Rob Whittaker had to “learn the hard way” about what it will take to beat Israel Adesanya, as the former middleweight champion looks to utilise the blueprint set by the only man to defeat the Kiwi when they meet again in less than a month at UFC 271.
Whittaker became interim champion after defeating Yoel Romero at UFC 213 in an absolute barn-burner and beat him again to turn his interim champ tag into the permanent champ.
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Adesanya ended the 31-year-old’s reign as champ by knocking him out in the second round of their UFC 243 bout, with over 57,000 fans there to witness Whittaker’s instant demise at Marvel Stadium in Melbourne.
Two years have passed since they last fought, and Whittaker believes he’s significantly evolved since.
“I’m much more relaxed, I’m much more calm,” Whittaker told Fox Sports’ Fight Week.
“Things that affected my head space the first time no longer affect me, because the foundations of why they affected me have changed, as well as I’m aware of it.
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“I learn the hard way, I learned my lesson and now I’m much more aware of keeping it together and letting it slide off.”
Since they last came to blows, Adesanya suffered the first loss of his nine-year MMA career, but it was the result of an experiment from the Kiwi as he moved up a weight class.
UFC light heavyweight champ Jan Blachowicz was responsible for the defeat, beating Adesanya by unanimous decision in what was a dominant performance.
Whittaker knows that he can’t replicate the Pole’s victory given it came at a heavier weight class, but it did give him some interesting insights into exactly what the blueprint for beating Adesanya looks like.
“Jan showed a great deal of utilising a complete skillset,” Whittaker said.
“Being patient, going in and striking, mixing in takedowns, letting Izzy come in to his strikes.
“I just think that is the smart way to fight Israel.”
Using that wide array of skills is the key to unlocking the Adesanya puzzle, because according to Whittaker, “usually the guy that does that better is the victor.”
However, similar to how Whittaker himself has evolved since they last fought, so too has Adesanya.
But it hasn’t made the champ turn into a different beast that’s immortal.
“I think he’s beatable,” Whittaker said. “I think I can beat him.
“I honestly believe I have the skills and the skillset to beat him.”
One area that Whittaker might not have the better skills than Adesanya is on the microphone.
The Kiwi’s sharp tongue has almost always added extra spice into his fights, and despite Whittaker initially thinking it didn’t impact him, it somehow snuck through.
Having that experience already holds him in good stead, and it’s something Whittaker perhaps can’t be bothered with too much.
“I always thought that that stuff (trash talk) never got to me,” Whittaker said.
“Because it never has. I guess it did get to me, but I didn’t realise that at the time.
“Me being aware that I’m not immune to trash talk doubles up my natural resilience to that sort of game.
“I don’t see it being a problem.
“I’m a much different person than how I was when I went into the first fight. I am much more calm and relaxed.
“Honestly, I don’t care for most of it.”