UFC 243 preview: Robert Whittaker must overcome ring rust, his own body and in-form Israel Adesanya to retain title

Alex Pattle
The Independent
Robert Whittaker enters UFC 243 with a 20-4 record: (Getty)
Robert Whittaker enters UFC 243 with a 20-4 record: (Getty)

As the UFC comes to Melbourne, Australia this weekend, middleweight champion Robert Whittaker will be hoping the third time is the charm.

See, UFC 243 marks the third event the promotion has built around ‘The Reaper’, with the Australian’s last two scheduled title defences on home soil cancelled due to various injuries.

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In February 2018, a bout with former middleweight champ Luke Rockhold in Perth fell through after Whittaker tore his hamstring before suffering an abscess infection and then chickenpox. In February this year, a contest against Kelvin Gastelum was scrapped hours before the fight was set to take place in Melbourne’s Rod Laver arena, because Whittaker suffered a collapsed bowel and internal hernia on his intestine.

So on Sunday, UFC President Dana White will be hoping that the champion of his 185lbs division makes it into the Octagon unscathed (if not out of it in that condition) for the first time in 16 months. White will hope that Marvel Stadium hosts a battle worthy of an Avengers film as Whittaker puts his strap on the line against the undefeated Israel Adesanya.

For a lot of fans and pundits, the main event is too close to call. Some bookies are even offering the exact same odds on each fighter. And as remarkable as that is, one can see why.

In one corner stands the undefeated challenger, Adesanya (17-0). The 30-year-old is being marketed as the young lion ahead of Sunday’s event despite being two years Whittaker’s senior, but that is due to his recent and electric arrival in the UFC. ‘The Last Stylebender’ is a fitting nickname for a fighter as versatile as the Nigerian-born New Zealander, who dictates fights with his lethally precise and unpredictable striking. Adesanya’s last fight – a unanimous decision victory over Gastelum to win the interim middleweight title – was his sixth UFC win in as many bouts in the space of just 14 months. He has been as prolific as he has been impressive, achieving wins over the likes of Brad Tavares, Derek Brunson, and MMA legend Anderson Silva – his idol.

In the other corner: Whittaker (20-4). On his way to earning the division’s crown, the Aussie faced and defeated a murderer’s row of opponents – ‘Jacare’ Souza, Tavares, Brunson, Uriah Hall, Rafael Natal (not a misspelling of a certain tennis player) – and anyone thinking his fragility between fights suggests a frailty during them is... only half right.

‘The Reaper’ exhibited a certain durability in his astonishing, career-defining achievement of surviving two fights – 10 rounds, 50 minutes – with the walking mass of Cuban muscle that is Yoel Romero. In fact, Whittaker emerged with his hand raised on both occasions. The second time, however, that hand was broken, and the first time, Whittaker was propping himself up on a ruptured knee.

Robert Whittaker last fought in June 2018, defeating Yoel Romero (Getty)
Robert Whittaker last fought in June 2018, defeating Yoel Romero (Getty)

So it seems the champion’s mind is constantly at odds with his own body, which is on a perennial quest to betray him. Usually, Whittaker’s skill and determination see him over the line, but at what cost? He last stepped foot in the Octagon in June 2018.

If Sunday’s fight were decided purely on form, the lanky, rangy Adesanya would unquestionably win. But in a sport where undefeated fighters can see their records and chins eviscerated in five-second contests (sorry, Ben Askren), predicting outcomes is not that simple.

Whittaker possesses as eclectic a skillset as his challenger. He is no less precise and he packs greater power. Gastelum – despite a distinct height and reach disadvantage – was able to land regularly and heavily on Adesanya earlier this year, and should have finished ‘Stylebender’. While Whittaker still has a shorter reach and height than his opponent this weekend, the deficits are not as severe as they were for Gastelum, who is also slower and less well-rounded than ‘The Reaper’.

Given the amount of damage Gastelum was able to do to ‘Stylebender’ when the pair fought, the experienced Whittaker should be able to inflict enough of an assault on Adesanya on Sunday to leave Marvel Stadium with his belt still around his waist.

But unlike an Avengers film, MMA rarely follows the script. Fans can only hope that Whittaker makes it to the final act in one piece on Sunday.

If he does, expect a war Down Under.

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