YOU don’t need an awful lot of fighting knowledge to know that Israel Adesanya is very good. He tends to obviously outland most of his opponents by a good margin and his bravado and showmanship make sure that you don’t miss it.
It is not an exaggeration to call Israel Adesanya one of the best strikers to ever compete in mixed martial arts. Perhaps not in terms of his medals and belts before he got to the cage, there have certainly been more accomplished kickboxers in the UFC, but none who have adapted their style so well to the current landscape of MMA. The game of kickboxing is in many places one which has gravitated towards two men simply covering up behind their large gloves and firing blistering combinations against their opponent’s gloves. Robin van Roosmalen won two GLORY titles as the epitome of this cover-up-and-return style, and is soon going to be attempting to make the transition to MMA in Bellator. What stands out about Adesanya is that he has specifically crafted his style to mixed martial arts and, along with learning to wrestle surprisingly well, it has carried him to an undefeated record and an interim UFC title.
Every Adesanya fight is a torrent of feints that are almost indistinguishable from the real attacks. Each time Adesanya is forced to give ground he angles out and looks for counters. And if the opponent successfully gets inside on him, his Muay Thai influenced clinch work is fantastic—from the classical foot sweep to knees from the double collar tie.
Robert Whittaker is a subtler case. He is understated outside of the cage to the point that he could be missing out on millions of dollars that a noisier fighter might make in his position. And while he is a serious hitter—with more evidence of one-puff knockout power in his hands than Adesanya—a lot of fans don’t seem to really know what his “deal” is. Whittaker came into the UFC as a solid technical striker with an awkward lead-hand-low style and some terrific pop in his left hook, but his incredible improvement across the board has somewhat backfired and led to fans seeing him as something of a generic all-rounder.
Whittaker and has taken out some of the division’s scariest names. His victories over Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza and Yoel Romero were displays of the highest level anti-grappling technique, with great striking and conditioning slapped on top. The crux of this fight though is that Whittaker hasn’t really fought a slick striker in a long time. Romero and Jacare are both dangerous on the feet but far from crafty. Uriah Hall might be the last real “striker” Whittaker fought and more often than not Hall is style over substance. Whittaker won an easy decision in that fight by grabbing ahold of Hall from behind when Hall spun from too close in. Israel Adesanya doesn’t tend to make those kinds of unforced errors and miscalculations that have plagued Hall’s career. Where Hall is mostly about one jab at a time and hoping to land a huge spinning kick, Adesanya is a process of attrition through volume and constant misdirection.
So one of the mysteries that has fans buzzing is just how well Robert Whittaker can wrestle offensively. Despite first competing in wrestling in 2015, Whittaker promptly won his division at the Australian Cup and also qualified to represent Australia at the Commonwealth games before the UFC—likely tapping a list of his various injuries and cancelled fights—asked him to reconsider. But on the one hand, there is wrestling in singlets and on the other, there is wrestling in a fistfight in a cage. It is hard to see Whittaker simply manhandling Adesanya if he attempts it completely honestly, but we also haven’t seen much of Whittaker mixing takedown attempts between his strikes and setting up his shots.
— Kyle (@Kyleidoscopic) October 3, 2019
Whittaker could attempt to fight on the offensive to make the most use of his wrestling: pressuring Adesanya towards the fence on the feet, kicking the legs as Adesanya circles out, and dropping on Adesanya’s hips when he finds the opportunity. But Whittaker’s work on the feet noticeably improved as he became a more thoughtful and measured fighter—some of his more aggressive performances have also been the ones where he absorbs more shots. Of course, that is expected—you have to be present to apply pressure, there’s no pressuring someone from the safety of the other side of the cage—but the fight that keeps flashing up when thinking about Whittaker fighting on the offensive is his disastrous knockout loss to Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson.
Thompson has a very different style to Adesanya in the techniques that he uses but has a similar focus on maintaining distance and cutting offline when his opponent steps in on him. In that fight, Whittaker tried to get after Thompson early, lost him each time Thompson circled out and ended up taking a lot of unnecessary punishment as he moved in. Eventually, Whittaker ate a sharp right hand that sent him reeling and Thompson picked up the finish.
Whittaker wasn’t hopeless in that bout—his jab bloodied Thompson up in a couple of minutes, and he hit well when he got to the inside and threw combinations—but Adesanya has four inches of height and five inches of reach on Thompson. Adesanya is just as good at breaking the line of attack to prevent himself from being cornered, and Adesanya is better with his inside weapons such as knees from the double collar tie.
Aside from the offensive wrestling which we have yet to see, one weapon that stands Whittaker in good stead for this fight is his left hook. Adesanya hit Brad Tavares with 120 strikes in a five-round drubbing, including a couple of hard knees and elbows that Tavares took flush. It took Whittaker a couple of left hooks to put Tavares down for the night. This wouldn’t be so interesting if lead hooks hadn’t been one of Adesanya’s blind spots in a couple of fights. His famous knockout loss to Alex Pereira came from a well-timed left hook off an Adesanya southpaw left straight. Later, when Adesanya fought Anderson Silva, Silva found the same counter several times against the same southpaw left straight.
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Obviously Whittaker shouldn’t be relying on the left hook to save him. He should be coming in with a comprehensive gameplan where he attempts to take lumps out of Adesanya’s legs, looks for takedowns scores his jab, and works the body. But the left hook is such a brilliant trump card on inside exchanges—especially against longer, taller fighters—and Adesanya does such a great job of framing off his opponent and denying them the opportunity when they lead on him. The time when Adesanya is not so defensively impervious is when he is opening himself up to attack—but the problem with finding that opening is that he hides it so well between his feints and non-committal jabs.
Perhaps the most promising part of this fight is that Adesanya is an attrition fighter and Whittaker is an endurance fight. Whittaker has looked hittable but almost unkillable in his middleweight run—his grit is simply ridiculous. Adesanya was seen as perhaps a front runner and a gimmick by some until he went life-and-death with Kelvin Gastelum in a fight of the year candidate and only got better after being rattled by the stocky wrestle-boxer. Adesanya and Whittaker both improve as the fight goes on—or slow down later than their opponent. Every middleweight bout since Chris Weidman vs Luke Rockhold has been spectacular and the division just seems richer in talent every month. If ever there were a fight with all the hints that it could be a life and death war, this is it.