UFC 243’s main event was pretty incredible even before the outcome, one of the highest level pairings possible in a sport filled with unique talents. Whittaker had yet to do anything but impress in his run to the Middleweight title, whereas Adesanya brought the undefeated record and credentials of a future kingpin.
As it turned out, that future is now. Adesanya was remarkably composed against an elite offensive fighter, and he scored a vicious knockout win on the strength of his counter punching. It was a legendary performance, but the focus of this article is largely centered on Whittaker’s perspective and position as (former) champion — which is not at all a knock on Adesanya or attempt to downgrade his incredible work.
Whittaker rose to the belt by knocking out grapplers. Prior to his first title shot, “Bobby Knuckles” picked apart Rafael Natal (BJJ black belt), stopped Derek Brunson (collegiate wrestler), and kicked “Jacare” Souza (BJJ legend) in the face. Then, he faced Yoel Romero, the Olympic silver medalist in freestyle wrestling, on two separate occasions.
For more than two years, Whittaker mastered the craft of denying takedowns and punishing opponents on the feet. All of a sudden, the Hapkido black belt was asked to handle a master kickboxer, a completely different type of opponent. Whittaker accrued expert experience in those two years of elite competition, but none of it could be applied against Adesanya.
One of the most difficult stylistic challenges in the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) is to face an opponent with the same background who’s actually better at that skill set. It doesn’t matter if that base is wrestling, jiu-jitsu, or kickboxing. Think back to Georges St. Pierre outclassing Josh Koscheck or Demian Maia manhandling Gunnar Nelson — those were difficult nights at the office for the defeated man, and it’s hard to say what exactly they could have done differently.
Last night, Whittaker faced that challenge. Somehow, he had to use his Karate-boxing blend to out-strike a man with 80 professional kickboxing bouts and handful of belts. It was always going to be an uphill battle.
Overshadowed by Adesanya’s brilliance is the fact that Whittaker did some excellent work of his own. He stuck Adesanya with some hard jabs, and his left hook landed a fair few times as well. Whittaker’s low kick setups were remarkably creative and well-timed, and he sent a high kick whistling past Adesanya’s chin by mere inches on a few occasions. It looks incredibly cool when Adesanya pulls back at the last second and avoids the kick, but that’s a sign of success for Whittaker, who only needs one to land cleanly.
Whittaker’s strategy was bold, though it might largely be written off as “sloppy.” I disagree with that strongly, but it is fair to wonder, “Why was Whittaker so intent on leaping forward with almost every strike?”
Whittaker’s strategy was built on a false assumption. He believed the pocket was where he would win this contest, that it was a distance Adesanya would look to avoid. If he simply found his way into that range — no matter the cost — the victory would be his. In plenty of sequences, Adesanya allowed him to keep that impression, merely angling away from Whittaker’s big swings without throwing back.
That just wasn’t the case though. Adesanya proved in multiple exchanges — including the pair of knockdowns — that he could hold his own in the pocket with his feet planted. Even after Whittaker was saved by the bell and actively trying to adjust to the uppercut, Adesanya was still able to lean back and feed him the Francis Ngannou-double-uppercut special.
Whittaker couldn’t simply change a few minor details, not when getting to the pocket was the entire plan.
Robert Whittaker’s worst-case scenario materialized. Already handicapped by the unfavorable stylistic match up, Whittaker and his camp were out-strategized. Adesanya prepared himself to box with Whittaker once in the pocket, whereas Whittaker was only focused on getting there.
When everything fell apart, Whittaker doubled down. He committed further to trying to take Adesanya’s head off, extending pocket exchanges simply to give himself the opportunity to land the last shot after getting countered hard. If nothing else, Whittaker attempted to at least push a pace so ridiculous that maybe his foe would tire.
It was admirable, a champion’s mindset. It only served to play even further into Adesanya’s hands.
For complete UFC 243: “Whittaker vs. Adesanya” results and play-by-play, click HERE!