TNT Sports Reload - Episode 13Oct 10
It’s been more than two years since Israel Adesanya unified the middleweight championship at Robert Whittaker’s expense, thrilling a record-breaking crowd at the Marvel Stadium in Melbourne at UFC 243.
Since then, “Stylebender” has gone on to defend the belt three times – but his fourth defence is shaping up to be the biggest test of his championship reign yet.
It sees Whittaker return to challenge the Nigerian-New Zealander for the 185lb strap he once owned, coming off the back of an impressive three-fight win streak against a trio of talented contenders himself.
Has Whittaker done enough to reinvent himself over the past two years – or will Adesanya produce another striking masterclass to get the job done for a second time?
A fired up, focused champion
Israel Adesanya may have surrendered his unbeaten record since the last time these two fighters met – albeit while challenging for the light-heavyweight title – but his record at middleweight remains an imperious one.
On paper, it may even be the most impressive in the division with the 32-year-old defeating an array of elite fighters – including Derek Brunson, Anderson Silva, Kelvin Gastelum and Paulo Costa – while building a solid legacy atop the 185lb throne.
It was against Whittaker that Adesanya’s middleweight reign began as he ripped the belt from the champion with an emphatic second round stoppage in October 2019.
This is one of the best camps I have had
- Israel Adesanya
But the City Kickboxing man believes the hard work starts all over again ahead of the rematch against his ole familiar foe.
“I never get complacent, this makes me fired up. It’s another easy bag, so I cannot afford to fumble this bag,” he said during an interview with sponsor Stake.
“For me, I’ve done the work. This is one of the best camps I have had, and I still have hard training to go.
“Just being present and having fun is important. I look forward to the work in this one, I look forward to coming at him.
“There has been no cutting corners this time. It’s made me even more motivated to do it again and do it more decisively if that’s even possible.
“That is my motivation for this fight, to get up and beat him again in an even more devastating fashion.”
The smooth-talking champion even upped the ante this week, suggesting Whittaker’s reputation as one of the UFC’s nice guys may not be entirely accurate.
Addressing the fall-out from their first meeting at UFC 243, Adesanya added: “It was his ego last time, but I called it from the fight. I said at the time that he is acting out of character and I also said he is not being himself.
“People kept saying what a good guy he is but trust me he's not. You don't see that behind the scenes.
“And now he's admitted it was his ego that got the best of him - well I told you so, he should have listened to me! What else can he say?
“He said after the fight [at UFC 243] that it was the best he's ever felt, well I do not forget that. If he can get better, he'll have to bring the best again and I will beat him again.”
Will Adesanya’s words prove prophetic?
The Reaper is coming
Few can argue that Robert Whittaker deserves his shot at redemption.
The 31-year-old has not put a foot wrong since being defeated by Adesanya on home soil 28 months ago, winning three on the spin to put himself right back in the mix atop the middleweight landscape.
Britain’s Darren Till took Whittaker the closest before the Aussie snatched a narrow victory on the scorecards back in July 2020 but in truth, ‘The Reaper’ has always looked destined for another crack at the belt.
Now his chance has arrived and Whittaker is embracing his status as the underdog ahead of their showdown at the Toyota Center in Houston on Saturday night.
"He's sitting at the high horse and he beat me the first time. It definitely takes some of the pressure off, being the underdog.
"No one expects me to win. No one expects me to go over there and dethrone him after he beat me already. Throughout my whole career, I've loved being the underdog.
"I love getting in there and defying the odds. I like going in there and proving people wrong. It gives me that little bit of extra edge."
Whittaker will have been watching on with intrigue as Adesanya was handed the first loss of his MMA career by Jan Blachowicz at UFC 259.
The middleweight king looked unable to deal with Blachowicz’s size and power – particularly in the grappling exchanges – as the Polish powerhouse cruised to a comfortable decision win.
And the New Zealand-born Australian hinted that may be the area in which he enjoys the most success when the Octagon door swings shut on Saturday night.
“The most important thing is just winning, doesn't matter if it is for a belt or not, it is about winning,” he added.
“I think the path to victory is to go in and use my full skillset, punching, boxing, take him down, make him uncomfortable, I'm a BJJ black belt, I work my grappling five days a week.
“I certainly think if I can get him on his back I can make him uncomfortable.
“Regardless of the outcome, I'm going to leave satisfied, I'm going to be satisfied because I'm going in there as me, to fight like I do.”
Hold on to your hats for the co-main event as Houston boy Derrick Lewis welcomes fellow slugger Tai Tuivasa to his turf in what promises to be an explosive showdown.
Lewis will be keen to make amends to the Toyota Center crowd after coming up short against Ciryl Gane on his last outing in the Lone Star State that he calls his adopted home.
He comes into the bout now a record holder having relieved Chris Daukaus of his senses in the final fight of 2021 to become the promotion’s most destructive finisher.
His record of 13 knockouts is the most of any fighter in UFC history, surpassing legendary names like Vitor Belfort, Anderson Silva and Anthony ‘Rumble’ Johnson along the way.
But 28-year-old Tuivasa is wasting no time in his attempt to catch up to 37-year-old Lewis having bounced back from a grim three-fight losing streak with a stunning run of four crowd-pleasing knockouts.
The popular Aussie brawler pocketed performance bonuses for the last two Kos, defeating Greg Hardy and Augusto Sakai to climb up to 11th in the heavyweight rankings.
With that in mind, it doesn’t take a genius to predict the type of fight we’re set to see on Saturday night – you do not want to miss this one!
Who’s up next at 185lb?
Two veterans of the middleweight division do battle on the main card at UFC 271 with the victor most likely confirming their status as the number one contender to the winner of the main event this weekend.
Jared Cannonier is 4-1 in his last five with his only defeat coming at the hands of Robert Whittaker at UFC 254 in a fight during which the 37-year-old sustained and fought through a broken arm.
He rebounded to claim victory over Kelvin Gastelum last time out, securing his top three ranking in the process as he looks to pick up one more win that would all but guarantee a maiden crack at UFC gold.
But it’ll be a tough assignment against a Derek Brunson enjoying a stellar career renaissance since joining up with Henri Hooft at the Sanford MMA gym in 2019.
A five-fight win streak, including wins over Kevin Holland and Darren Till, have helped see the 38-year-old creep into the top five – and with one of the most rounded skillsets in the 185lb division, Brunson is a dark horse to go all the way and cap a remarkable turnaround in fortune.
Brunson’s last defeat came at the hands of Adesanya in November 2018, while the North Carolina man would also relish a rematch against Whittaker, who defeated him in a Fight of the Night war in November 2016.
Although neither are showing signs of slowing down any time soon, with a combined age of almost 80, both Cannonier and Brunson will know they could well be entering the last chance saloon with dreams of becoming a UFC champion.