The highest sphere of striking and strategy will be on show when Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker finally run it back for the middleweight title at UFC 271 in Houston, Texas on Saturday night (Sunday morning SA time), writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Hometown hero Derrick Lewis will have the Toyota Center rocking when he throws down with Tai Tuivasa in a co-headlining clash of heavyweight knockout artists, while the likely challenger of the main event championship showdown winner will emerge as Jared Cannonier and Derek Brunson do battle.
Further fireworks are in store with Kyler Phillips meeting Marcelo Rojo in a bantamweight bout and lightweights Nasrat Haqparast and Bobby Green going toe-to-toe.
MAIN CARD (from 5 AM Sunday SA time):
Israel Adesanya (1.33) v Robert Whittaker (3.25) (Middleweight Championship)
Two-and-a-half years after Adesanya (21-1) dethroned Whittaker (23-5) in flawless fashion in front of a record crowd on the Australian’s home soil, “The Reaper” gets an opportunity to exact revenge and reclaim the crown. Their blockbuster first bout was a blowout, with Whittaker saved by the bell in the first round before “The Last Stylebender” closed the show by KO in the second.
Since then, the Nigerian-born, New Zealand-bred champion’s defended the title three times and made it look easy, a knockout of then-undefeated Paulo Costa – his 15th career KO – bookended by decision wins over Yoel Romero and Marvin Vettori. The victory over Vettori last June came three months after Adesanya had suffered the first loss of his career against then-light heavyweight titleholder Jan Blachowicz, whom he moved up to face in a bid to become a dual champion.
Meanwhile, Whittaker, who had been on a nine-fight win streak before dropping the belt to Adesanya, returned more focused than ever and defeated Darren Till and Cannonier, both of whom would’ve received a title fight with a win over the former champion, and most recently coasted past Kelvin Gastelum last April to earn a second crack at Adesanya and the gold.
Best believe the sequel won’t go the same as the first fight. Whittaker, who had already been close to the perfect weapon (nine knockouts and four submissions), has only improved and added wrinkles to his game since the 2019 showdown and as one of the most cerebral fighters in the business, he’ll come with a different game plan.
Patience will be the name of the game for the challenger. Rushing in proved to be his undoing in the first fight, with Adesanya – a kickboxing savant – making him pay with expert countering. Whittaker’s been calculated throughout his career, the one exception costing him his title. He now admits Adesanya had gotten under his skin in the build-up to their title unification bout.
He won’t make that mistake again. This time, it’s strictly business. Not only has he gone right back to his measured ways, he’s also unlocked a new level of patience and precision that’s seen him outwit and outpoint everyone in his path. Crucially, he also demonstrated excellent wrestling last time out against Gastelum, taking down one of the division’s best grapplers four times.
It’s very unlike Whittaker to wrestle and was a clear message to Adesanya, whose loss to Blachowicz boiled down to late takedowns. As arguably the most sophisticated striker in UFC history, most opponents try to get Adesanya off his feet and his takedown defence is normally top-notch (80%).
Ending up on his back in the super fight might have been the result of the Polish powerhouse’s massive size advantage at light heavyweight, 20 pounds north of the middleweight limit. I believe that was the case, but Whittaker will almost certainly put that theory to the test this time around after their maiden meeting was a stand-up battle.
I’m expecting Adesanya to stuff Whittaker’s takedown attempts and a tactical chess match in which every step and strike is measured. Not only does Adesanya have layers upon layers of weapons on the feet but his striking IQ is also unrivalled. On top of that, he’s a tall and rangy Rubik’s cube.
At 6’4″, he’s the taller man by four inches and will have a massive six-and-a-half-inch advantage, which I expect to be decisive in a fight that goes the full five rounds.
Prediction: The line is shocking to me and downright disrespectful to Whittaker, one of the best middleweights in UFC history. While I see Adesanya winning by decision, Whittaker is great value at 3.25.
Derrick Lewis (1.52) v Tai Tuivasa (2.50) (Heavyweight)
Bangers gonna bang. The antithesis of the expected tactical and technical headliner, the co-main event promises to be a slugfest of epic proportions. There will be no feeling out process, fancy footwork, clinching or grappling. The two titans will trade leather until there’s only one man left standing.
