Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Middleweight scrappers Robert Whittaker and Rafael Natal will compete this Saturday (April 23, 2016) at UFC 197 inside MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Since moving up to Middleweight, Whittaker has been on fire. He's unbeaten in his new weight class and has showed some shocking speed, quickly earning him a position inside the Top 10.
On the other hand, Natal has been around forever. He's been battling it out in the middle of his division inside the Octagon for six years now, but he's finally earned a spot in the rankings thanks to his recent win streak.
Let's take a look at the keys to victory for both men:
Key Wins: Brad Tavares (UFC Fight Night 65), Uriah Hall (UFC 193), Clint Hester (UFC Fight Night 55)
Key Losses: Stephen Thompson (UFC 170), Court McGee (UFC Fight Night 27)
Keys to Victory: Whittaker is a very skilled striker with a Karate background and boxing experience. At Middleweight, he's exceptionally quick with his entrances, allowing him to spring forward and land sudden combinations that catch his opponents off-guard.
So far, the 25-year-old Aussie has won seven fights via knockout.
Whittaker is something of a specialist. He's a nasty striker with great takedown defense, which essentially means he always has one real game plan.
Knock him out.
Luckily, that's a perfect strategy against a generalist with shaky defense like Natal. The Brazilian simply cannot match Whittaker's speed on the feet, and he's likely to have a hell of a time taking him down.
With that in mind, Whittaker simply needs to watch his step. Natal is a veteran with some tricky stuff up his sleeve, so Whittaker cannot throw caution to the wind and take stupid chances. If Whittaker is patient and looks to simply land rather than destroy, the finish will come.
Key Wins: Uriah Hall (UFC 187), Chris Camozzi (UFC Fight Night 50), Kevin Casey (UFC on FOX 18)
Key Losses: Ed Herman (UFC Fight Night 40), Tim Kennedy (UFC Fight Night 31)
Keys to Victory: Natal is an interesting fighter. He's reasonably well-rounded but doesn't really excel in any one area. He tends to win thanks to his veteran mentality and consistency, but he's also lost some bizarre fights (Ed Herman?) and made critical Fight IQ errors (Andrew Craig).
Either way, he's in a rough spot here.
As mentioned, Natal's opponent is the superior striker, athlete and is a very tough man to takedown. That's a recipe for disaster for Natal, who has been knocked out four times in the past.
To defeat Whittaker, Natal will have to focus on intelligently closing the distance, which will be difficult for the man who usually likes to range kickbox. Natal can't simply swarm Whittaker either, as his opponent possesses some sharp counter punching as well.
If Natal can cut off the cage and back Whittaker up, he's giving himself the best possible chance at victory. Natal does hit hard and has some tricky clinch takedowns, a pair of threats that could hurt the former Welterweight.
It's not a great chance, but at least Natal would be giving himself an opportunity to utilize his skill.
Bottom Line: Whittaker is on the rise, and Natal is looking to derail him.
Frankly, Whittaker looks to be an extremely dangerous contender, and he's a few years younger than most of the fighters around him in the rankings. He's poised to do big things, and Natal is simply another obstacle on that road.
With that said, a loss would be pretty shocking. Whittaker is the large favorite for a reason; he's got plenty of momentum and the style match up favors him. While it wouldn't be the end of the world, it would be a considerable setback for a man closing in on a title shot.
At this point, few people expect Natal to ever truly become a title contender. However, a victory here would rightfully put him inside the Top 10 and extend his win streak to five. That's not enough to earn him a shot at the strap, but Natal would certainly have a strong argument to be in the mix.
In the more likely scenario that Natal loses, it's not that big of a deal. Natal is a gatekeeper, and losing to one of the hottest prospects in the division isn't going to change that.
At UFC 197, Robert Whittaker and Rafael Natal will battle. Which fighter will have his hand raised?