Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) will (hopefully) bring an end to its middleweight logjam at the upcoming UFC 243 pay-per-view (PPV) event on ESPN+, headlined by the 185-pound title fight between reigning division kingpin, Robert Whittaker, and current interim titleholder, Israel Adesanya.
They’ll throw down in the five-round main event, scheduled for Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, on Sun., Oct. 6, 2019 (airing stateside on Sat., Oct. 5, due to the considerable discrepancy in time zones), part of a five-fight main card we’ll be previewing (and predicting) below.
Before we get started, be sure to see what our persnickety “Prelims” picker, Patty Stumberg, had to say about the UFC preliminary cards on ESPN2 and UFC Fight Pass by clicking here and here. For a closer look at the “Whittaker vs. Adesanya” odds and betting lines for this weekend’s fight card “Down Under” click here.
Let’s get to work.
185 lbs.: Middleweight Champion Robert “The Reaper” Whittaker (20-4) vs. Interim Middleweight Champion Israel “The Last Stylebender” Adesanya (17-0)
One of the biggest challenges of this column is to ask the hard questions without sounding like a hater, or like I’m being a dick for laughs or because negativity is the new norm. I probably come off like one of those stand-up comics who starts the show by thanking Jesus before going into jokes about beating up crying babies, so let’s just get to it. Israel Adesanya is clearly a talented striker and on par with Conor McGregor in terms of bravado. What I find most impressive about “The Last Stylebender” is his ability to work the system. Most fans don’t realize the former kickboxer has only been competing for UFC since early 2018 and managed to build up a 6-0 record in less than two years. From the outside, he appears to be more accomplished than he actually is, at least in terms of big-game experience, because I’m not handing out any trophies for dominant performances against the likes of Derek Brunson and Brad Tavares.
I think we also need to revisit his decision win over Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 236, as it sounds like “Stylebender” fans want to have it both ways. Adesanya’s performance is only forgivable if Gastelum is, in fact, one of the best middleweights in the world. I’m not sure how else to explain why a top-shelf striker who is five inches taller and sports a nine-inch reach advantage could not end that fight by way of bloody doctor’s stoppage. The jab alone should have painted the town red, so to speak. I think my concern is that Adesanya has been fortunate enough — or perhaps calculated enough — to be opportunistic in his bookings. Former middleweight champion, Anderson Silva, is 44 years old, already broke his leg, served two suspensions for pissing dirty, and has just one victory over the last seven years. Can we stop with this whole “omg the passing of the torch” nonsense? A win over Yoel Romero would change the conversation, just like it did for Paulo Costa, but that goes back to what I mentioned earlier about being opportunistic.
Robert Whittaker was not as fortunate and despite his ill-timed layoffs, injuries, and whatever else was keeping the Aussie at bay, he was forced to spend nearly an hour locked inside the cage with that power-punching maniac. Those are the kinds of brutal wars that can change a fighter’s career for the worse, and questions have (fairly) been raised about what sort of “Reaper” will emerge on Saturday night. As we’ve come to learn more about CTE and the physical deterioration of combat sports athletes, the less we know about how to predict it. Some fighters can do 20 years in the game and come out with their faculties intact, while others can suffer a head butt in training and never recover. Maybe it sounds a little too dramatic to suggest Whittaker will be turned into Australian origami in the UFC 243 headliner, but at the same time, I don’t think it would come as a surprise if he took a clean jab or fadeaway counter and lost his legs. My point is, we can’t pretend the possibility does not exist.
Whittaker is not unlike Adesanya in that he made it to the top of the mountain in a relatively short span of time, and in many ways was gifted the 185-pound strap when Georges St-Pierre threw a monkey wrench into the division. Michael Bisping retired shortly after that while Paulo Costa was a UFC newborn and still under the lamps. I don’t want to suggest that anyone who had to fight “Soldier of God” in back-to-back fights took the path of least resistance, but his road to the title was all ladders and zero chutes. Along the way, Whittaker dazzled with his offense but more importantly his defense, as those fluid shoulder rolls kept his head attached in more than one fight. If you’re going to rewind the tape and start looking at his knockout loss to Stephen Thompson back in early 2014, then I would expect you to also revisit Adesanya’s crushing defeat to Alex Pereira under the GLORY banner, which is not exactly ancient history.
This has been a tough fight to call. Both Whittaker and Adesanya have established themselves as elite strikers with the chops to get it done at the top of the division. I think the deciding factor will be “The Reaper’s” wrestling, because a straight-up kickboxing match will undoubtedly lead to a “Stylebender” decision on points. The long and lean interim champion has more tools and too many physical advantages in that regard, but we still don’t know how he’ll respond if Whittaker starts spamming takedowns, or what happens when the elbows from guard start piling up. Based on the arguments I laid forth earlier, the safe pick feels like Whittaker by decision ... assuming his intestines don't implode after weigh ins (hey, it happens).
