Robert Whittaker must resist revenge mission in Israel Adesanya rematch

Robert Whittaker must resist revenge mission in Israel Adesanya rematch
The Australian has moved past the mental hurdles that played a vital role in his title loss to Adesanya

Robert Whittaker was surprisingly cognizant as he addressed his home crowd in Melbourne’s Marvel Stadium, moments after being knocked out for the second time in one night.

In the main event of UFC 243, Whittaker surrendered his middleweight title to rival Israel Adesanya, knocked down at the end of the first round then finished in the second as 57,000 fans watched on – the most at any event in UFC history.

Bloodied, bruised and heartbroken, Whittaker spoke for just 20 seconds, yet – in hindsight – the few sentences he uttered left a lot to unpack.

“Hell, you know, I’m only 28,” the Australian said. “I’ll see him in a fight or two, yeah?

“Thanks to everybody who came out today, to my family and coaches. Everybody did great getting me here, honestly this is the best I’ve ever felt.

“I didn’t get the W today, but I’m not going anywhere.”

The last sentence in particular was uttered defiantly but perhaps disingenuously, for Whittaker proceeded to take a nine-month break from MMA in which he considered permanently leaving the sport, he has since admitted.

His loss to Adesanya came in October 2019, and ahead of his return against Darren Till the following July, Whittaker opened up on the burnout that preceded his title loss and the depression he had battled for years.

<p>Israel Adesanya (right) evades a punch from Robert Whittaker at UFC 243</p>

Israel Adesanya (right) evades a punch from Robert Whittaker at UFC 243

In that regard, it was also seemingly insincere of Whittaker to have suggested that he felt at his “best ever” at UFC 243.

If his subsequent revelations about burnout were enlightening, his performance against Adesanya had cracked open the shutters. Whittaker had seemed tense all week and overeager in the Octagon. The “Reaper” threw approximately 60 head shots in the first round, way above his usual output, and recalled recently: “The overwhelming memory that I have for that fight is just: ‘I want to rip his head off.’”

Whittaker’s mental fatigue was compounded by his opponent’s antagonistic approach and the pressure of fighting in front of a record crowd, on home soil against a New Zealand native.

“Everything got to me in that fight – the pressure, the hype, the build-up, the fans,” Whittaker said this week. “[Adesanya] wanted to get inside my head and he did it really well. I was thinking about the wrong things and it took so much energy out of me.”

Whittaker sought to replicate the moments of success that Kelvin Gastelum had in a losing effort against Adesanya earlier in the year, utilising blitzes against the Nigerian-born fighter. Whittaker scored early with the tactic but with each linear and increasingly repetitive entry he began to land less and get hit more. Ultimately, he was finished midway through the second round, a left hook shutting down his senses and sending him sprawling ungracefully to the mat, where Adesanya quickly secured the stoppage.

<p>Whittaker was finished by Adesanya in the second round in 2019</p>

Whittaker was finished by Adesanya in the second round in 2019

Adesanya, who had danced his way to the ring with friends, celebrated his title win and the maintenance of his undefeated record in similarly flamboyant style, while the sobering reality of the moment soaked Whittaker through.

But while the Australian might not have been completely honest with himself in his post-fight interview, there was one element to his reaction that proved correct – or near enough.

“I’ll see him in a fight or two, yeah?”

Whittaker was in fact forced to fight and win three times to claw his way back to Adesanya and a shot at the title this weekend, though his initial victory over Darren Till and subsequent win against Jared Cannonier were deemed sufficient by most fans. Against dangerous, elite competition, Whittaker looked as good as ever, including in his most recent win – against Gastelum.

Before dropping the strap to Adesanya, Whittaker was undefeated at middleweight, his nine-fight winning run seeing him battle through a murderer’s row of opponents to win the title and retain it once, those last two bouts both coming against Yoel Romero – one of the most feared fighters in UFC history. Remarkably, Whittaker survived 50 minutes in the ring with the Cuban. Although their second meeting did not officially count as a title defence for Whittaker – after Romero missed weight – the Australian demonstrated his well-rounded striking game as clearly in those meetings as in any of his previous wins.

Since his surprisingly one-dimensional and reckless showing against Adesanya, Whittaker has employed greater patience and made more frequent use of his wrestling skills to demonstrate his true versatility as a mixed martial artist – as well as his genuine threat to the current champion, who himself has remained active since the rivals’ first clash.

<p>Adesanya outpointed Marvin Vettori last time out to retain the middleweight title</p>

Adesanya outpointed Marvin Vettori last time out to retain the middleweight title

Adesanya, 32, edged past Romero in a shockingly uneventful affair, before producing a masterclass to stop Paulo Costa. In his most recent outing, the Nigerian-born New Zealander outpointed Marvin Vettori for the second time, though his previous fight saw Adesanya suffer a first professional loss when he unsuccessfully challenged then-light heavyweight champion Jan Blachowicz.

Whittaker has openly said the grappling-heavy approach adopted by Blachowicz is the obvious gameplan to implement in Saturday’s main event, though Adesanya inevitably mocked the “Reaper” over those comments.

In an exclusive interview with The Independent this month, Adesanya said: “Last time, he tried to say: ‘Gastelum has given the blueprint.’ Now he’s saying: ‘Blachowicz has given the blueprint.’ Bro, write your own blueprint.”

Whether Whittaker’s tactical observations are any more sincere than the bulk of his post-fight interview at UFC 243 remains to be seen. Perhaps the 31-year-old is bluffing.

<p>Whittaker in his most recent fight, a points victory over Kelvin Gastelum</p>

Whittaker in his most recent fight, a points victory over Kelvin Gastelum

More important than Whittaker’s gameplan in Houston, however, will be his mentality. He seems much healthier than when he first took on Adesanya, with the Australian having continued to foster the mindset he discussed with The Independent in 2020.

“My approach to losses… I always want to win – no one likes losing – but winning or losing doesn’t really matter,” Whittaker said at the time. “It’s about getting there, controlling what you can. Fifteen or 25 minutes, it won’t define you.”

Refusing to view a potential win over Adesanya as redemptive is crucial, especially in avoiding the anxious approach taken by Whittaker in the first fight. While he is evidently keen to avenge that loss, this weekend’s result will seemingly not rule over the “Reaper”’s heart and mind – neither before the fight or after it.

As he readies himself to finally rematch Adesanya, Whittaker is relaxed and rebalanced. That makes him more threatening than ever.