Columnists, Mixed Martial Arts, Sports

The Red Corner: UFC 271 preview

The UFC’s second pay-per-view of the calendar year hits ESPN+ this Saturday with a Middleweight rematch between Israel Adesanya (21-1) and Robert Whittaker (23-5). The title bout at 185 promises a showcase that fans have been craving since the last time “The Last Stylebender” and “The Reaper” threw down in 2019.

Whittaker and Adesanya met first in October  2019, both entering having earned the title of Middleweight Interim Champion. Whittaker won the interim belt in 2017, defeating Yoel Romero (13-6) via unanimous decision. He was forced out of his first title defense in 2018 due to a hernia, which opened the door for Adesanya’s pursuit and sustained history with the belt. 

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When then-champion Whittaker couldn’t make his bout with Kelvin Gastelum (17-8), Adesanya stepped in to contend for an interim middleweight strap against Gastelum. In likely the most contentious fight in Adesanya’s middleweight title fight history, “Izzy” managed to win via unanimous decision.

The subsequent October, Adesanya, then-interim champ, and Whittaker, then-undisputed champ, met to unify the belts. What transpired was a brawl. Whittaker and Adesanya traded in and out of the pocket through the first round. The same pace continued for the second, each man taking a turn at landing big shots on his opponent. As the second continued, however, Adesanya was the one to land a knockdown shot on Whittaker, finishing him on the ground and earning the undisputed title. 

In the time since the late-2019 scrap, both fighters maintained high ranking in the middleweight division. Adesanya defended his belt against the likes of Romero, Paulo Costa (13-2), and Marvin Vettori (18-5). He also contended for the light heavyweight title, but was handed his first career loss at the hands of then-light-heavyweight champ, Jan Blachowicz (28-9).

Whittaker upheld the chokehold Adesanya had on the division, earning three straight unanimous decisions over Darren Till (18-4), Jared Cannonier (14-5) and Gastelum. Whittaker sits at the No. 1 contender spot at middleweight and has long been an obvious choice for a rematch with the champ. 

Both fighters are fan favorites, and created ample buzz before their first dance in the Octagon. The rematch has obviously been highly anticipated, and for good reason. Adesanya represents New Zealand, while Whittaker hails from Australia, so the matchup presents yet another installment of the storied sports rivalry between two proud islands. 

Adesanya is a very complete fighter. He has knockouts over Whittaker and Costa, and grinding unanimous decisions over Romero and Vettori. His calling card is efficient striking from range. With a kickboxing background, Adesanya mixes shots well to chip away at opponents, if not finishing them inside the distance. 

Although he has not shown much difficulty defending wrestling and takedown shots at 185, Adesanya’s most glaring hole, if you can call it that, is his ground game. Against Blachowicz at light heavyweight, Adesanya was outmuscled and controlled on the canvas for five rounds — something Whittaker is likely preparing to emulate. 

Whittaker himself mirrors Adesanya’s striking as a strength. The distinction, however, is Whittaker likes to get up and close to do it. Standing five inches shorter than the 6’4 Adesanya, Whittaker prefers a dirty boxing inside-the-pocket style of fighting. He rarely puts opponents away, however, instead racking up points on the judges scorecards, earning all of his wins since 2017 via decision. 

How Adesanya can win: I don’t honestly believe this fight will be much like the last one. Both fighters are skilled strikers and must be respectful of the leather their opponent can throw. Furthermore, it plays to Izzy’s skillset to keep this fight at distance, and chip away at “Bobby Knuckles.” His path to victory is as such — using his height and reaching advantage to keep Whittaker guessing between punches and kicks, and be ready to engage should Whittaker blitz forward. 

How Whittaker can win: Blitz forward. This is what got him into trouble last time, but Whittaker got caught following up clean shots he had landed prior. If Whittaker can keep his wits about him, it is to his benefit to close distance and mix in takedowns when possible. The only time we’ve seen Adesanya lose was via the wrestling route, thus Whittaker has to at least keep the takedown threat in Izzy’s mind. Close distance, dirty box, shoot a takedown. If he pressures Izzy into engaging, Whittaker may be able to win some rounds. 

Both fighters have sustained cardio, and have seen the judges’ scorecards often. Thus, I think this fight is going to be more like a chess match of strikes instead of the brawl we received last time. Ultimately, I think Adesanya’s game will be more effective here. Many of his opponents have tried to breach his reach advantage and close distance. None have really succeeded inside this division. 

Charlie’s Prediction: And Still: Adesanya via unanimous decision. 

Peter’s Prediction: And Still: Adesanya via decision. 

If the main event is boring, the co-main won’t be. Heavyweight household name Derrick Lewis will face fellow power-puncher, and streaking contender, Tai Tuivasa. This fight is going to be a brawl in as many rounds as it goes on. Don’t blink when the big boys make the walk Saturday. 

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