Nigerian-born Israel Adesanya has made history by becoming first UFC fighter to defend their title four times in the calendar year as he retained the UFC middleweight champion on Saturday night.
After five rounds, Adesanya (22-1 MMA, 11-1 UFC) retained his title against Robert Whittaker (23-6 MMA, 14-4 UFC) by unanimous decision (48-47, 48-47, 49-46). The middleweight title bout was the UFC 271 main event at Toyota Center in Houston.
Adesanya chants bellowed throughout Toyota Center when the two fighters took center cage. The champion came out from his signature crouch. The challenger calmly walked forward. A leg kick battle ensued. The competitors ranged their distance.
A hard stepping side kick to Adesanya’s lead leg and he changed stances, though it might’ve been his plan along. After a few high kick attempts, Adesanya landed the first significant strike — a left hand right down the pipe that dropped Whittaker to the seat of his pants. Whittaker avoided all else in the flurry and rose up. He shot for a takedown but was stuffed. Another less-committed attempt? Same thing.
Round 2 began with more leg kicks. But it was Whittaker who had the crowd oohing and ahhing. A check lead punch landed on nearly consecutive exchanges. Adesanya took both, reset and continued to march. Whittaker then completed a takedown, but Adesanya used the cage to get to his feet. Hard leg kicks from Adesanya and simultaneous-landing jabs were the most significant strikes for the rest of the round.
It was more chess-matching for the first half of Round 3. Around the midway mark, however, the fighters opened up for a hard exchange. Adesanya stuffed a Whittaker takedown attempt. Whittaker dumped Adesanya again, but back to the feet they went.
Whittaker began the championship rounds with another check left, which landed flush. A beautifully timed Whittaker takedown resulted in a scramble back upward. Whittaker scrambled to the backpack position and worked for a rear-naked choke. Adesanya walked to the cage, slipped out of Whittaker’s hooks and gave the slimmest of smirks. Whittaker continued success with his lead left, while Adesanya remained hard to take down.
The Houston crowd gave both men a loud cheer to kick off the final round, a sign of respect for a patient and technical affair. After some more striking, Whittaker shot again. Adesanya utilized a front choke to successfully defend and separate. After an eye poke by Adesanya, the action continued. Whittaker scored a massive takedown, but the slippery Adesanya eluded him again. As soon as they hit the mat, Adesanya scrambled and found a way out. Whittaker shot again and held Adesanya against the fence, where they finished out the round.
The crowd wasn’t happy with the decision once it came, with the boos raining down on Adesanya during the announcement and into his interview. On the microphone, Adesanya mentioned Jared Cannonier, who defeated Derek Brunson earlier on the card, as a possible next opponent. Whittaker utilized his mic time to credit the champion but respectfully disagreed with the judges’ decision.
The UFC 271 main event was a rematch of the UFC 243 headliner, which Adesanya won by knockout in Round 2. That event took place in October 2019. In the time between his loss and Saturday’s rematch, Whittaker put together three straight victories over top contenders Kelvin Gastelum, Darren Till and Cannonier.
The trifecta earned him a second crack at Adesanya, who was 4-1 since their first meeting, with his only loss coming in a light heavyweight title challenge against then-champ Jan Blachowicz.
Much of the conversation entering UFC 271 centered around Whittaker’s improvement and reinvention as a fighter. Whittaker spoke openly about mental challenges, deep self-conversations and how he found happiness at the end of it all. His opponent meanwhile expressed he thought the perceived strides were exaggerated due to recency bias.