There is no better place for a showdown between two of the best fighters that hail from Oceania than Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Putting aside that the two headlining athletes could easily portray super heroes, the event could break the UFC attendance record set at UFC 193: Rousey vs Holm, held at the very same arena. This fight firmly puts Oceania on the map with two of their own vying for the undisputed world middleweight title.
Their roads to this match-up have been almost polar opposites. The champion, Robert Whittaker, has been inactive due to illnesses and injuries and has fought only once since Israel Adesanya made his UFC debut. Adesanya, the interim champ, has remained ultra-active. This title-unification fight will mark the kickboxer’s seventh fight since joining the UFC in February 2018. Since then, Adesanya has rattled off wins over former middleweight king Anderson Silva and surging contender Kelvin Gastelum to win the interim title in a “Fight of the Year” contender at UFC 236.
The co-main event features one of Adesanya’s City Kickboxing training partners and fellow human highlight reel, Dan Hooker. Hooker is 5-1 in his last six bouts, with his lone setback being a TKO loss to Edson Barboza in December 2018 when Hooker withstood a hellacious beating over 12 minutes before succumbing to a left hook to the liver in the third round. Despite the loss that night, Hooker’s popularity with fans rose after he demonstrated grit and toughness throughout the contest. His opponent in Australia is the man who headlined the card that December night and walked away with a unanimous-decision victory over Kevin Lee, Long Island’s “Ragin’” Al Iaquinta. Iaquinta went on to drop a “Fight of the Night” to Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone and is looking to reinstate his name into the title picture with a win over the rising star Hooker.
Elsewhere on the main card, Australian native Tai Tuivasa looks to stop a two-fight skid that accounts for the first two defeats of his professional career. His opponent, Serghei Spivac, is also fighting for the first time since suffering a loss, which came in his UFC debut against Walt Harris by TKO in under a minute.
UFC 243 kicks off this Saturday on UFC Fight Pass at 6:15 p.m. ET for the early prelims, followed by the televised prelims on ESPN at 8 p.m. ET. The main card is available on pay-per-view through ESPN+ beginning at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Jeff Wall and Matt Petela preview the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Robert Whittaker and Israel Adesanya have dominated their competition in the UFC’s middleweight division. How will their title fight play out?
Wall: I can see a lot of different outcomes in this one. These two guys are so elite, and this is one of the most mouth-watering match-ups in MMA right now, right up there with Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson.
First off, we have to talk about the mentality of these two men.
Adesanya was pushed by Kelvin Gastelum in ways we didn’t expect. He showed off not only his chin and durability, but his heart, composure, and fight IQ. I was blown away at the clutch mindset he had going into the fifth round. It was like watching “Sugar” Ray Leonard knock out Thomas Hearns in a huge comeback win of his own. We can’t doubt Adesanya in a grueling fight where he could be down on the judges’ scorecards.
Now look at Whittaker’s last two fights against Yoel Romero. You’ll see the same sort of will, desire, and intelligence that very few have, even including some of the all-time greats. In the first match-up, Whittaker tore his knee in the first round. He was on one leg the whole fight against the most dangerous fighter we have ever seen in this sport. He had to adapt his whole strategy for the fight, with the reality that he could throw less than half the strikes he normally could and the ones he could throw had to be tweaked. That is mad. He had the mental fortitude to not call it a day and the intelligence to adapt in a way no other fighter has ever had to do. That’s kind of crazy. In the second fight, Romero adjusted. He also dropped Whittaker twice in the second round, landed 149 total strikes, and still could not put him away.
Of course, there is always the question of how much they lost in those wars. In a match-up of guys who will be looking to prove who the better striker is, we’ll get our answer.
As for what will happen, it depends a lot more on Whittaker than it does on Adesanya. Whittaker likes to stick and move, and he doesn’t pressure often. Adesanya can stick and move as well, but he tends to just want to stay in the pocket where he can show off his incredible defense and flashy counters. Gastelum showed that with intense pressuring and cutting off escape angles, a fighter — even an average MMA striker — can force Adesanya to struggle. Can Whittaker feel comfortable pressuring him? That is the route to victory, and I think he can, but it will be rough for him at first. He’s not used to that approach. However, “Bobby Knuckles” will retain his title in a fight that goes all five rounds.
