Sometimes good intentions yield bad results. Sometimes, a sensible strategy yields to a better one.
Both of these things happened at UFC 243, where Israel Adesanya exchanged his interim title for an undisputed one, and handed Robert Whittaker his first defeat in over five years in the process. At its end, Whittaker’s championship run consisted of two classic fights with the terrifying Yoel Romero, and a whole series of injuries, misfortunes, and disappointments, culminating in this, a definitive loss to MMA’s brightest new star. To see all of that potential and momentum wiped away, even if only for a time, is more than a little heartbreaking. It compels us to ask the same question Whittaker must be asking himself: where did it all go wrong?
It was a thrilling fight. Robert Whittaker made sure of that, initiating one savage attack after another, throwing everything with the clear intention of taking the Stylebender’s head clean off. He was knocked flat at the very end of round one, and sent stumbling to his back toward the end of round two. It was all over before Whittaker got up again.
What you take away from these events seems to depend mostly on whom you were rooting for at the time, which of the two fighters you personally designated as the protagonist of UFC 243.
As fight fans (or, well, people in general), we tend to gravitate toward extremes. If, like me, you’ve spent the past few days allowing the effluvium of online discourse to wash over you, then you might have concluded that there are really only two logical interpretations of last weekend’s big fight: either Robert Whittaker came in catastrophically unprepared and threw his title away with both hands, or else Israel Adesanya proved, once again, that he is the greatest fighter who has ever lived, and should in fact be insulted to be called the new Anderson Silva when obviously Anderson Silva was never anything more than a proto-Adesanya.
In reality, Adesanya does have something in common with Anderson Silva: a keen eye for small tactical errors. Whittaker’s approach to the fight, on the other hand, was anything but senseless.
It was clear from the first exchange--initiated, as so many of them were, by Whittaker--that the champion intended to keep the pressure on the challenger as often as possible. For those of us who’d spent the pre-fight buildup worrying about Adesanya’s habit of building momentum on the front foot, it was hardly a novel strategy. Adesanya was too good a kicker, and Whittaker historically too vulnerable to kicks, to be allowed the space or time to set them up.
Maintaining that pressure was its own challenge. Again and again Whittaker attacked, and each time Adesanya strove to answer, Whittaker fought twice as hard to have the last word in the exchange. This was rational, too: when you want to back someone up, you make sure that they are always reacting to you, and not the other way around.
So those were the broad strokes of a gameplan that made sense, and yet saw Robert Whittaker get narrowly outstruck and quite soundly beaten. And so we come back around to our original question.
Where did it all go wrong?
If the strategic foundation for Whittaker’s eight minutes of barely organized madness was really so sound, then the problem must have occurred on the tactical level. One such tactic we have already identified: Whittaker’s intention to both initiate and conclude every exchange.
Again, the core idea makes sense. Adesanya’s reach, his kicking prowess, and his ability to build and develop an attack over the course of a fight all incentivized Whittaker to back him up, and keep him backing up. If Adesanya is at his most consistent on the front foot, he is no less dangerous off the back foot. Adesanya’s footwork tends to get messy when he’s forced to retreat, but once he gets the chance to plant his feet, he is a devastating counter puncher. He is also a tremendously organic fighter. He does not counter with rote combinations, but by using his eyes, selecting each individual strike according to the opportunities presented. Which means that when you do give Adesanya the chance to counter, you can be confident that he will choose the perfect punch to put you away.
He must be attacked with layers of successive offense. The longer the salvo—the more time Izzy is given to eye his options and find his footing—the more complex those layers must become. Otherwise, well...
Let’s take a look at the first knockdown.
1. Whittaker initiates one of his typical long-range blitzes.
2. His jab connects as Adesanya whips out a counter left hook.
3. The counter misses, Adesanya’s arm wrapping around behind Whittaker’s head as he follows through with the overhand right.
4. Both men throw their right hands. Adesanya touches Whittaker’s chin with an uppercut, the natural companion to the counter left hook, and manages to deflect the better part of Whittaker’s overhand in the process.
5. Now neither man is in a particularly sound position, but Adesanya is at least facing Whittaker. Nonetheless Whittaker is still focused on offense. Back comes Izzy’s right hand...
6. ...this time in the form of a rising hook that Whittaker never sees coming.
