Single sentence summary:
Phil: A rare under-the-radar fun match in the Division of Generic Guys, as two young, athletic and skilled fighters go at it.
David: You mean Frank Stallone vs. Emilio Estevez?
Robert "The Reaper" Whittaker
History lesson / introduction to the fighters
Phil: "Bad TUF" alumni represent? These guys are notable for coming off seasons of The Ultimate Fighter which were considered to be small landmarks in the show's downwards slide, which apparently is continuing unabated in the Blackzilians vs ATT season. TUF: Smashes and the Ortiz-Liddell-Franklin season were their own little low points back in the day.
Tavares and Whittaker have defied expectations in showing some real promise in their subsequent UFC careers. Both have hit a few speedbumps, which is honestly what should be expected from a young fighter who builds their entire upper-level process inside the UFC cage. I particularly like the way that Whittaker has "tuned" the volume he puts out. He was outworked by Court McGee, and then got his own increased workrate turned against him by Wonderboy, but he's reached a happy medium, I think.
David: These two are good examples of what happens when the show subverts expectations. Men who don't win the show outright usually reach the ceiling of stepping stones, whereas both men's ceilings are as stepping sto...wait...I mean, they're more than journeymen in the sense that both have yet to plateau. Whittaker in particular has been a minor revelation. Basically, they're solid fighters who we don't have to feel guilty about previewing on a main card. Kelly vs. Walsh this ain't.
What are the stakes?
Phil: Both of these guys are in a strange place. Tavares is trapped between being an upper-level staple and mid-level staple in the middleweight division. He's got a solid recent record and overall divisional history, but his decision-heavy style makes it difficult for him to make an impression that catapults him up the ranks.
Whittaker, conversely, has only had one fight at middleweight, but it was pretty exciting and violent, so he can potentially jump much further than Tavares with a win. Both men's ceiling is probably at around the same level: as a replacement for Bisping when he retires or falls off. Both men have a strong claim to the Mancunian's throne. Whittaker has a funny accent, and Tavares has displayed no straight knockout power.
David: To be fair to Tavares, he's fought some very durable hombres. He's not exactly Clay Guida post-Tyson Griffin. And he's lost to some elite(ish) competition. Tavares is in a position to get himself one or two names fights that can earn him something more high profile at best. Whittaker is young enough that continued progress gets him where Tavares is now. Which doesn't sound like progress, but is.
Where do they want it?
Phil: This is going to be a stand-up bout, but one based on approximately similar lines to a few fights we've seen before. Tavares is the protege of Sugarfoot Ray Sefo, and as such has developed an extremely sound basic Muai Thai game: straight right, a sharp jab, and leg kicks. Whittaker is informed more by a traditional martial arts base. In many ways he reminds me a little of his sometimes-teammate at Tristar, John Makdessi: bladed stance, heavy on the front leg, some snapping kicks. The difference is in the way the two men weight their jab and right hand: Makdessi's jab is a crisp, quick piston designed to sting and disrupt, and he can and will use it independently of the right. Whittaker uses his jab in short flurries, to measure and to blind in setup for the right hand. Both men are underrated defensive and offensive wrestlers, and mirror each others clinch games with cracking collar tie knees.
So, we have the TMM-inspired boxer versus MT specialist, a little like Makdessi-Campbell (or, in a way, McGregor-Aldo). What Tavares is going to try to do is to mix leg kicks into his boxing combos against Whittaker's lead leg, or attack from range, and Whittaker is going to try to pressure at boxing range to take that away from him. Both approaches can work. The main difference-makers are going to be in Whittaker's power and Tavares' defensive responsibility.
David: Not only that but Tavares loves to fight in close quarters (to reiterate the obvious). I'm curious about what this fight looks like if Whittaker has had to deal with Tavares grinding him in the shark tank. If Tavares takes away Whittaker's boxing at range, I feel like the bout suddenly favors Tavares. The only real qualifier there is that Tavares tends to to be a little too comfortable inside the clinch; without a steady pace there, Whittaker can maintain his output, which is what used to hinder him in previous fights. The more I think about it the more interested I am in observing the dynamic. It could also be a dud though. Whittaker is developing a more active striking game while rounding everything else out, so I hope this isn't the case.
Insight from past fights?
Phil: If we look at Tavares's losses (and even his wins) they all show an inability to change gear. In wins it translates into not being able to turn it up and finish. In losses? Romero was able to ragdoll him not just because he's an amazing wrestler, but because he was able to up the revs from his normal pantherine lassitude to burst through Tavares' measured approach. Boetsch beat him with a sudden, singular blow. Whittaker has normally used consistent (if violent) pressure.
David: I think the Boetsch fight also gives insight into your point above about Tavares' inability to gameplan, and adapt. I feel like his fight IQ has a few questions to answer. Questioning a fighter's cage IQ always feels condescending given where I'm sitting, but I thought it was clear that Tavares calculated his way into danger against Tim's hillbilly Judo. He seemed to find decent success on the feet but kept clinching anyway. Yes, I know how it ended. But it's still something that lingers when it comes to my skepticism of Tavares' aptitude. I could see a similar narrative playing out against Whittaker since both share a pugilistic demeanor.
Phil: Grappling? I think Whittaker is far more likely to actually shoot for a double leg, but I think Tavares is the more likely to actually land a takedown from the clinch.
David: Given Tavares' tendencies, I feel like their fighting from a distance is the real x-factor. Brad can actually be fairly efficient at range. When he's committed, he maintains a solid rhythm with a versatile arsenal and a bit of raw power just by virtue of his sheer size. But he doesn't seem comfortable enough to commit. Whittaker can fight that fight, but so can Brad.
Phil: Neither man has really faced anyone quite like the other, but Whittaker has lost to other strikers, and Tavares just hasn't, really. I think I like his stronger defense and more reliable tools in this matchup. Brad Tavares by unanimous decision.
David: Whittaker will have trouble dealing with Tavares' strength and power as well; Tavares isn't known as a power puncher, but part of that is by design as his in cage demeanor doesn't lend itself to big knockouts. However, he has the skillset to make it an element of his game, so he should be able to bully Whittaker. Though not without incident. Brad Tavares by Split Decision.