UFC 243 is the latest excursion of the world’s largest MMA conglomerate into the Oceania market, and as the old cliche goes, “third time’s the charm.” The third Australian pay-per-view in the last 20 months will play host to not only a fight between the two biggest combat sports stars the South Pacific region has ever bred, but also the biggest middleweight fight the sport of mixed martial arts has ever seen.
A post shared by Israel Adesanya (@stylebender) on Aug 26, 2019 at 8:39pm PDT
Robert Whittaker vs. Israel Adesanya is a fight that generates the sort of excitement that you only get in extremely rare instances within sport. One of those feelings that comes at Game 7 of a championship series, or the last 5 minutes of a Super Bowl. But as is the case with combat sports, it’s as much buildup and anticipation as it is the actual athletic event itself. The promotion in the lead up to this fight has billed itself as being “the biggest fight in Australian combat sports history,” as well as a fight that will, “break every live gate record in combat sports history.” And for one of the few times I can remember, the UFC is portraying and promoting this fight as accurately as ever- if not in fact underselling its impact.
Regardless of what occurs, this fight will breed a star. Whether it’s Whittaker, the UFC’s first Australian champion who is as exciting a fighter the roster hosts but has been bogged down by his health preventing him from building his brand and truly shining, or Adesanya, who the UFC is already pushing as its next massive star and has the mainstream appeal and fan friendly style that breeds a recipe of an explosion in popularity with a win.
A post shared by Robert Whittaker (@robwhittakermma) on Sep 24, 2019 at 3:58am PDT
Perhaps the most underrated champion in the UFC today, Whittaker has been nearly unstoppable, winning nine straight bouts since his ascent to the middleweight division in 2014. Whittaker is one of the most well-rounded fighters on the UFC roster, possessing an elite distance striking game via his karate base, as well as possessing insane power in both hands and a great ability to close distance on lankier fighters, and while he won’t blow you away with his grappling, he has a well above average MMA wrestling skillset. All of that is capped with his superior athleticism and extremely durable chin. Whittaker has shown little to no weakness at middleweight, save for a few staggers suffered at the hands of Yoel Romero. But if Whittaker has been shown to suffer or struggle from any style, it would be a distance striker specializing in kicks, like his opponent, Israel Adesanya. Whittaker will undoubtedly need to make this a dirty fight and close the range quickly to make Adesanya uncomfortable. If the fight is contested at range, Adesanya will likely be able to pick him apart.
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A post shared by Israel Adesanya (@stylebender) on Jul 11, 2019 at 6:44am PDT
Perhaps the UFC’s best chance at building another mainstream megastar sits Israel Adesanya, the Nigerian-born, New Zealand-bred Muay Thai kickboxing stylist with one of the cleanest distance control games the sport of MMA has ever seen. Since making his transition to MMA, Adesanya has yet to suffer a single defeat in a caged enclosure. With a record of 17-0, Adesanya has yet to taste defeat but has, in his most recent bout, tasted his own blood and perhaps felt his own mortality inside the Octagon. His last performance against Kelvin Gastelum showed that Adesanya can be opened up and can be susceptible when he faces fighters who are efficient in closing distance, like Gastelum and Whittaker. But the important thing to remember about the Gastelum win is that it was…a win. And that’s all Adesanya’s done. So despite being troubled and being severely tested, he’s still never lost, and the confidence of being both undefeated and having been tested can do wonders for a fighter– just ask Jon Jones after he faced Alexander Gustafsson. If/when Whittaker is able to close distance and land big shots on Adesanya, the way he responds will all but directly dictate the outcome of the fight.
As I’ve stated prior, this is, for my money, the biggest middleweight title fight the UFC has ever put on. Weidman-Silva 2 or Silva-Sonnen 2 were both massive given that they were rematches with juice behind the first outings. This one is the biggest for the sole fact that it could very well dictate the UFC’s next mega star.
If Whittaker wins, the UFC has a bonafide Australian champion with no doubt to his legacy. He can continue to headline Australian pay-per-views against the massive slew of contenders that the middleweight division currently hosts. Of course, assuming he’s injury free, the UFC could also give Whittaker a quick turnaround to fight again in February, as the pattern has been for the UFC to host an Australian PPV in February. Adesanya is his toughest stylistic test to date, and if he’s able to get past him, his stardom will skyrocket, and the UFC has Oceania’s first major combat sports superstar, more so than even the region’s first combat sports star in Mark Hunt or heavyweight boxer Joseph Parker.
If Adesanya wins, he may just become the next iteration of Conor McGregor. My firm belief is that an Adesanya win will ensure him as Jon Jones next opponent in Vegas next March. Adesanya has taken the Conor McGregor route thus far to get to this point, and it’s hard for me to envision him calling out someone dangerous in his division like Paulo Costa or Jared Cannonier, while he can really make noise promoting a potential super fight with Jon Jones at light heavyweight. Who knows how massive Adesanya can or will become with a win in Melbourne.
Aside from the fact that this fight alone is bound to be a fight of the year candidate, Whittaker vs. Adesanya has the potential to not only shape the landscape of the middleweight division for the foreseeable future- which it obviously will- but also potentially the landscape of stardom and financial prosperity in the UFC for years to come. Regardless of the outcome, the UFC will be the big winner on Saturday night.■
Follow Johann on Twitter: @thejohanncastro