Firstly, these counters are quite interesting. Weird, even. The first punch is undeniably an orthodox left hook. A lead hand shot. But as for the two right hands that come next—an uppercut followed by a hook—they aren’t really thrown from an orthodox position. Normally, the uppercut that follows the left hook comes off the back hand, but as Robert Whittaker goes caroming off to the right, carried by the momentum of his attack, Israel Adesanya turns with him. It isn’t a pivot so much as a swivel, like a tank turret keeping a moving target in the sights. Without really moving his feet, Adesanya essentially ends up knocking Whittaker down with two lead right hands, thrown from a southpaw position.
All of which is a fairly lengthy way of saying that Israel Adesanya possesses a unique knack for making it up as he goes along.
Coming into this fight, proactive defense figured to be one of Whittaker’s biggest advantages. While he has always tended to lunge recklessly at his opponents, he has also possessed the wherewithal to defend himself after throwing. The thinking went that Adesanya, whose footwork tended to fall apart on the retreat, would only become dangerous once he had managed to reset his feet. It was then, in that critical moment, that Whittaker’s defense ought to have been key.
But Whittaker was not content to simply initiate and defend. Likely, he thought that doing so would allow Adesanya to take the initiative back and start building momentum. Or perhaps, eager to lay some leather on his chin, Robert became frustrated by the Stylebender’s slippery defense, and developed a touch of tunnel vision. No other middleweight moves like Adesanya; Whittaker would not be the first to have found the novelty frustrating. Whatever the case, Whittaker eschewed his usual defensive responsibility in favor of increasingly longer and more aggressive combinations. Each clean strike landed triggered another, wilder and more desperate. “Just try to counter me,” he seemed to say, and Adesanya was all too happy to oblige him.
The final exchange of the fight followed what had by then become a familiar pattern. Whittaker connecting with his jab, then overcommitting in his attempt to follow up, The most damning that can be said about any losing performance is that nothing at all changed—that no adjustments were made. It may be that, given a third round, Whittaker would have discovered new weapons and ways of using them, but in the eight or so minutes allotted, Adesanya was all too often one or two steps ahead.
1. Whittaker and Adesanya square off in the middle of the Octagon.
2. Adesanya begins to move forward. Whether he is lining up a right hand or merely feinting is quickly made moot...
3. ...by this spearing jab from Whittaker. Adesanya’s head flies back, but his feet are well set.
4. Whittaker tries to follow with the right hand as Adesanya looks for a check hook. Both men miss, but Adesanya keeps his footing, while Whittaker’s stance has disintegrated.
5. A cuffing right hook from Adesanya squares up Whittaker’s stance even further.
6. Whittaker still has a clean line of sight to the chin of Adesanya, who is leaning back to an almost comical degree. Nonetheless, Whittaker’s center line is wide open, and Adesanya’s stance has him looking straight down it. They proceed to trade left hooks.
7. With a shorter distance to travel, Adesanya’s left hook lands perfectly on the point of the chin before Whittaker can even let his go. With no base to absorb the impact, Whittaker crumbles.
I have to be sure to give Israel Adesanya his full due, here. Several times I have referred to the incredibly creativity of his kickboxing. But to say that his striking is fluid and organic is not to imply that his victories are merely the product of some innate gift. Earlier, I also noted that Whittaker was not in particular danger as he charged forward, but afterward, once Adesanya found the chance to pick his punches. In his prior UFC fights, Adesanya had never looked particularly comfortable countering in “same time.”
But here, as well as in our first example, we can see Izzy throwing a conspicuous counter left hook. In fact, all throughout the contest Adesanya was uncharacteristically determined to counter Whittaker on the way in; I have to assume the tactic was prepared specifically for this fight. The counter hooks, often thrown with a pivot while Whittaker was committed to a straight-on attack, did not always land cleanly. Nonetheless, they served to interrupt Whittaker’s explosive entries, and frequently helped to off-balance him. Adesanya was able mold his usual counters onto the backs of such shots, picking up minute openings wherever Whittaker left them. Both knockdowns saw Adesanya miss the same-time hook counter, only to land the following two punches.
Nonetheless, a more defensively minded Whittaker—or perhaps merely a more active, less frequently injured one—may have been able to counter Adesanya’s layers with layers of his own.
After all, “where did it go wrong” can only lead us so far. Like Robert Whittaker, we would do well to turn our eyes forward. Come back for part two, in which we’ll try to figure out what Whittaker might have done better, or what he may do differently in a rematch.