Saturday’s UFC 271 card is headlined by a middleweight title rematch between Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker. Adesanya and Whittaker previously fought at UFC 243 in October 2019, and Adesanya won by KO/TKO in the second round. Whittaker has stormed back since the loss, winning three straight fights, including a dominant win over Kelvin Gastelum in his most recent fight.
The co-main event is a heavyweight bout between former title challenger Derrick Lewis and rising heavyweight Tai Tuivasa. There is also another compelling middleweight bout between Jared Cannonier and Derek Brunson, who both rank in the top six in the division according to the UFC rankings.
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- Israel Adesanya (-280) vs. Robert Whittaker (+225)
- Derrick Lewis (-180) vs. Tai Tuivasa (+155)
- Jared Cannonier (-165) vs. Derek Brunson (+145)
- Kyler Phillips (-410) vs. Marcelo Rojo (+310)
- Bobby Green (-140) vs. Nasrat Haqparast (+120)
Israel Adesanya vs. Robert Whittaker
Adesanya is an elite striker who is very tall and lengthy. Adesanya stands 6’4” with an 80-inch reach, which gives him a substantial length advantage over most of his opponents at middleweight. Adesanya will have a large seven-inch reach advantage over Whittaker, which is notable for distance strikes.
One of Adesanya’s best attributes is his striking defense, which is due in part to his long limbs, which allows him to position himself just outside of his opponent’s striking range. 62% of Adesanya’s opponent significant strike attempts have not landed, the second best rate among active middleweights and the fifth best rate in the history of the division. Adesanya is also very quick and elusive, which he combines with his length to avoid being hit cleanly.
Because Adesanya has strong striking defense, opponents at middleweight have a difficult time logging significant strike volume, and this was a theme in the first fight between Adesanya and Whittaker. Whittaker whiffed constantly on distance strikes, landing just 32 of 116 significant strike attempts from distance, which is an abysmal 27% rate. Adesanya landed 37 of 91 significant strike attempts from distance and recorded two knockdowns, the second of which finished the fight by KO/TKO. Even when Adesanya does get hit, it’s often at the very end of the strike due to his distance management, so he does not get hit with the full power of the strike.
Adesanya also has potent offense and ranks in the top 10 among all middleweights in knockdowns per 15 minutes. Adesanya strategically leaves his hands low at times in order to bait his opponents to attack him, where he can launch counters and set traps. As long as this fight stays at distance, Adesanya will have a significant advantage due to his elite striking background and length advantage.
However, there is one glaring weakness in Adesanya’s skill set, which is his bottom game. Jan Blachowicz took over late in Adesanya’s only UFC loss with takedowns and top control, leading two judges to give Blachowicz a 10-8 round in Round 5. Adesanya had basically nothing off his back and was mostly hanging on. If Whittaker is going to win the rematch, he likely has to put Adesanya on his back, or at least threaten to, which could open up gaps to land strikes on the feet from a close distance. Whittaker has not traditionally logged much takedown volume but has underrated wrestling, winning Australia’s national freestyle championship in wrestling in 2017. Whittaker has displayed more offensive wrestling recently and had a lot of success taking down Kelvin Gastelum in his last fight, recording four takedowns on seven attempts.
Whittaker did not attempt any takedowns in his first fight against Adesanya, which was a big mistake given Adesanya’s advantages in striking. Whittaker should have a different game plan for the rematch with more aggressive grappling. Adesanya does have capable takedown defense, stopping 80% of opponent takedown attempts, so it won’t be easy. Adesanya is not a strong pure wrestler, but he is usually able to use MMA wrestling effectively to keep most of his fights standing. There have been some exceptions to this, most notably in the Jan Blachowicz fight, where Adesanya stopped just two of five takedown attempts and spent most of the championship rounds on his back.
Whittaker has to fight inside against the lengthy Adesanya to have a chance, and he displayed several quality takedowns off body locks in his last fight against Kelvin Gastelum. If Whittaker can fight inside, threaten with takedowns and get this fight to the ground, he has a realistic chance to pull off the upset.
The Whittaker Moneyline (+225) and Whittaker to win by decision (+450) both carry plus odds and have a realistic chance to happen if Whittaker can execute a better game plan centered around fighting inside and dragging the fight to the ground. All five of Whittaker’s most recent wins are by decision, so getting exposure on Whittaker by decision at +450 odds is something to consider in addition to the +225 moneyline.
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