Since June 2018, UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker has suffered a staph infection that spread to his stomach and endured chickenpox as a result; he’s broken his right hand, had ligament damage in his left hand and undergone surgery for a collapsed bowel and hernia one day before a fight.
As a result of the litany of ailments, the luckless Whittaker (21-4) was forced to sit on the sidelines as UFC head Dana White reshuffled the deck in the division in search of an interim champion.
In stepped Israel Adesanya (17-0), who joined the UFC last February and has promptly gone 6-0 to earn star status with five performance bonuses. He’s beaten the likes of Derek Brunson, Anderson Silva and Kelvin Gastelum, the last of which was a fight of the year candidate that yielded the interim middleweight title he currently owns.
Whittaker will end a 16-month layoff Saturday at UFC 243, looking to restore order in his career, and the division’s title picture, when he takes on Adesanya at Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, Australia, on ESPN Plus pay-per-view at 7 p.m. PT.
The all-Oceania showdown will be a battle between two Trans-Tasmans and take place in front of over 50,000 people. Whittaker was born in Auckland but lives in Sydney, and Adesanya was born in Nigeria but moved to New Zealand when he was 11 years old and has lived there ever since.
“This isn’t my first rodeo. I’m very good at what I do. The fight is going to be a cracker,” said Whittaker, 28. “Every time I step in the octagon, there are always fireworks. I want to go in there, touch gloves, put one on his chin and he goes away. One and done.”
The confident Whittaker was riding a wave of momentum before he was forced to step away. He hasn’t lost since 2014, is undefeated at middleweight (8-0) and has 11 first-round finishes with wins over Yoel Romero (twice), Jacare Souza and Brunson.
A malfunctioning body made him battle depression during his absence, but he found some sanity by keeping busy in less rigorous jiujitsu and wrestling competitions. He also found therapy by opening his own gym, and honed in on his storytelling skills by way of a podcast.
“I look forward to laying hands on him and exploiting his holes to see how he deals with it. I’ve been working and plugging away. I haven’t been paying attention to others. The big thing for me is doing the work and getting back in there,” said Whittaker.
“I think he’s a phenomenal fighter,” Whittaker said of Adesanya. “He’s got great standup and his timing is impeccable. But in his last fight he got hit by a guy who was not as fast or as tall as me.”
Adesanya’s last outing in the cage was in February against Gastelum in a five-round war that is the front-runner for the best fight of 2019. Although it was far from simple, the arduous, title-clinching performance continued his meteoric climb in the cage.
“I needed that fight. It was a spiritual fight. It was a growth fight for myself, just to know that when the going gets tough, I get going fast,” said Adesanya, 30. “I learned in the Gastelum fight that there are no limits. I realized I had another reserve tank I hadn’t tapped into yet. I’m so confident going into this fight that I can escape any dark place, I’ll survive and thrive and he’ll drown.”
Adesanya will look to take Whittaker down under by leveraging his 6-foot-4 frame and 80-inch reach; Whittaker will stand four inches shorter and give away 6½ inches in reach.
“Look at my skills and tale of the tape. This is why we fight, though. Paper can’t fight paper,” said Adesanya. “He’s got a little awkwardness to his rhythm, but it won’t take long to take care of it. I know with [my] skill set, I can pick him apart with distance, close range and wherever the fight leads.”
Adesanya is lanky and has lightning-quick speed and power in both fists — 13 of his wins have come via knockout.
“I’m just soaking up everything and enjoying the ride. It’s been a crazy roller coaster,” said Adesanya. “I’m trying to become a better overall fighter. … Even if he was fighting and active, I would still best him. I’m going to keep that same energy of what got me to the dance.”
The co-main event for UFC 243 will feature Al Iaquinta (14-5-1) taking on Dan Hooker (19-8) in a lightweight fight.