UFC 243 main-event preview: Breaking down Robert Whittaker vs. Israel Adesanya

Elias CepedaYahoo Sports Contributor

UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker and interim middleweight champion Israel Adesanya face off this Saturday in Australia for the undisputed title. Whittaker defends his world title after being out of action with injuries for over a year against the surging Adesanya.

The fight very well could be the start of a great rivalry between the two young elite fighters, because both seem capable of beating the other. Below, we examine three crucial areas of the matchup.

Read on, and get ready for the UFC 243 main-event.

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Stand-up striking

Both men posses fight-ending skill and power on the feet with their strikes. Adesanya has the most flamboyant and sometimes high-flying standing striking offense, but Whittaker can also crack, and not just with his fists.

The champion has great hands as well as linear and roundhouse kicks. Whittaker may be capable of doing some work on Adesanya’s lead leg with oblique kicks, though the challenger’s kicking arsenal may be a bit more diverse.

Adesanya relies on his sense of distance and timing for much of his stand-up striking defense. He often leans up and back to get away from strikes, as well as sometimes backs straight up with his feet and bobs and weaves. It’s mostly worked really well for Adesanya over the course of his undefeated MMA career, though he does leave openings.

For starters, Adesanya may rely a bit too much on his timing and sense of distance. He often leaves his hands down, which might help him ready for takedown or clinch attempts, but he also has a habit of standing inside the striking range of his usually much shorter opponents.

Those two things combined sometimes negate his reach advantage, and leave him just as hittable as his opponents. Kelvin Gastelum took advantage of this in the fourth round of their fight when he caught Adesanya with a high kick as the New Zealander retreated, then lunged back in to counter with his hands out of position to block the blow.

Adesanya was immediately wobbled, and then ate follow-up punches from the much shorter Gastelum. Adesanya often wants to barely slip or avoid punches from inside the pocket so he can counter, fast, but when he leans straight back he quickly runs out of room to continue to avoid if his opponent throws in combination.

That, combined with his hands often not being in position to block means that Adesanya’s only defense is either his linear head and foot movement, or his risky bobbing. Adesanya is certainly capable of cutting mean angles with his feet and countering.

He’ll need to rely more on that than the straight in and out, hands-down, stuff that sometimes gets him caught. If possible, he might want to consider leading the dance a bit more as well, being first with strikes from as far away as possible, against Whittaker.

For his part, Whittaker is comfortable at a number of ranges, but he won’t want to hang around at a long distance if Adesanya starts fighting like the longer man, Saturday. Whittaker effectively fought at length against Yoel Romero in their second fight, and that may have been smart to stay away from grappling range as much as possible against the Olympic wrestler.

Both Israel Adesanya (L) and champion Robert Whittaker (not pictured) have shown they can metaphorically dig deep and win fights after being hurt and exhausted. (Getty Images)
Both Israel Adesanya (L) and champion Robert Whittaker (not pictured) have shown they can metaphorically dig deep and win fights after being hurt and exhausted. (Getty Images)

Against Adesanya, especially if he keeps his lead hand low like he did against Romero, Whittaker may find himself in trouble if he tries to fight at length as the shorter man. Whittaker can absolutely rip in combination with punches to the body and head on the inside in a way few MMA fighters can.

If he can jab and feint his way to the inside against Adesanya, and exit out on angles with his hands up, he could prove really effective on the feet with strikes.

Grappling

If Whittaker also mixes in close-range shots, body locks and other clinches after getting to the inside, he could also stymie Adesanya a bit as well as take him down. Gastelum was able to do just that in the third round of his bout against Adesanya, and Whittaker’s team seems to have a great deal of confidence in his grappling ability.

Truth be told, even though Whittaker is capable of knocking out anyone in the world, he should be prepared to mix in clinch and takedown attempts with strikes from the inside. That will keep Adesanya guessing, tire him out, and put him where he’s least dangerous — against the fence, and on his back.

If Whittaker or anyone else tries to clinch or shoot on Adesanya without setting up those attempts with strikes, however, they’ll likely get shot down with the kickboxer’s precise countering. Derek Brunson found this out the hard way against Adesanya.

Whittaker’s clinch and takedown attempts need to happen in smooth transition off of punches if and when they force Adesanya out of position — too squared up, or with his back slightly turned.

Though he’s less effective offensively from these positions, Adesanya has proven to be calm, collected and technical with get-ups and escapes when put on his back and pinned against the cage. He won’t get too frustrated and won’t give in, mentally, and he’s good at getting off the fence and off of his back so Whittaker should plan on having to do it over and over again.

Whittaker’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu coach says that he’s a better version of former middleweight and welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, and that he needs to grapple to have his best shot at beating Adesanya. I agree with the latter, and the former remains to be seen.

Whittaker is still only 28 year old, however, and it’s entirely possible that he possesses some yet unseen (in fights) ground control. If so, it will serve him well against Adesanya should he get the fight to the ground.

To keep him on his back, Adesanya opponents need to give him absolutely no room to breathe or post.

Conditioning

Here’s where this hard-to-call fight gets even trickier. Both fighters have demonstrated ungodly conditioning in recent years.

Neither seems to ever break mentally, no matter how exhausted or how much damage they’ve sustained in a fight. Whittaker took big shots from Romero in their two fights, and still managed to win after going the distance.

Adesanya had his brain shaken up badly by Gastelum in the fourth round, and still managed to come back in the fifth round and hurt his opponent even worse, closing the bout with authority.

Simply put, I don’t expect either fighter to fade easily, or go down and stay down without sustaining horrible damage. This could very well end up being a war of attrition.

If it is, it will be interesting to see how much Adesanya’s size advantage will benefit him. Whittaker, like Gastelum before him, is a former welterweight who is much smaller than Adesanya.

I suspect this helps Adesanya with his takedown defense, and it might also give him an edge in later rounds when push comes to shove.

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