UFC 243: Whittaker vs. Adesanya

UFC 243: Whittaker vs. Adesanya Robert Whittaker and Israel Adesanya have been on a collision course as the two hottest middleweights in the UFC for some time now. On Saturday at UFC 243, that course will culminate in a highly anticipated title fight.

Whittaker will be officially defending his belt for the first time. His first title defense turned out to be a non-title fight as Yoel Romero came in overweight. A planned defense against Kelvin Gastelum was dashed by emergency surgery for the 28-year-old.

Now the champion is healthy and ready to start defending the belt, but the UFC has set up an interesting first foe for him to do it against. The Last Stylebender is a perfect 17-0 and has amassed his undefeated record in highly entertaining fashion, quickly becoming one of the most entertaining fighters on the roster.

It’s a blockbuster headliner for the Melbourne, Australia, event that’s heavy on native talent.

Here’s a look at the complete lineup along with predictions for the biggest fights of the night.

MAIN CARD (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)

Champ Robert Whittaker vs. Interim champ Israel Adesanya for middleweight championship
Dan Hooker vs. Al Iaquinta
Sergey Spivak vs. Tai Tuivasa
Luke Jumeau vs. Dhiego Lima
Yorgan De Castro vs. Justin Tafa
PRELIMINARY CARD (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET)

Rostem Akman vs. Jake Matthews
Maki Pitolo vs. Callan Potter
Jamie Mullarkey vs. Brad Riddell
Megan Anderson vs. Zarah Fairn Dos Santos
PRELIMINARY CARD (ESPN+, 6:15 p.m. ET)

Nadia Kassem vs. Ji Yeon Kim
Bruno Silva vs. Khalid Taha

Robert Whittaker Hands Israel Adesanya First Loss

Although Adesanya has worked himself all the way up to a title fight, it’s still hard to figure out where he stands in the middleweight hierarchy.

While Whittaker has shown his worth in tough fights against high-caliber opponents in Yoel Romero and Jacare Souza, Adesanya’s biggest wins have come against an aging Anderson Silva and a perennial fringe contender in Kelvin Gastelum.

Adesanya’s run hasn’t been completely sullied by the opponents, but there’s definitely validity in questioning whether he’s seen the true upper echelon of the division.

He’ll see it quickly in Bobby Knuckles. Whittaker’s well-rounded skill-set and power are the reason that he’s the champion, and he brings more to the table than any of Adesanya’s previous opponents.

When Adesanya has space, he can look like an aggressive, prime Anderson Silva. His ability to attack from all angles while still in position to counter-strike makes him fun to watch and a constant threat to finish the fight.

Space might be difficult to find for the interim champion, though. After watching the 5’9″ Gastelum cover the distance between the two and smother him at times, there’s now a recipe for Whittaker to do the same thing, and once he’s there, he’s much better than Gastelum at fighting the fight he wants.

This will by far be the greatest challenge of Adesanya’s career, and although he’s likely to be the champion of the division at some point, Saturday night seems a bit too early.

Prediction: Whittaker via decision

Al Iaquinta Spoils Dan Hooker’s Homecoming

Dan Hooker faces a lot of pressure in the co-main event. He’s no stranger to fighting in Australia, where the New Zealand native holds a 3-0 record, but this will definitely be his biggest fight in the country.

In fact, it’s the biggest fight of his career. For context, the last time Hooker was on a pay-per-view card, it was the second fight of the night on the Fight Pass Prelims. That was a first-round finish of Gilbert Burns, taking on Iaquinta in a co-main event slot as a major crowd favorite is a little different task.

In the cage, these two should have an entertaining style matchup. Hooker is a finisher. He’s won five of his last six fights and all of them have been by either knockout or submission.

Iaquinta is no stranger to putting on entertaining fights, either. His decision loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov last time out was Fight of the Night. His decision win over Kevin Lee earned him a Performance of the Night bonus.

Both Iaquinta and Hooker are deft strikers, but the interesting thing to watch will be at what distance the fight takes place. The rangier Hooker will look to pick Iaquinta apart from the outside with his kicking game. Ragin’ Al is better at boxing from close range and will certainly have to find ways to close the distance.

The X-factor here could be if Iaquinta is able to mix in some wrestling. His ground game is underrated, and if he’s able to work Hooker to the ground, it could give him the slight advantage in what should be a razor-close fight on the feet.

Prediction: Iaquinta via decision

Tai Tuivasa Crushes in Spotlight Opportunity

It’s no secret that the UFC is giving Tai Tuivasa the perfect opportunity to put on a memorable performance in Australia.

After an exciting 7-0 start to his career, the big Aussie has lost two in a row. First, was a TKO loss to Junior dos Santos in Adelaide, and he followed it up with a decision loss to Blagoy Ivanov.

With his last two fights coming against a former champion and a tough, durable opponent in Ivanov, he takes on an unknown commodity in Sergey Spivak. The 24-year-old’s UFC debut lasted just 50 seconds as Walt Harris ended his night early.

Tuivasa’s last two times out might not have shown it, but he’s a surprisingly athletic and explosive striker. That’s something he should remind people about on Saturday night as he hands Spivak his second UFC loss by knockout.

Prediction: Tuivasa via first-round TKO