Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker have dutifully marched on their own paths since their first fight, but as it turns out, all roads led them back to each other.
For the better part of the past three years, there’s really been no question as to who the two best middleweights in the world are and they get the chance to jockey for the top spot again on Saturday when they collide in the championship main event of UFC 271 at Toyota Center in Houston.
Adesanya made short work of Whittaker in their first meeting at UFC 243, completely dominating the action before dropping Whittaker for good in Round 2 and taking the middleweight belt. A healthy lineup of challengers awaited, so few called for an immediate rematch with Whittaker despite “The Reaper” having a rock-solid resume at 185 pounds. Adesanya was at one point in danger of losing the division to Whittaker, but Jan Blachowicz voiced concern about Adesanya’s plans for light heavyweight.
Whittaker won wins over Kelvin Gastelum and Jared Cannonier to keep Adesanya at the top of the middleweight class. The former champion spoke publicly about how having a greater understanding of how to take care of his mental health benefited him while showing the same toughness and grit in the cage that took him all the way to a UFC title.
Simply put, even if neither man was openly campaigning for this rematch, their performances gave the matchmakers no choice but to run it back.
In other main card action, perennial heavyweight contender Derrick Lewis looks to stave off the surging Tai Tuivasa, Derek Brunson and Cannonier meet in a contest that will likely determine the next challenger for the middleweight title, Alexander Hernandez fights Renato Moicano in a lightweight bout too big for the early prelims to contain, and lightweight veteran Bobby Green takes on Nasrat Haqparast.
What: UFC 271
Where : Toyota Center Houston
When: Saturday, Feb. 12. The five-fight early prelims begin on ESPN+ at 6 p.m. ET, followed by the four-fight prelims on ESPN and ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET. The five-fight main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available exclusively on ESPN+ pay-per-view.
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting Global Rankings)
Israel Adesanya (1) vs. Robert Whittaker (2)
I’m not convinced that Israel Adesanya will be solved by Robert Whittaker, as are some pundits. In fact, it would genuinely surprise me if this second encounter unfolded in similar fashion to the first.
Call me a sucker, but I buy into the narrative that Whittaker wasn’t himself at UFC 243. This isn’t a 20/20 hindsight take either, there were plenty who questioned Whittaker’s aggressive approach against Adesanya as it was happening. It seemed certain that Whittaker would be able to walk in an Adesanya shot by the end of the second round. We don’t know if the best version of Whittaker beats the best version of Adesanya, but that wasn’t the best version of Whittaker, which we know because of how he looked before that fight and in his performances since.
That said, Adesanya should clearly be favored against any 185er in a standup battle. His kickboxing acumen translated beautifully to the world of MMA and when you add in his adaptability and absurd counter-striking, it’s extraordinarily difficult to stand and trade with him without mucking things up first.
Whittaker has taken to wrestling with a passion, so look for him to integrate that into his offense more than he ever has in the past. Adesanya will be thrown off his rhythm by the threat of the takedown. However, getting to the mat with him is quite another matter. Adesanya pointed out that Whittaker isn’t as big as Jan Blachowicz, so it will be harder for him to press Adesanya in his grappling.
However, that improved element of Whittaker’s game is a big part in why this matchup will play out differently, even if the end result will still be in Adesanya’s favor. Look for this to be reminiscent of both Kelvin Gastelum and Marvin Vettori’s scraps with Adesanya as the challenger coaxes the champion into several entertaining flurries while also working to limit him against the fence.
*I doubt Whittaker will control the pace over five rounds. I also think that there will be many times when Whittaker is picked apart by Adesanya and then slaps him with precise strikes. It’s Adesanya who will land the more damaging strikes over a fight I expect to go the full 25 and he’ll go on to win a convincing, but competitive decision.
Derrick Lewis (4) vs. Tai Tuivasa (14)
Tai Tuivasa might be ready for a top 5 spot. But I don’t have the guts to call it.
I’ve heard this tale too many times. With the hope that Derrick Lewis will win, a heavyweight who wants to move up in the division book a fight. Chris Daukaus just went through this process and it did not end well for him.
Lewis is simply unassailable when he’s facing all but the most elite competition. His opponent is not just a stepping stone. He is a massive, jagged, and unmoving boulder that can be thrown into the waters. Many have fallen over him, leaving only facial fractures.
