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Making the Grade: UFC 243: Whittaker vs. Adesanya

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

With over 57,000 fans in attendance, Israel Adesanya capped off an unbelievable start to his UFC career by knocking out Robert Whittaker in the second round to become the undisputed middleweight champion.

UFC 243 had been touted for months as one of the biggest cards in history with the show taking place inside Marvel Stadium, which was the same site where Ronda Rousey suffered her first defeat when Holly Holm landed the head kick heard round the world.

On that night, Adesanya was in the crowd as a fan and he returned four years later to cap off a seven-fight run in the UFC that could rival any fighter in history considering all he’s accomplished.

In the co-main event, Dan Hooker cemented his place as one of the top 10 lightweights in the world with a commanding performance against Al Iaquinta. Hooker is now 6-1 in the UFC lightweight division and he’s gunning for another top-ranked opponent in his next fight.

There were plenty of highs and even a few lows at the card in Melbourne, Australia so let’s take a look at what passed and what failed at UFC 243: Whittaker vs. Adesanya.


Avatar Achieved

If there were any questions still remaining about Israel Adesanya’s legitimacy, he answered them emphatically with his performance on Saturday night at UFC 234.

Adesanya earned a second-round knockout over a highly respected champion in Robert Whittaker but a deeper dive into his overall performance shows the kind of dominance he displayed in victory.

Whittaker, who came out swinging hammers from the first second of the fight until the last, landed just 27 percent of his strikes as Adesanya displayed cat-like defense to constantly get out of the way before his opponent could hit him. Even the shots that did manage to connect were only glancing blows as Adesanya was able to deflect almost all of the damage Whittaker attempted to inflict.

In return, Adesanya’s counter striking game was a thing of beauty.

He sat back and waited for Whittaker to attack as he timed his punches to pick him apart in nearly every exchange. After landing a last-second knockdown to end the opening round, Adesanya knew it was just a matter of time before he made Whittaker paid for his aggression again.

The end came in the second round as Whittaker continued to pursue a knockout of his own only to get caught with a quick right followed by a devastating left from Adesanya. It was a flawless performance from the now undisputed middleweight champion as Adesanya becomes the first person to hand Whittaker a loss at 185 pounds in addition to solidifying himself as the best fighter in the division.

Adesanya touting himself as a future champion irritated a lot of the fighters at middleweight as he continued to rise up the ranks, but winning in a five-round war with Kelvin Gastelum and then knocking out Whittaker on Saturday night, should end the inquiries into whether or not he’s the real deal.

Adesanya is as real as they come, and as an added bonus, he appears to have the kind of star power that the UFC has been sorely missing in Conor McGregor’s absence outside of one appearance inside the Octagon in the past three years.

You’re Next

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

If Adesanya won his fight against Whittaker and decided to just enjoy the moment with his family inside the Octagon, no one would have blamed him. After all he absolutely deserved to celebrate considering what he just achieved but Adesanya knew that he couldn’t pass up on a golden opportunity to begin promoting his next fight.

That’s why he climbed the Octagon and gave Brazilian slugger Paulo Costa a two-finger salute followed by the infamous ‘crotch chop’ after his win over Whittaker. Adesanya also called out Costa on the microphone before decorating the post-fight press conference with expletives when asked about the undefeated middleweight contender.

Adesanya is smart enough to know that mixed martial arts is a sport built on what have you done for me lately and with a meat grinder schedule for the rest of 2019, there’s a good chance the rest of the world will move on from his victory over Whittaker in a matter of days.

Now it’s going to be awfully hard to ignore the new middleweight champion because he’s no longer just celebrating his win over Whittaker but he’s already thinking about what comes next with a potential blockbuster fight against Costa.

This is the kind of massive rivalry fight the middleweight division has needed and Adesanya will provide that in his first title defense. Adesanya knew it and capitalized on a captive audience to begin building towards that fight just moments after the biggest win of his entire career.

