Written by Thomas Broome-Jones (TBroomey)
UFC 243 is in the books and the main event served as a real crowning moment for the promotion’s fastest-rising star.
However, that came at the expense of one of the most beloved fighters to rise up the ranks in this generation. Over 57,000 people packed the Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, Australia for one reason: Robert Whittaker. The Reaper embraced the love of his countrymen in the hopes of registering his first successful defence of the Middleweight crown. Standing in his way was the Last Stylebender and interim Middleweight Champion, Israel Adesanya.
A big fight feel was in the air, a record-breaking crowd cheering their lungs out for the man who put Australia on the map in MMA. Whittaker vs. Adesanya might not have been the fight of the year spectacle we were hoping for (it wasn’t even the best fight of the night), but as a showcase for Adesanya, it was bang on the money.
Both men displayed their usual pre-fight rituals, Izzy had his trademark miming – appearing to write Whittaker’s name in the Death Note – and Bobby Knuckles beat the Northern Star tattoo on his chest in a rallying war cry.
The first round gave us a clear indicator of the direction this was going. Whittaker constantly rushed into Adesanya’s range to get off big shots, taking a note from Kelvin Gastelum’s efforts against Stylebender at UFC 236. Rob’s always been known for his reckless style, and Daniel Cormier opined on commentary that he needed to turn the fight into a brawl if he wanted to win. Adesanya had different plans, keeping the champ at bay with superior head movement and barely letting anything touch him. Robert got a few shots through, but their effect seemed minimal. Clearly, he’d learned from the Gastelum fight and had no intentions of letting The Reaper get close to him.
Round one wasn’t a wash by any means, the crowd came unglued and roared at everything Whittaker did. He landed solid combos and led in strongly with his jab to keep Izzy close. It was abundantly clear, however, that he was getting frustrated with the challenger’s speed and evasiveness. The most dramatic moment came with mere seconds on the clock, where Israel dropped Robert with a blitzing counter right hook that had Whittaker flat on his back. Jon Anik and Daniel Cormier reacted as if the fight was over, but the horn sounded, and Whittaker was saved by the bell.
It was one of the most exciting ends to a round we’ve seen in quite some time. As Whittaker’s corner desperately told him to keep his cool, the champ had a distant look in his eyes. He knew how close he’d come to being knocked out in the first round and had realised Adesanya’s got power behind his punches.
Adesanya shows his class
Round two was where it fell apart. Israel Adesanya turned in a stellar performance. I know the comparisons to Anderson Silva are overplayed, but they couldn’t be more appropriate here. The ease in which Izzy avoided bombs from Whittaker and returned with effortless counter striking was like watching prime Silva. Adesanya barely had a mark on him as he continued to disorient his opponent with a deadly counter left hook. The timing and precision of these shots nullified the explosive power of Robert Whittaker, who was flying ever closer to the sun.
It all proved to be too much. At 3:33 of the second round, Israel Adesanya caught Robert Whittaker with one counter left too many, as The Reaper dropped to the floor and was instantly swarmed with a flurry of shots. Referee Marc Goddard pulled Stylebender off and within just a year-and-a-half of his debut in the promotion, Adesanya had become the Undisputed UFC Middleweight Champion of the world.
To see Whittaker go out on such a disappointing performance was crushing for his fans. He has been a favourite among the people for so long and it’s always hard when a reign ends on a whimper rather than a bang. He was gracious in defeat and thanked the Melbourne crowd for coming out, but the sting of losing so convincingly can’t sit well with anyone.
What the future holds
Adesanya of course was as animated as ever in his post-fight celebrations, so much so that it broke BT Sport’s broadcast, which cut out during his speech. The major story coming out of said speech was who will be next for Stylebender, which led to a calling out of the undefeated Paulo Costa in the front row. Costa’s impressive win over Yoel Romero at UFC 241 put him in the title picture in many people’s minds, and it seems to be the fight to make.
As for Whittaker, he promised he would be back. The most logical fight to make would be to give him the winner of Kelvin Gastelum vs. Darren Till at next month’s UFC 244. Or he might end up facing the winner of Adesanya/Costa for his title rematch. Either way, this is far from the end of either man’s story. Whittaker has a path of redemption to set out on, while Adesanya’s journey to be the face of the promotion just had a major development.