Robert Whittaker is undeniably the second best middleweight currently competing in the UFC’s 185-pound division but with two losses already on his record to reigning champion Israel Adesanya, it remains to be seen if there will be enough interest to see that fight for a third time.
His upcoming bout against Dricus Du Plessis has been billed as a No. 1 contender’s fight with the winner expected to then clash with Adesanya in September. In the leadup to UFC 290 on Saturday, Adesanya has openly stated that he’s pushing for Du Plessis to win because he has a personal grudge against the South African fighter but it also can’t be denied that a pair of definitive victories over Whittaker make that a less appealing matchup.
That’s why veteran UFC analyst Alan Jouban believes Whittaker needs to really stand out with his performance against Du Plessis if he not only wants to earn the title shot but convince anybody that he has a better chance to beat Adesanya this time around after already falling to him twice previously.
“We’re going to have to do some WWE [stuff] here,” Jouban said on The Fighter vs. The Writer. “Whittaker needs to go starch his opponent this weekend. He needs to starch his opponent and he needs some soundbites as well. I love Whittaker. I could talk so good about him all day long [but] is that the fight people are dying to see? What else is there? Are you going to throw Sean Strickland in there? I mean that’s what he’s saying ‘new blood, new blood!’ But is the new blood better blood? It’s not. Sean Strickland, as good as he looked, he’s not as good as Whittaker.
“Whittaker is the next best guy in line and with this win, he probably does deserve the opportunity but people have seen it. People have to be excited about a fight if you’re going to sell a fight. The only way to get them excited is to starch your opponent, get on the mic, maybe be a little rude, maybe be a little abrupt but get out there and sell this fight. That would give me interest.”
While Whittaker has proven himself as an elite fighter in the middleweight division, he rarely gets animated when speaking before or after his fights so it might seem out of character for him to suddenly launch a verbal attack aimed at Adesanya.
As much as that might not be his comfort zone, Jouban argues that just earning a lopsided decision over somebody like Du Plessis probably isn’t enough to get anybody that enthusiastic to see the third fight between Whittaker and Adesanya.
That’s why Jouban hopes that Whittaker will use the platform he’s given on Saturday — assuming he wins — to state his case for the Adesanya trilogy.
“Make me a believer,” Jouban said. “Even if he just tells me. Even if he’s lying but if he just says ‘I know how to beat Israel. I’ve watched film, I know what I did wrong, I corrected it. Me and my coaches have been plotting this for a long time. I will beat Israel Adesanya.’ Make me a believer. Like I believe Whittaker, I want to see this fight!
“But if you don’t make me a believer A. from the performance and B. from you telling the fans this fight is going to be 100 percent different, then we don’t really have anything to be excited about.”
When it comes to the fight itself, Jouban really likes Whittaker’s chances to not only beat Du Plessis but earn the kind of victory that will get Adesanya’s attention.
Stylistically, Jouban believes that Du Plessis pushes too hard during his striking exchanges where he’s constantly hunting for the knockout and that will open him up for counters from Whittaker, which is arguably where he’s the most dangerous.
“It’s like hitting a heavy bag and they say hit the heavy bag for five minutes as hard as you can. It’s exhausting,” Jouban explained. “But that’s why you see the pros, they start dancing and flicking and popping and changing the cadence. He’s 20 percent, here’s 20 percent, get used to 20 percent and here’s 100 percent. That’s Israel Adesanya. That’s Robert Whittaker.
“It’s just going to allow these opportunities for Robert Whittaker to take his chin off. I wouldn’t be surprised if Robert Whittaker was able to sleep him early in this fight because he’s going to give him those opportunities with those blitzes. It’s just a drastic change in skill level. Robert is highly, highly skilled.”
If Whittaker can get the job done, earn a few style points and then make an emphatic call out, Jouban feels like that would be enough to get people excited for another fight with Adesanya.
It’s also been over six years since Whittaker last earned a finish in the UFC so there’s no better time than now to seize the moment if he wants that title shot.
“He’s got to do something,” Jouban said about Whittaker. “He can’t let this fight go the distance for sure. He has to prove himself on Saturday night and talk the talk after to get some people interested.”