Israel Adesanya likes to say that he’s beaten Robert Whittaker twice. On the surface, it’s kind of odd to hear the middleweight champion make that statement because their only fight to this point came at UFC 243 in 2019 in Melbourne, Australia.
They’ll rematch on Saturday in Houston in the main event of UFC 271 at the Toyota Center.
But Adesanya’s jab at his rival and the former champion is about how that first fight went. Adesanya knocked Whittaker down late in the first round, then finished him in the second. His belief is that if the first round was a bit longer, there never would have been a second round.
Whittaker has heard all the talk from Adesanya. One of the things that Adesanya is best at, beyond fighting, is getting into an opponent’s head. Whittaker admits that Adesanya did that at UFC 243.
Adesanya has continued to lob volleys at Whittaker, but this time around, a smug Whittaker insists it will have no impact. It wasn’t the words so much that got him last time. They annoyed him but it was the culmination of so many factors that left him in a suboptimal mental state.
“Mate, I’m in a completely different headspace now than I was then,” he told Yahoo Sports.
If he’s going to even the score with Adesanya and regain the title, that’s probably a good thing.
Whittaker has long been one of the best fighters in the world and is ranked No. 7 in the Yahoo Sports pound-for-pound ratings. He’s won 12 of his last 13, with the only loss to Adesanya, and in that time has defeated Yoel Romero twice, Kelvin Gastelum, Jared Cannonier, Darren Till, Derek Brunson and Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, among others.
He’s gotten to the top of the heap with an incredible work ethic. He’s pushed so hard to get better every day that he realized that he was neglecting his family. He had to back off the hard work just a little to strike a better work-life balance.
So he’s a guy who pretty much has everything going for him, and a win over Adesanya would vault him near the top of the pound-for-pound ratings.
But he freely admits that he wasn’t as strong mentally against Adesanya as he should have been, and insists that he’s corrected that problem heading into the rematch Saturday.
“I’ve been in this game a long time and with that comes change and evolution,” Whittaker told Yahoo Sports. “Sometimes, the process isn’t clean and I’m only human at the end of the day. That was the catalyst I needed to happen for me to make some changes to get myself better. And I’m glad it happened because I certainly have come out better.”
As he was heading into what was the biggest fight in the history of the Oceania region, one that drew more than 56,000 fans and garnered headlines across Australia and New Zealand, he realized he didn’t want to be there.
Going to practice was a chore. He had to push himself to do things that had always been second nature.
And the result was a less-than-prepared fighter who fought less than his best and wound up getting finished as a result.
Looking back on it, Whittaker said the signs were there for all who were paying attention to see.
“I was burnt out and I was really dragging my feet to the [practice] sessions,” Whittaker said. “I was very reluctant to get into the training sessions or want to do more. The signs of burnout were there. I just wasn’t aware enough of it to see it.”
Whittaker has reeled off impressive victories over Gastelum, Cannonier and Till since losing to Adesanya. And while it looks like he’s recovered his old mojo, Whittaker says that’s not the case.
“It’s a new Rob Whittaker, Rob Whittaker 2.0,” he said with a wry grin.
He’s relaxed, he says, and freer than ever. So he believes he’ll be able to implement his game plan, which he couldn’t do the first time, and change the dynamic of how the fight plays out.
Whittaker is an excellent striker, which is why some fans dubbed him “Bobby Knuckles,” but he has top-level wrestling, which makes him a chore to handle.
Adesanya is a great counter-striker and picked Whittaker apart the first time. But Whittaker this time will probably look to use more wrestling.
Whatever he does, he says he’ll be able to perform at his peak.
“In this fight, I think you’re just going to see me,” Whittaker said. “I’ll be doing my thing, fighting the way I fight. That’s the main thing I want to get across. I want to get in there and do what I trained for and just fight my own fight.”
If he’s able to pull that off, there are no guarantees. But it’s much more likely we’ll hear the words, “And new …” on Saturday if he does than if he takes the same approach he did at UFC 243.