Lewis (26-8) makes a quick turnaround after he brought rising star Chris Daukaus’ unbeaten record in the UFC to a screeching halt in typical fashion in December. Roaring to his 13th stoppage win via strikes inside the Octagon (and 21st overall), the heavy-handed “Black Beast” was crowned the UFC’s all-time knockout king.
Ranked third, Lewis has faced the best of the best and holds a win over reigning king Francis Ngannou. Eleventh-ranked Tuivasa (14-3), in turn, is an up-and-coming colossus, for whom this is his maiden entry into the 265-pound (120kg) elite. The high-profile bout comes after four straight knockout wins, the most recent against Augusto Sakai, the only fight in the hot streak to go to a second round.
Bam Bam’s brutal body of work has seen him claim all but one of his wins by knockout, so someone’s going to sleep. Lewis had stage fright in his last fight in front of his home crowd, however, the pressure of fighting for the interim championship – against Ciryl Gane last August – as the headliner is worlds removed from a three-round co-featured slot, so I don’t see him freezing again.
Of similar speed, I expect Lewis’ four-inch advantage and vast experience – at the highest level – to be the difference.
Jared Cannonier (1.57) v Derek Brunson (2.40) (Middleweight)
Ranked third and fourth respectively, the winner of this crunch clash will in all probability go on to face the victor of the main event for the title later this year. That both men are up there in age – Cannonier (14-5) is 37 and Brunson (23-7) 38 – adds to the pressure of what’s a must-win match-up.
Having fought at heavyweight, higher-ranked Cannonier is a monster at middleweight. At 5’11”, he’s not the tallest (Brunson’s 6’1″), but he’s a thick slab of muscle with heavyweight strength and dynamite in his hands and legs, the type that saw him stop legendary former champion and one of the all-time greats Anderson Silva with leg kicks in 2019.
“The Killa Gorilla” boasts 11 finishes, nine of which were knockouts, and bounced back from his above-mentioned loss to Whittaker with a decision win over Gastelum last August. Brunson’s steamrolled his way to five wins on the trot, his last loss coming in 2018 against current champion Adesanya.
The key to his stellar run has been backing his wrestling. With a dozen knockouts, the southpaw can handle himself on the feet, but the change to a grappling-centred approach has proved to be a masterstroke. He’s shut down all five of his last foes and scored his fourth submission win in his most recent Octagon appearance against Till last September.
If he can take the stronger Cannonier to the mat and keep him there, he’ll come away with the decision. If not, the openings he offers opponents will lead to his downfall. I see the natural power of Cannonier winning out.
Kyler Phillips (1.23) v Marcelo Rojo (4.10) (Bantamweight)
Phillips (9-2) suffered his first UFC loss in his last fight, dropping a decision to Raulian Paiva, but looked great prior to the setback, winning four on the bounce, including seeing off highly-rated Song Yadong. That, coupled with the fact that he’s an established Octagon warrior, makes him the biggest favourite on the card.
Primarily a striker, “The Matrix” has five KOs to his credit. His boxing is crisp and he throws plenty of volume and power at his opponent. Rojo (16-7) in all likelihood needs a finish if he’s to pull off a major upset as he’s not as technically sound as Philips.
The Argentine happens to be a finisher (eight knockouts and six submissions), but Phillips is a master at avoiding serious damage and has never been stopped. Rojo, on the other hand, is coming off a knockout loss to Charles Jourdain in what was his UFC debut.
Phillips is the far more proven pugilist and technical striker, which will see him knockout or outpoint a game Rojo in a fire-fight. With the method being a coin toss, a decision offers the best value.
Nasrat Haqparast (2.20) v Bobby Green (1.68) (Lightweight)
The contrasting stories of their last fights paint the picture of where the main card openers are at this point of their careers and what we can likely expect. Stepping up to face elite competition, Green (28-12-1) passed with flying colours, knocking out former title challenger Al Iaquinta, while Haqparast (13-4) faltered, losing to Dan Hooker on the scorecards.
It’s the story of Haqparast’s career to date, the 26-year-old struggling against seasoned opposition, and Green is exactly that. “King” is also more versatile with 10 knockout and eight submission wins to show for it. Haqparast’s a pure striker; he’s knocked out nine of his opponents and being a southpaw makes him an even trickier puzzle to solve.
That said, all of his eggs are in one basket and a veteran like Green should be able to dodge danger with his masterful head movement and out-skill him.
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