
“They are about a year apart in age, and are on a similar career trajectory,” said Bronsteter. “Whittaker is undefeated at middleweight, and Adensanya is undefeated overall. Personally, Whittaker has more to lose. The expectation is that Whittaker is the better fighter. Given that it is in Australia, and Adesanya hasn’t lost before, it would say a lot about Whittaker to get a win over an undefeated guy in a strong fashion would change the narrative around Robert Whittaker.”
The narrative around Whittaker’s championship reign is two-fold: injury and fight history. After winning the interim title at UFC 217, Whittaker was later promoted to undisputed middleweight champion when then champion Georges St. Pierre relinquished the belt, and later retired. In his first scheduled title defense versus Luke Rockhold, he withdrew a month prior due to a staph infection in his stomach. After beating a Romero second time at UFC 225, Whittaker withdrew from his next scheduled title defense against Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 234 in February 2018. This time, just hours prior due to an abdominal hernia and a collapsed bowel.
“I don’t think people think that highly of Robert Whittaker,” said Bronsteter. “The injuries are definitely part of it, and part of it is circumstance. He never won the undisputed middleweight title. On top of that, he’s never officially defended the title because the last fight Romero missed weight, so that doesn’t even count as a title defense. Neither of those were his fault. He earned the title once it was relinquished, and he earned a victory over Romero, but people can’t wrack up the accolades for Whittaker.”
Prediction: Adensanya via unanimous decision
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