Prediction: Whittaker def. Adesanya by unanimous decision
155 lbs.: Dan “The Hangman” Hooker (18-8) vs. “Ragin’” Al Iaquinta (14-5-1)
It was hard to have any faith in Dan Hooker when he made the jump to lightweight at UFC Auckland back in June 2017. “The Hangman” was just 3-3 under the UFC banner after a stellar run on the local circuit and at the time, the trend had yet to shift from moving down in weight to moving up, despite demonstrable proof from other combatants like Kelvin Gastelum and Robert Whittaker, a pair of ex-welterweights who went from middling journeymen to best in the world. Whether or not Hooker can follow suit remains to be seen, but the less-traumatic weight cut has paid dividends. Not only has the hard-hitting Kiwi won five of his six lightweight fights, he’s secured brutal knockouts in all but one of them — a submission over the venerable Marc Diakiese. His destruction of James Vick back in July marked his 17th finish in 18 wins, which validates his “Hangman” moniker.
Al Iaquinta is nine spots ahead of Hooker in the official lightweight rankings, a media-influenced chasm that fails to reflect the reality of what’s really been going on at 155 pounds. For all his Long Island bravado, “Ragin’ Al” is a fairly simplistic fighter, plodding forward with little regard to anything but landing punches. His most celebrated performance to date was a five-round decision loss to the invincible Khabib Nurmagomedov, a headlining affair that had Team Serra-Longo sending “The Eagle” a fruit basket and thank you note for abandoning the takedowns. That’s not to suggest that Iaquinta isn’t a tough, dangerous fighter, but the seeds of his success were planted in cemetery soil, where the ghosts of Diego Sanchez and Joe Lauzon continue to haunt the lightweight grounds — perhaps not realizing their title aspirations are already dead. I can’t get excited about a split decision win over Jorge Masvidal back in 2015, especially when “Gamebred” needed the towel and two attempts to make the 155-pound limit. For my money, Iaquinta’s most impressive performance over the last five years was his gritty, soul-stealing win over the fading Kevin Lee.
This contest will start (and probably stay) on the feet, as both fighters like to stand and bang. The scale tipper, at least on paper, is Hooker’s five-inch reach advantage. The shorter Iaquinta has been known to eat jabs like movie theater popcorn because defense is for pussies, or whatever the thought process is there, I’m not sure. That works against spastic strikers like Nurmagomedov, not against kickboxing killers like Donald Cerrone. There is equal concern on the side of “The Hangman,” who can’t replicate the mistakes he made against Edson Barboza if he hopes to remain conscious. If Hooker is expecting to outclass Iaquinta, or gets intoxicated on the energy of the hometown crowd, “Ragin’ Al” will have him looking up at the lights. The more probable scenario is that Iaquinta will start taking too much damage on the feet and default to his above-average wrestling, where a Hooker guillotine will be waiting to slice.
Prediction: Hooker def. Iaquinta by submission
265 lbs.: Tai “Bam Bam” Tuivasa (8-2) vs. Sergey “The Polar Bear” Spivak (9-1)
The heavyweight division is unlike any other weight class in UFC. Not only does it have the widest discrepancy in allowable weight (205-265), it’s the one division where you can crack the Top 10 without being particularly skilled at MMA. Heck, it doesn’t even require much of a gas tank, you just need a solid chin and heavy hands. That’s how Tai Tuivasa blasted his way into the rankings back in 2018. Yes, he had a little help from his victory over ex-heavyweight champion, Andrei Arlovski, but the 40 year-old “Pitbull” has 18 losses, 10 of them by way of knockout, so I don’t think anybody was breaking out the bubbly for that three-round decision in favor of the Aussie.
Tuivasa was a professional rugby player who went on to try his hand at boxing before finding his way to MMA. I don’t think his toughness is in question, but at age 26 and just two years into his UFC career, we probably shouldn’t blame him for a lack of technical prowess, which led to consecutive losses against Junior dos Santos and Blagoy Ivanov, two grizzled veterans who made “Bam Bam” look wet behind the ears. I guess that’s the price you have to pay when you don’t get to play softball for nine innings, like another bruiser-in-training in the form of Greg Hardy. Heading into this fight we should expect Tuivasa to rely on what got him to the big dance in the first place; namely, his rare blend of speed, power, and agility.
