Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) ranked Middleweights Robert Whittaker and Rafael Natal threw down last night (April 23, 2016) at UFC 197 inside MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Since moving up to Middleweight, Whittaker has largely torn through his competition. If he could continue his winning ways here, Whittaker was primed to do big things at 185 lbs.
Natal is one of the most experienced veterans in his division. The jiu-jitsu fighter has seen it all, and he was looking to derail another up-and-comer last night.
Both men started trading quickly, but Whittaker scored first with some sharp jabs. Perhaps unexpectedly, Natal was fairly content to stand with his foe, and he did land some nice right hands on the counter.
Natal worked in a couple of takedown attempts, but his opponent nicely defended. For much of the round, Natal actually seemed to be getting the better of his opponent on the feet, scoring with some hard low kicks and decent counter punches.
However, Whittaker switched things up in the last 30 seconds and stunned his opponent with a hard left hook. For the rest of the round, Whittaker continued to touch his foe with solid combinations until the belt.
It likely won him back the round.
Natal immediately went to work at the start of the second round with hard low kicks, but Whittaker was landing powerful punches too. While both men were landing, Natal's low kicks seemed to have a serious effect on Whittaker, who was having difficulty moving as fluidly.
Likely due to his injured leg, Whittaker stopped moving so much and instead stalked his opponent around the cage. It actually worked rather well for him, as it caused his opponent to throw fewer kicks and score with plenty of punches as well.
Still, it was a pretty close round overall.
The pace slowed a bit in the final frame, but overall it was more of the same as Whittaker advanced forward and his opponent countered. For the first half of the round, Whittaker did the more effective work, scoring with his kicks and lead hand while limiting his opponent's low kicks.
This trend continued for the rest of the round. Whittaker's left hook became the most significant strike between either man. In particular, Whittaker did a very nice job of striking on the break of exchanges, as Natal was often backing away with his hands low.
Then, to put an exclamation mark on the round, Whittaker dropped his opponent with a clean high kick.
While it wasn't dominant, this was a fairly strong performance by the Aussie. Faced with an experienced veteran and adversity -- including a potential broken right hand -- Whittaker made some adjustments to limit his opponents offense while keeping his own output high.
That shows more veteran experience than most 25 year old fighters possess.
Whittaker may have a Karate background, but his boxing talent is really apparent. Whittaker is a quick Middleweight, and his jab and hook were on point. By the end of the fight, Natal's face was battered in large part thanks to his left hand.
Just as a small mention, Whittaker's defensive wrestling looked fantastic as usual. Natal set up a few of his takedown attempts beautifully, but he simply couldn't hold onto his opponent.
After extending his win streak to four, Whittaker should battle with Michael Bisping.
Natal may have lost, but he made his skill abundantly clear in this bout. Natal is a longtime veteran of the UFC who's never been able to go on a major run, but he's always been able to hang around despite not being exceptionally dominant in any one area.
This fight really makes it clear why. Natal is comfortable everywhere, and he knows how to throw his opponent off their game. In this case, Natal used low kicks to interrupt his opponent -- who strikes like a boxer much of the time -- and nullify his speed advantage.
Whittaker was smart enough to adjust, but most fighters are not, and that's why Natal isn't going anywhere.
Last night, Robert Whittaker out-struck his opponent en route to a decision win. How high can the Aussie climb in the talent-rich Middleweight division?