The highly-anticipated rematch between Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker at UFC 271 on Sunday (AEDT) will be a “high-level chess match”, according to reigning featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovksi.
Adesanya and Whittaker will once again be fighting for the middleweight title in the main event at Houston’s Toyota Center, only this time Adesanya will be the one defending the belt.
The superstar New Zealander has been the champion of the division ever since he knocked out Whittaker in the second round at UFC 243 at Marvel Stadium in October 2019.
But both Volkanovski and fellow star Australian UFC fighter Jimmy Crute believe it will be a much different fight this time around.
“Rob Whittaker knows he went in there a bit too emotional (against Adesanya last time), he knows he’s going to mix it up and he’s going to do more,” Volkanovski told Fox Sports’ Fight Week.
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Crute concurred, saying his training partner Whittaker was a different fighter to the one that stepped into the cage 28 months ago.
“He’s taken ownership of how he reacted to how Israel was acting and how he admitted that he allowed Israel to get into his head, and coming in burnt out,” Crute said.
“I’ve experienced that too – coming into a fight burnt out is one of the biggest mistakes you can do, so that alone is going to make a big difference.
“He feels like himself this time around.”
Volkanovski said the key to victory for his City Kickboxing gym teammate Adesanya would be the incredible range he generates.
“He (Whittaker) needs to find his way in, the one or two shots aren’t going to work,” Volkanovski said.
“He needs to carry them (sic) feet under him, maybe go the takedown, whatever’s there, and he’s got to do that.
“For Izzy with his range, he’s so good with his range, I feel like he’s even further than anyone else with his range, he’s a little bit further back and he’s so good at attacking from there, setting things up to find his way in and making people miss and still doing his ‘Matrix’ sort of stuff.”
Crute said Adesanya’s ability to create range when he stands close to his opponent by leaning back so far worked to his advantage.
“That’s where he caught Rob in the last one too,” Volkanovski said.
“He got him lunging in … that range awareness and then not only that, (but) being out of there and the awareness to throw such an unorthodox strike, it’s pretty impressive striking.”
For Whittaker to reclaim his belt, Crute felt his grappling would have to be a big factor.
“Rob is a very good grappler, he’s a very high-level black belt and can wrestle really well so he’s not one-dimensional,” Crute said.
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“His grappling is just as good as his striking … Israel is very hard to take down. Rob said it himself, there’s a reason why not everyone’s just gone in there and just taken him down like everyone says you should do. That distance is so hard to gauge to even enter the takedown, let alone once you get in trying to deal with his sprawl.
“For Rob to get the takedown, he needs to blend it in with his striking anyway.
“If you watched their first fight, you can see Rob tried to get in with just one single shot and tried to lunge in.
“I feel like he’s got to be prepared to miss his first shot, miss his first punch and then back it up with something afterwards – throw out a jab to see how far away Izzy actually is from him.
“Probably two or three missed shots before you actually touch him, and he has to be prepared to have something backed up after those missed shots.”
If Whittaker does manage to get Adesanya to the ground, Crute was confident the former champion would give his successor a much harder time than what Jan Blachowicz did in the same situation last year in their light heavyweight championship bout.
“Rob’s top game has a lot of ground-and-pound, he’s very good at passing guard, I know Izzy has a very underrated guard … but Rob is not just a wrestler, he is a high-level black belt in jiu jitsu,” Crute said.
“Rob has seen it all when it comes to grappling. I think Israel has the shock value a lot of the time, when guys get him to the ground he throws up a sub and people just don’t expect it, where Rob knows that, Rob’s not oblivious to that.”
Volkanovski agreed that if Adesanya only tried to grapple with Whittaker, it would be a risky strategy for the defending champion.
“This is MMA – making space and making your goal to make space, frame and get up, get to the cage, start using the cage to get you up, little things like that,” Volkanovski said.
“If they scramble and they find their way to the mat, keep that space, get to the cage, work frames just to get to his knees and get up and as Rob is trying to catch him and climb and take his back and whatnot, just don’t let him do that – get back to your feet and go where I feel Izzy is going to be a lot more dominant.
“We love both, but Izzy is my guy. I think he’s just going to show that elite striking and I think he catches him (Whittaker).”
Crute saw the result differently to Volkanovski, and was backing Whittaker to become the middleweight champion again.