For the better part of the past three years, there’s really been no question as to who the two best middleweights in the world are and they get the chance to jockey for the top spot again on Saturday when they collide in the championship main event of UFC 271 at Toyota Center in Houston.
Adesanya made short work of Whittaker in their first meeting at UFC 243, completely dominating the action before dropping Whittaker for good in Round 2 and taking the middleweight belt. A healthy lineup of challengers awaited, so few called for an immediate rematch with Whittaker despite “The Reaper” having a rock-solid resume at 185 pounds. There was even a point where it seemed like Adesanya might leave the division without ever facing Whittaker again, though Jan Blachowicz had something to say about Adesanya’s light heavyweight plans.
While Adesanya cleaned out the upper ranks of the middleweight division, Whittaker continued to do damage in his own right, picking up wins over Kelvin Gastelum, Jared Cannonier, and Darren Till. The former champion spoke publicly about how having a greater understanding of how to take care of his mental health benefited him while showing the same toughness and grit in the cage that took him all the way to a UFC title.
Simply put, even if neither man was openly campaigning for this rematch, their performances gave the matchmakers no choice but to run it back.
In other main card action, perennial heavyweight contender Derrick Lewis looks to stave off the surging Tai Tuivasa, Derek Brunson and Cannonier meet in a contest that will likely determine the next challenger for the middleweight title, Alexander Hernandez fights Renato Moicano in a lightweight bout too big for the early prelims to contain, and lightweight veteran Bobby Green takes on Nasrat Haqparast.
What: UFC 271
Where: Toyota Center in Houston
When: Saturday, Feb. 12. The five-fight early prelims begin on ESPN+ at 6 p.m. ET, followed by the four-fight prelims on ESPN and ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET. The five-fight main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available exclusively on ESPN+ pay-per-view. Betting available at DraftKings Sportsbook.
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting Global Rankings)
Israel Adesanya (1) vs. Robert Whittaker (2)
I’m not as convinced as some pundits that Israel Adesanya is an unsolvable puzzle for Robert Whittaker. In fact, it would genuinely surprise me if this second encounter unfolded in similar fashion to the first.
Call me a sucker, but I buy into the narrative that Whittaker wasn’t himself at UFC 243. This isn’t a 20/20 hindsight take either, there were plenty who questioned Whittaker’s aggressive approach against Adesanya as it was happening. By the time the bell rang for the fateful second round, it seemed almost inevitable that Whittaker would walk into an Adesanya sniper shot and that’s exactly what happened. We don’t know if the best version of Whittaker beats the best version of Adesanya, but that wasn’t the best version of Whittaker, which we know because of how he looked before that fight and in his performances since.
That said, Adesanya should clearly be favored against any 185er in a standup battle. His kickboxing acumen translated beautifully to the world of MMA and when you add in his adaptability and absurd counter-striking, it’s extraordinarily difficult to stand and trade with him without mucking things up first.
Whittaker has taken to wrestling with a passion, so look for him to integrate that into his offense more than he ever has in the past. The threat of the takedown alone is essential to throwing off Adesanya’s rhythm, even if actually getting his butt to the mat is another story altogether. As Adesanya has pointed out, Whittaker doesn’t have the same size as a Jan Blachowicz so he’s going to have a much harder time pressuring Adesanya with his grappling.
However, that improved element of Whittaker’s game is a big part in why this matchup will play out differently, even if the end result will still be in Adesanya’s favor. Look for this to be reminiscent of both Kelvin Gastelum and Marvin Vettori’s scraps with Adesanya as the challenger coaxes the champion into several entertaining flurries while also working to limit him against the fence.
I’m doubtful that Whittaker can control the pace for five rounds though and I think there will be too many moments of separation where Adesanya picks Whittaker apart and stings him with precision strikes. It’s Adesanya who will land the more damaging strikes over a fight I expect to go the full 25 and he’ll go on to win a convincing, but competitive decision.
Derrick Lewis (4) vs. Tai Tuivasa (14)
Tai Tuivasa might be ready for a top 5 spot. But I don’t have the guts to call it.
I’ve seen this story too many times. A heavyweight looking to make moves in the division books themselves a fight with Derrick Lewis with the expectation that a win will jump-start their push to a title. Chris Daukaus just went through this process and it did not end well for him.
