And wouldn’t you know it, both Robert Whittaker and Israel Adesanya — the two men who will headline Saturday’s UFC 243 event in the same stadium, an event UFC officials expect to break that attendance record — were there to witness it.
There is perhaps no greater example of “stars aligning” around a UFC event as they have for UFC 243. Four years ago, Whittaker was at UFC 193 as a competitor, defeating Uriah Hall on the main card. Adesanya was there as a spectator, along with two friends in the nosebleeds. He was a professional fighter, but one with only five MMA bouts on his record.
Neither man has suffered a defeat in the nearly four years since. Whittaker has gone on to win a UFC championship but remains relatively under the radar despite being such an accomplished athlete. He has been the victim of some horrible luck during his two-year title reign, and has not fought in 484 days. Adesanya, meanwhile, is one of the UFC’s fastest-rising stars.
Going into UFC 243, Whittaker owns the bragging rights in the 185-pound division. Say anything you want about Adesanya’s meteoric rise, and the fact he is actually a small betting favorite to win Saturday. It is still Whittaker’s division as of right now, even if it’s not in his personality to make a point of that in his prefight interviews.
But Adesanya has been coming for Whittaker for a while, and the ground he has gained has come exceptionally fast. From the time Whittaker made his debut in the middleweight division, it took him nearly three years to become an interim champion. It took Adesanya 14 months to accomplish the same feat.
UFC 243 is the story of a quiet, humble champion who has more than paid his dues in the time he has put in, the fights he has won and the injuries he has overcome, against a challenger who has taken the sport by storm, a former professional kickboxer who has also paid his dues but is reaping the benefits far quicker than his undisputed champion counterpart.
And there’s a good chance it will all unfold in front of the largest live crowd to witness a UFC fight.
By the numbers
820: Days it will have been, on fight night, since Whittaker last was in a title bout (vs. Yoel Romero, July 8, 2017). His last fight, a rematch with Romero in June 2018, was scheduled to be for Whittaker’s belt, but the challenger failed to make weight — 484 days ago.
15:35: Average fight time for Adesanya, the longest all time in the UFC middleweight division. He is tied with Roxanne Modafferi for ninth longest among active fighters in all weight classes.
65.7: Percent of significant strikes successfully defended by Adesanya, No. 1 among active UFC middleweights and third all time among 185-pounders.
5.00: Strikes landed per minute by Whittaker, fifth all time among UFC middleweights. The gold standard is the 8.43 averaged by Paulo Costa. Adesanya lands 4.44, eighth most among active 185-pounders.
Source: ESPN Stats & Information
A look back
Five vs. five
Robert Whittaker’s most recent results
Win: Yoel Romero (SD, June 9, 2018)
Win: Yoel Romero (UD, July 8, 2017)
Win: Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza (TKO2, April 15, 2017)
Win: Derek Brunson (TKO1, Nov. 27, 2016)
Win: Rafael Natal (UD, April 23, 2016)
Israel Adesanya’s most recent results
Win: Kelvin Gastelum (UD, April 13, 2019)
Win: Anderson Silva (UD, Feb. 10, 2019)
Win: Derek Brunson (TKO1, Nov. 3, 2018)
Win: Brad Tavares (UD, July 6, 2018)
Win: Marvin Vettori (SD, April 14, 2018)
“I’m hoping it’s a five-round slugfest and I scrape a victory by split decision.” — Whittaker, offering a fight prediction at a UFC news conference … and making a veiled commentary on how narrowly his opponent earned this title fight (Adesanya actually beat Kelvin Gastelum by unanimous decision)
“I won’t really focus, ‘Ooh, he’s got some kind of fault in his stomach.’ I’m good at body shots. Why wouldn’t I use them, just because he might have had surgery or whatever? I’m going to target everything. My hands don’t discriminate.” –Adesanya, at the same news conference, referring to the emergency surgery Whittaker underwent after pulling out of his last bout on fight day because of an abdominal hernia
Dom & Gil’s film study
Gilbert Melendez on Whittaker’s most devastating punch:
Gilbert Melendez breaks down Robert Whittaker’s keys to victory and how his left hook will be key. Order UFC 243 here https://plus.espn.com/ufc/ppv.
Dominick Cruz on Adesanya’s most strategic kick:
Dominick Cruz displays how Israel Adesanya can kick Robert Whittaker’s lead leg to then open up other options on offense. Order UFC 243 here https://plus.espn.com/ufc/ppv.
Brett Okamoto’s pick
Throughout the entire buildup to this fight, I’ve leaned Whittaker. Despite wearing a UFC belt around his waist, he is underestimated, I believe. He is a complete package of skills, and his ability to beat Yoel Romero despite suffering injuries in both of his five-round fights against him shows how remarkably tough Whittaker is. But as this fight has drawn closer, I’ve come to think this could be a tough style matchup for Whittaker. Adesanya is such a diverse, fast, seasoned striker. He has shown he can handle the big moments. Whittaker is coming off a long layoff, and there is extra pressure on him to succeed after pulling out of his past two scheduled fights in Australia. My mind has changed. Adesanya via TKO, third round.
Waiting in the wings
It’s none other than Paulo Costa, if by “in the wings” we really mean “at cageside, champing at the bit.” The undefeated physical specimen from Brazil didn’t fly halfway around the world just to check out the kangaroos and wombats at Melbourne Zoo.
What else to look for … beyond the main event
Shoeys, not scorecards
A little over a year ago, Tai Tuivasa was an undefeated heavyweight prospect with big potential and a personality to match. Who could match his victory celebration of doing a shoey at cageside?
But the native of Sydney has lost his past two fights as well as some of his luster.
Now he’s in position to get rolling again. In front of his countrymen, he fights Serghei Spivac, a 24-year-old from Ukraine who also recently lost his undefeated status, dropping his UFC debut to Walt Harris in May.
Why will this big-boy battle be something to watch? Tuivasa (10-2) has scored nine of his 10 wins by KO/TKO, and Spivac (9-1) has never gone to a decision.
Filling big shoes
The heavyweight bout between Justin Tafa and Yorgan De Castro was elevated to the main card just this week (after the cancellation of Holly Holm vs. Raquel Pennington), and that makes these big guys the first heavyweights to make their UFC debuts on a PPV since Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva and Shane Del Rosario did so at UFC 146 in 2012.
Silva and Del Rosario did not face each other on that night seven years ago. As part of an all-heavyweight main card headlined by Junior Dos Santos defending the championship against ex-champ Frank Mir, “Bigfoot” took on once and future champ Cain Velasquez in the co-main event and Del Rosario faced another titlist-to-be, Stipe Miocic.
As for Tafa and De Castro, both are undefeated. Tafa (3-0) is from Australia, and De Castro (5-0) is a Dana White’s Contender Series alum.
Nickname of the night
A fight card headlined by “The Reaper” (Whittaker) vs. “The Last Stylebender” (Adesanya) is automatically a winner in the nickname game. But there’s more where those came from.
How about down in the prelims, which feature a welterweight fight between “The Rock Star” (Callan Potter) and “Coconut Bombz” (Maki Pitolo)? Even if you don’t know either guy — Pitolo is making his UFC debut — you want to see that fight play out, don’t you?
But let’s keep it simple and to the point — which no one does better than Al Iaquinta. You’ve seen him fight, and you’ve seen him interviewed, so you know that “Raging” is the perfect moniker for Iaquinta. Watch him hang with Dan “The Hangman” Hooker.