You have to admire Tuivasa’s approach though. From his walkouts to his interviews to his (regrettable) shoey ritutal to his relaxed fighting style, this is not someone who is overwhelmed by the bright lights. That’s a major factor when you’re facing a fighter of Lewis’ caliber in his hometown on pay-per-view. It won’t take much for Tuivasa to win the crowd over, that’s for sure.
Swangin’ and bangin’ has been promised and frankly, you don’t mess with the master of that discipline, so this should be a fun and short fight that likely doesn’t make it past the second round (and that might be a conservative estimate). Lewis is prone to a loss when playing another’s game. If Tuivasa approach this fight tactfully, he will win. But if Lewis wants to throw leather and not be challenged, then I am going to go with Lewis in the first round knockout.
Derek Brunson (6) vs. Jared Cannonier (4)
Is it possible to doubt Blonde Brunson’s power?
Maybe it’s the bold hair color choice or maybe it’s been a change in fight philosophy, regardless we’ve witnessed a serious resurgence for Derek Brunson who seemed to be headed to gatekeeper status before rattling off five straight wins, including lopsided victories over Darren Till, Kevin Holland, and Edmen Shahbazyan. His performance has been exceptional and he is now one fight away (and perhaps another chance at Israel Adesanya) a title shot.
Jared Cannonier is my choice. Tai Tuivasa and I aren’t sure if Brunson can overcome the hurdles when they get high (or near it). It’s not fair to judge Brunson on his past failures, but the truth is that he has not fared well against top 5 competition and that’s what Cannonier is.
Cannonier, aside from a loss against Whittaker has been a beast since he dropped to heavyweight. His power is still there as he lost the additional poundage. He has some of the best flurries in the division and as smart as Brunson is, I predict that Cannonier will catch him. More than once.
It might not be the first flurry that puts Brunson down, but Cannonier will find that chin enough times to rock his opponent and end it in the second or third round.
Alexander Hernandez vs. Renato Moicano
Alexander Hernandez better be ready for his close-up.
After raising a huff in a recent interview with MMA Fighting about being relegated to the early prelims, “The Great” got bumped up the card even further than expected after William Knight vs. Maxim Grishin was demoted due to Knight missing weight by a UFC record 12 pounds. He now has to get over one of the most difficult outs in lightweight.
Renato Moicano is an excellent muay Thai player and a top-level jiu jitsu instructor. He has some defensive holes and that’s where Hernandez can take advantage with his explosiveness. Hernandez is much more adept at putting his punches together. He doesn’t have to wait until there’s an opening. Instead, Hernandez can push the action forward and make Moicano feel uncomfortable.
Hernandez shouldn’t be pressured into going to the mat. Although he can bring Moicano down. However, playing in Moicano’s guard could lead to disaster. Hernandez may be forced to submit if Hernandez gets too adorable. Hernandez should instead be fed a constant diet of brawling and sprawling.
Hernandez’s athleticism is what will set him apart. I can see him out-quicking Moicano, and then finding the late win via strikes.
Nasrat Haqparast vs. Bobby Green
This lightweight matchup is going to be all about hand speed and movement and there’s few who are better than Bobby Green in those departments. Nasrat Haqparast is no slouch in the striking and if we’re just talking power, I think Haqparast has a touch more pop in his gloves, but it’s rarely only about power when you’re dealing with Bobby Green.
The tricky Green is a busy striker in this division. When he’sn’t throwing, he feints and taunts and does everything possible to disrupt his opponent’s rhythm. He can sometimes be more petty than he is punching against Haqparast.
Haqparast is KO-able in both his hands, and Sharp Boxing can set up heavier shots. Green will likely be his most skilful, turning this match into a chess match. Green is the clear winner when it comes technical and tactical striking.
Green by special decision
Andrei Arlovski def. Jared Vanderaa
Casey O’Neill def. Roxanne Modafferi
Kyler Phillips def. Marcelo Rojo
Carlos Ulberg def. Fabio Cherant
Ronnie Lawrence def. Mana Martinez
AJ Dobson def. Jacob Malkoun
Sergey Morozov def. Douglas Silva de Andrade
Def. Jeremiah Wells
Maxim Grishin def. William Knight