Lewis is simply unassailable when he’s facing all but the most elite competition. He’s not a stepping stone, he’s a huge, jagged boulder in the water that many have stumbled over and been left with nothing but facial fractures to tell about it.
You’ve got to love Tuivasa’s attitude though. From his walkouts to his interviews to his (regrettable) shoey ritutal to his relaxed fighting style, this is not someone who is overwhelmed by the bright lights. That’s a major factor when you’re facing a fighter of Lewis’ caliber in his hometown on pay-per-view. It won’t take much for Tuivasa to win the crowd over, that’s for sure.
Swangin’ and bangin’ has been promised and frankly, you don’t mess with the master of that discipline, so this should be a fun and short fight that likely doesn’t make it past the second round (and that might be a conservative estimate). Lewis falters when he has to play someone else’s game, so if Tuivasa approaches this bout tactfully he can win; if he wants to just throw leather, I’m going with Lewis by first-round knockout.
Derek Brunson (6) vs. Jared Cannonier (4)
Dare we doubt the power of Blonde Brunson?
Maybe it’s the bold hair color choice or maybe it’s been a change in fight philosophy, regardless we’ve witnessed a serious resurgence for Derek Brunson who seemed to be headed to gatekeeper status before rattling off five straight wins, including lopsided victories over Darren Till, Kevin Holland, and Edmen Shahbazyan. He’s been a cut above and now he’s one fight away from a well-deserved title shot (and possibly another crack at Israel Adesanya).
And yet I’m going with Jared Cannonier. Like Tai Tuivasa, I still don’t know if Brunson has that mentality to get over the hump when the stakes are at their highest (or close to it anyway). It’s not fair to judge Brunson on his past failures, but the truth is that he has not fared well against top 5 competition and that’s what Cannonier is.
Outside of a loss to Whittaker, Cannonier has looked like a beast since making the move all the way down from heavyweight, his power remaining as he shed the extra poundage. He has some of the best flurries in the division and as smart as Brunson is, I predict that Cannonier will catch him. More than once.
It might not be the first flurry that puts Brunson down, but Cannonier will find that chin enough times to rock his opponent and end it in the second or third round.
Alexander Hernandez vs. Renato Moicano
Alexander Hernandez better be ready for his close-up.
After raising a huff in a recent interview with MMA Fighting about being relegated to the early prelims, “The Great” got bumped up the card even further than expected after William Knight vs. Maxim Grishin was demoted due to Knight missing weight by a UFC record 12 pounds. Now all he has to do is get past one of the toughest outs in the lightweight division.
Renato Moicano has excellent muay Thai and top-shelf jiu-jitsu. He has some defensive holes and that’s where Hernandez can take advantage with his explosiveness. Hernandez has become much better at stringing his punches together, which means he won’t just have to wait for an opening, he can press the action and make Moicano uncomfortable.
Even pressuring, Hernandez should avoid going to the ground at all costs. He can take Moicano down, but playing around in Moicano’s guard is a recipe for disaster and Hernandez will take his first submission loss if he gets too cute. Instead, it should be a steady diet of sprawling and brawling for Hernandez.
Hernandez has an edge in athleticism that will make the difference as I see him out-quicking Moicano and eventually finding a late finish via strikes.
Nasrat Haqparast vs. Bobby Green
This lightweight matchup is going to be all about hand speed and movement and there’s few who are better than Bobby Green in those departments. Nasrat Haqparast is no slouch in the striking and if we’re just talking power, I think Haqparast has a touch more pop in his gloves, but it’s rarely only about power when you’re dealing with Bobby Green.
The tricky Green is one of the busiest strikers in the division and when he’s not throwing, he’s feinting and taunting and generally doing everything he can to break his opponent’s rhythm. At times, he’s done more posturing than punching, which could hurt him against Haqparast.
Haqparast has KO potential in both hands and sharp boxing to set up his heavier shots, so Green will be at his most evasive, likely turning this one into a chess match on the feet. Again, when it comes to technical and tactical striking, Green has Haqparast beat.
Green by decision.
Maxim Grishin def. William Knight