I don’t see why that wouldn’t be enough to seal the deal against Sergey Spivak. The Moldovan came into the promotion back in May, boasting an impressive 9-0 record with nine finishes. Then he was summarily destroyed by Walt Harris at the UFC Ottawa event on ESPN+, validating that cage-fighting maxim about UFC-caliber competition. “The Polar Bear” made his name on shopworn geezers like the 45 year-old Tony Lopez, who sports 30 professional defeats, as well as regional tomato cans like Yuri Gorbenko, who has an 11-48 record and recently lost 22 straight fights. I mean I’m trying really hard to not be a dick about this but c’mon, this is ridiculous and probably one of those signings to help populate those dreadful UFC cards in Europe. A first-round finish would not surprise me.
Prediction: Tuivasa def. Spivak by knockout
170 lbs.: Luke “The Jedi” Jumeau (13-4) vs. Dhiego Lima (14-7)
I forgot all about Luke Jumeau, probably because “The Jedi” has only competed once over the last two years, an uninspired decision loss to the equally-unheralded Shinsho Anzai at the UFC Fight Night 117 card in Japan. But I guess you can’t have an event in Australia without calling on all your locally-signed talent, so Jumeau will get a chance to prove he’s more than just “another one of those guys from New Zealand.” To be fair, the 31 year-old welterweight is 2-1 inside the Octagon, but it’s telling that he racked up six straight finishes on the regional circuit before signing with UFC and then promptly went to the judges’ scorecards in his next three fights. And it’s not like he was fighting anyone in the Top 10, so “The Jedi” will need a big performance this weekend “Down Under.”
I’m not ready to rule it out against Dhiego Lima, a maddeningly inconsistent fighter who is like that guy on the softball team hitting 647 home runs in practice, only to go 1-4 during the actual game. Lima has the dubious distinction of competing on two separate seasons of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) and making it to the finals in both attempts ... only to get finished in the live finales. Ouch. The Brazilian stands at just 3-5 inside the Octagon but the good news is, two of those wins have come in consecutive victories over Chad Laprise and Court McGee, the first time he’s won back-to-back fights under the UFC banner in non-TUF competition. Perhaps he’s finally found his footing at age 30? I think his performance in this fight will go a long way in answering that question.
Despite his inconsistency, Lima has been pretty active over the last couple of years and appears to have been making the necessary adjustments. Coming into this contest he will enjoy an advantage in both height and reach, though he’s likely to default to his wrestling and/or grappling when Jumeau comes in for some dirty work. Comsdiering how flustered “The Jedi” looked when he got pushed around by the aforementioned Anzai, I’m not sure he’ll have an answer for Lima’s offense, though he remains a dangerous counterpuncher for as long as the bout remains standing. Barring a reckless firefight, this is Lima’s fight to lose.
Prediction: Lima def. Jumeau by submission
265 lbs.: Yorgan De Castro (5-0) vs. Justin “Bad Man” Tafa (3-0)
(Note: The following prediction carried over from the UFC 243 “Prelims” breakdown by Patrick Stumberg after a fight card shake up).
Yorgan De Castro kicked off Season Three of “Contender Series” as its largest underdog, challenging wrestling standout Alton Meeks back in June. The Regiment Training Center-trained product wound up flipping the script and finishing Meeks with leg kicks to earn himself a UFC contract.
Three of his four (technical) knockout victories have come in the first round.
Justin Tafa — whose elder brother Junior is a ranked kickboxer under the GLORY banner — scored a one-punch finish in his one and only amateur bout before joining the pros in May 2017. A 28-second knockout of Jeremy Joiner brought him the XFC Heavyweight title, which he defended by stopping Dylan Tiaaleaiga.
All of his victories have come via (technical) knockout within two rounds.
Two large men with lots of knockouts and limited defense should make for something interesting, at the very least. Or they could fail to hurt each other and gas, because that’s always the risk we run with heavyweights.
Tafa has the higher ceiling of the two, as he trains out of the better camp and De Castro is carrying at least 30 pounds of excess weight based on his career weigh-ins, but looks to be in for a rough debut. He’s vulnerable to De Castro’s two best weapons, namely the low kick and overhand right, and De Castro’s fight with Meeks suggests that Tafa will be unable to use the top control he occasionally busts out. They bang it out until Tafa’s lead leg gives out.
Prediction: De Castro via second-round technical knockout
There you have it.
MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 243 fight card on Saturday (click here), starting with the Fight Pass “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. ET, followed by the remaining undercard balance on ESPN2 at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+.
For much more on tomorrow night’s UFC 243 fight card click here.