“Let’s take fair out of the equation. Life isn’t fair, right? But I think it’s silly if Izzy gets an immediate rematch, because this isn’t his first loss as champion,” Whittaker said Wednesday on The MMA Hour. “You know? Technically he didn’t defend the belt again. He lost to [Alex] Pereira, got the belt back, and then lost it again. And you have to ask, like, is your idea just to keep letting him have rematches when he loses? Like, relax. That’s the fight game.
“It puts the UFC in a tricky position, because Izzy’s kind of one of their premiere guys. You know, he’s one of the poster boys. But yeah, I think he’s got some work to do.”
Adesanya suffered a stunning defeat this past Saturday at UFC 293, dropping his middleweight title for the second instance over his past three fights, this time in a one-sided affair against the heavy underdog Strickland. While Adesanya’s prior middleweight loss to Alex Pereira was a fifth-round come-from-behind stoppage, which led to an immediate rematch that Adesanya won in emphatic fashion, his loss to Strickland was a dominant five-round decision that saw the American control the action from pillar to post.
Immediately after the bout, UFC CEO Dana White expressed interest in doing a potential rematch between Strickland and Adesanya next. White somewhat walked those comments back on Tuesday, but said the rematch nonetheless remains a viable option for the UFC.
Whittaker obviously thinks that booking would do a disservice to the rest of the division. He also believes the new champion should be able to have some say in the matter.
“Honestly, I think [Strickland’s] opinion should have some weight to it. I think he had a huge upset, and he took the fight on relatively late notice as well. I think him being the champion, it should have a weight in who he wants to fight,” Whittaker said.
“He’s on top of the pile right now. He should revel in it. He should enjoy it, because every single middleweight and their friend is coming for him. And he knows it.”
As a former champion who lost twice to Adesanya, Whittaker is one of many middleweights whose title prospects breathed new life following the loss of the longtime beltholder.
While some fighters and pundits have attributed UFC 293’s result to a lackluster showing from Adesanya rather than crediting Strickland for his dominant performance, Whittaker instead applauded the new UFC champion for a game plan that he believes took away many of Adesanya’s best weapons and thrust the ex-champ outside of his comfort zone in a way no challenger to his middleweight title reign had done before Strickland.
“The weekend opened our eyes to a scenario playing out that I do believe could have always happened. It’s just, you needed someone with the skill set to be able to implement it,” Whittaker said. “... Sean just had an answer for for Israel. He cut off the cage, he shut down Izzy’s distance fighting by not letting him open up in the center ring at all, and had his back to the fence the entire fight. The entire fight. It was, honestly, hat’s off to him and his coaching team because it was amazing to watch. You’ve got to agree.
“If we’re going to be honest, I didn’t think Sean would win,” Whittaker continued. “OK? I never rule out any fight because fights are crazy. The small gloves change everything. But if like, let’s say I was a betting man, I would’ve had to have backed Israel, right? Just because of the track record and his defensive capabilities is bar none. But I did see an avenue for Sean to win the fight. And you see this with every card every week. You see a fighter going up against another fighter, it’s a hard fight, he’s got one avenue to success, but if he does it, he wins. And a lot of the times, that’s not how fights play out, but Sean did it to a tee.
“And I guess Sean surprised me with just how effective he was at shutting down Izzy’s game. Just how effective the game plan was. Just how effective his defense was. Just how effective [he was] moving into that threat range where punches are live but kicks are kind of taken out of action — just how much that would put a pin in Izzy’s game. Like, he took away the space that Izzy thrives in and that just shut him down completely, because Izzy’s main form of defense is evading backwards, going backwards and then using an angle.
“And Sean, putting the pressure on that he did, had Izzy’s back up against the fence where he just nullified his main defensive aspect.”
The question of who challenges Strickland next is now the biggest mystery facing the UFC middleweight division. Dricus du Plessis, the man who beat Whittaker at UFC 290, was the assumed No. 1 contender but was unable to make the quick turnaround for UFC 293 due to injury. Fan favorites Paulo Costa and Khamzat Chimaev are also set to face off on Oct. 21 at UFC 294 and could vault into the conversation with a win. And of course, the Adesanya rematch still looms, if only because of the ex-champ’s star power within the UFC.
Even Whittaker himself isn’t sure where the division should go from here.
“Oh, probably myself. You know? I’m an easy pickings,” Whittaker joked when asked who should serve as Strickland’s first title defense. “I’m an easy picking. Just get in my face and let’s go. No, I don’t know. I don’t know what the answer is to that.”