Hang ‘Em High

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Dan Hooker has been a human highlight reel since moving to 155 pounds, with a string of knockouts and submissions on his record, but he still hadn’t earned a statement win over a proven top-10 talent until Saturday night.

Wins over Jim Miller, Gilbert Burns and James Vick were all impressive but it was tough to forget Hooker getting dismantled by Edson Barboza just two fights ago in his first opportunity to move up the rankings.

Beating Al Iaquinta at UFC 243 helped to solidify Hooker as a serious threat to anybody occupying a spot at the top of the lightweight division. Perhaps the best part about his performance is that Hooker was tactical in his execution of a game plan that saw him decimate Iaquinta during nearly every exchange. That kind of precision was lacking in some of his past performances where Hooker seemed willing to take two punches in order to return one of his own.

This fight helped Hooker turn the corner on the perception that he’s a devastating finisher who won’t quite make it against the top fighters in the world at 155 pounds.

He also had a smart call out afterwards by asking to fight former interim champion Dustin Poirier in a mic drop moment after his hand was raised. Unfortunately, Poirier already shot him down but Hooker got people talking and that’s what matters most.

While he may not get Poirier as his next opponent, Hooker seems poised for a big jump in the rankings and only a few names sitting ahead of him before he can enter the title talk conversation.


Un Fun Championship

One of the highlights of Israel Adesanya’s star making moment at UFC 243 was the elaborate entrance that opened his walk to the Octagon. It was a fun moment that helped build the anticipation towards the title fight that helped sell over 57,000 tickets to the Australian stadium show.

Afterwards, Adesanya revealed that he wanted to do something similar for his fight against Kelvin Gastelum back in April, but the UFC shot down his idea. Thankfully this time around, UFC president Dana White reportedly gave his own personal approval to allow Adesanya the chance to orchestrate the entrance that got the crowd even more hyped for the main event.

Fighters should be allowed to showcase their personalities rather than discouraging the practice. One of the reasons why the NFL is nicknamed the ‘no fun league’ is because players are often fined or penalized for post touchdown celebrations or even wearing shoes that don’t fit the league’s dress code.

Now the UFC isn’t nearly as buttoned down when it comes to enforcement of the rules like the NFL but it would be nice to see fighters given the chance to shine in moments just like these. It doesn’t always have to be a walk out — it could be something as simple as a fun weigh-in outfit or a particular song being allowed when fighters are trotting down to the Octagon (those have been denied numerous times in the past).

The UFC created a cookie-cutter culture in so many ways when the Reebok uniform was introduced, but hopefully, Adesanya’s much talked about entrance will begin to give way to further antics that can only help to build the attention a fight receives.


Downed Under

UFC 243 was largely sold on the main event between Whittaker and Adesanya but there were scores of Australian fans who complained that the card they received — while packed with local talent — failed to offer the kind of star power compared to most of the marquee lineups for events held in the United States.

Now it’s fair to point out that Holly Holm was originally scheduled to compete on the card in a rematch against Raquel Pennington but a hamstring tear prevented her from returning to the site of her biggest career win. That said, Holm’s rematch against Pennington wasn’t exactly the blockbuster fight the Australian fans hoped to see in addition to the main event.

Not every card will enjoy three title fights like UFC 245 in December and Masvidal vs. Diaz is a main event built for a major American city like New York but it still seems like the Australians deserved a little bit more, especially considering the promotion was trying to sell out a 60,000-seat stadium.

The UFC has to book so many shows these days that it’s tough to build up one event without sacrificing another but it certainly felt like the fans attending UFC 243 should have enjoyed a few more notable names competing on the main card.

Ultimately, Adesanya’s rousing performance to cap off the night still made UFC 243 an event to remember but imagine if Paulo Costa vs. Yoel Romero was the co-main event or perhaps Justin Gaethje facing Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone was another featured bout underneath the headliner. Unfortunately with a jam-packed schedule for the remainder of 2019 with a lot of slots to fill, options were limited.

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