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Paths to victory at UFC 271: Israel Adesanya vs. Robert Whittaker 2

Robert Whittaker and Israel Adesanya
Robert Whittaker and Israel Adesanya
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

This weekend, UFC 271 takes place at the Toyota Center in Houston, featuring a middleweight title rematch between current champion Israel Adesanya and the man he took the belt from, Robert Whittaker. Let’s take a look at what happened the first time, what each fighter needs to do to get his hand raised on Saturday, and what we think will ultimately happen.

First Fight

Adesanya and Whittaker first fought in 2019 at UFC 243, in what was then a highly anticipated matchup. It didn’t live up to the billing though, as Adesanya trounced Whittaker, outclassing the then-champion en route to a second-round knockout victory. It was a disaster of a performance from Whittaker, one that saw him repeatedly rush headlong into the fire of Adesanya as he lunged in with heavy punches, trying in vain to close the distance.

Adesanya, for his part, adapted his game plan shortly into the fight. While at first it appeared that Adesanya wanted to play a patient, ranged kickboxing game, once Whittaker continued to recklessly charge him, Adesanya pivoted to settling in the pocket and sitting down on big counters. As Whittaker slowed a fraction, it was these counters that found the mark and ultimately finished the then-champion.

Paths to Victory for Whittaker at UFC 271

As with any rematch, the onus is on the loser of the first fight to make changes, and heading into this middleweight title bout, Whittaker needs to come with something entirely different if he wants to even up the series.

The first thing Whittaker needs to do is accept his own limitations as a fighter. Whittaker is a good MMA striker, but he’s not as good as Adesanya and he doesn’t have the sort of game-changing power that Jan Blachowicz and Yoel Romero possess that kept Izzy honest. If they get into exchanges, it greatly favors Adesanya, and so Whittaker needs to find ways to dictate the terms of engagement.

The most obvious way for Whittaker to set those terms is to use his wrestling this time around. Whittaker did not attempt a single takedown in their first encounter, and so the outcome was almost predetermined. Whittaker needs to cut the cage more effectively and get in behind his jab, and then change levels when Adesanya counters. The threat of the takedown alone will offer more offense, and if Whittaker can actually finish some, then this rematch becomes much more interesting.

Outside of takedowns, Whittaker also needs to invest heavily in body and leg attacks during the striking exchanges. Whittaker’s jab was good in their first fight, but nearly every other strike he threw was a haymaker aimed towards Adesanya’s head. The champ’s head movement is simply too good for that, and doing so last time opened Whittaker up for counters. Invest in the body and legs early to slow Adesanya down and make him easier to corner and wrestle as the fight goes on.

Finally, Whittaker needs to be patient and relaxed in this rematch. It’s very likely that Adesanya will pull out to an early lead, and we’ve seen Whittaker react poorly when he feels he’s falling behind. The worst thing Whittaker could do is to try and “get one back” in such an instance. Instead, he needs to settle in and play for the long game. Otherwise, he’s in for a carbon copy of their first run in.

UFC 243 Whittaker v Adesanya Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

Paths to victory for Adesanya at UFC 271

While Whittaker needs to make wholesale changes to win this rematch, Adesanya’s natural style sets him up for success. Adesanya generally prefers to work at range and on the counter, and given his substantial reach advantage (seven inches) and technical superiority, the most straightforward path to victory for Adesanya simply involves keeping this fight on the feet and at distance, something he already excels at. Here are some key tactical avenues Adesanya can explore to maximize his chances of getting his hand raised a second time.

  1. Utilizing low kicks. Whittaker has decent head defense at range, but substantially less so for his lower body. Jared Cannonier found great success in chopping Whittaker’s lead leg down, and while leg kicks introduce a higher probability of getting taken down, scoring consistently on Whittaker will push him towards overextending, lest he fall behind. When Whittaker overextends, that’s when he’s most vulnerable.
  2. Feints. Whittaker is highly susceptible to feints, especially on the back foot. Whittaker’s go-to defense is to swing heavy counters to back opponents off. Feints will open up big counter chances for Adesanya.
  3. Knees and uppercuts. Knees and uppercuts are solid tools in general against a fighter looking to shoot takedowns, but Whittaker also has a terrible tendency of ducking his head as he lunges in to fire a big counter. A well-timed knee can end Whittaker’s night early a second time.
  4. Showboat. Whittaker has spoken openly about disliking Adesanya heading into their first fight and how that dislike affected his performance. Now Whittaker says he’s put that past him, but Adesanya should test that resolve with Whittaker in the heat of battle. Flashy mockery and/or anime moves inside the cage could easily set Whittaker off kilter again, and from there it’s just a matter of capitalizing for the champion.

Who will win?

In the end, this fight remains an atrocious style matchup for Whittaker. He doesn’t have the power to scare Adesanya nor the technical acumen to consistently create offense, and he lacks the cast iron chin of Marvin Vettori to offset those difference. Add in that he’s merely an above-average offensive wrestler and there simply aren’t a lot of options for him. Whittaker is one of the best fighters in the world and can tune and adjust his style to try and make this competitive, but he’s simply ice-skating uphill here.

Israel Adesanya by unanimous decision.


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