Petela: Trying to break down the X’s and O’s of this fight left me more confused than when I started. It gave me a headache, too. These men are clearly the crème de la crème at middleweight, and it’s hard to imagine anything other than a fan-friendly slobberknocker of the highest caliber.
It comes down to whether Adesanya will be able to keep the momentum going from his six consecutive victories in just over a year since joining the UFC, or whether having over 15 months off to recover will have Whittaker at his best to defend his title and truly be the undisputed best middleweight on the planet.
As a gambler, the first thing you learn on the craps table is to never walk away from a heater. Following that line of thought, I see Adesanya out-striking Whittaker en route to a decision victory that has the fans on their feet in applause after a thrilling five-round contest.
Al Iaquinta and Daniel Hooker are set for a lightweight showdown in the evening’s co-main event. Will Hooker continue his recent string of successes — he’s 5-1 over his last six outings — and insert his name into the contender’s mix?
Petela: Yes, this will be a coming-out party for Hooker in front of his hometown fans.
Since returning to lightweight at the end of 2016, Hooker has ended all five of his victories before the final bell, with four wins by KO/TKO and a guillotine-choke finish over Marc Diakiese. Trying to finish Iaquinta is no picnic, though. The Long Island native hasn’t been submitted since 2014 and has never been knocked out.
It’s an overused expression, but these two will go to war for 15 minutes. Hooker will get the better of the action and have his hand raised in a fight that fans will be talking about for quite some time. Hooker’s stock will continue to rise, and he will have a tough time getting fighters in the top 10 to answer their phone when the UFC matchmakers coming call to pitch a fight with “The Hangman.”
Wall: These two fighters always bring it. They are basically gatekeepers at the moment, so I don’t see them in the title picture.
Iaquinta can make this a tough fight for Hooker. However, if Hooker is on his game, then he can take Iaquinta out of this one early. Hooker is a deadly finisher. When I look at “Ragin’ Al” I don’t see the same thing.
Yorgan De Castro, Justin Tafa, Maki Pitolo, Zarah Fairn Dos Santos, Brad Riddell, Jamie Mullarkey and Bruno Silva — do we need to know these names?
Wall: De Castro hits hard, and that’s about it. I don’t see a lot of talent there. Tafa hits even harder. He picks his shots a lot better, but, like De Castro, he makes so many mistakes and leaves himself in bad spots where UFC fighters will finish him. For the most part, these two are just like 99 percent of heavyweights out there, and to be honest, I’m not sure how the UFC can justify putting this contest on the main card.
Dos Santos is a little green, but she has one thing that few fighters in the women’s featherweight division have — power. She has bricks for fists. The French fighter is a little inconsistent, but she’s still young in her career. Her opponent, Megan Anderson, is also inconsistent, and this one could be a banger. Win, lose or draw, this is a division that needs fighters. Expect to see Dos Santos stick around for a while.
Mullarkey is a great prospect out of Australia. He’s well rounded and looks composed in there, but he likes to strike. Mullarkey could be in for a tough match-up against fellow UFC newcomer Riddell, but Riddell has very little MMA experience. Mullarkey is smart and can finish guys on the mat. We’ll see if he chooses to use those skills here.
Silva is a monster finisher and an M-1 middleweight champ. He loves to stand and throw, overwhelming fighters with his pace and pressure. Sixteen of his 19 MMA wins have ended in a knockout, but all his losses, aside from a DQ, have come via submission. In a thin middleweight division, he can hang around as a lower-level gatekeeper.
Petela: This is a huge class of newcomers for a pay-per-view event. Silva is the name to watch for sure, with Dos Santos being someone who could make a name for herself with a statement win over once highly touted Anderson.
In terms of the rest of the incoming fighters, I don’t see any of them making a real splash outside of delivering an entertaining fight or two before they are on the outside looking in at the world’s largest MMA promotion.
Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 243?
Petela: Dan Hooker. At No. 15 in the rankings and coming off a big knockout win over James Vick, Hooker has a chance to catapult himself into the rankings by taking out a top-10 opponent in the sixth-ranked Al Iaquinta. It’s a risky fight for both men, but Hooker, should he come away with the win, would immediately become part of the ever-expanding title picture at 155 pounds.
Wall: Robert Whittaker. He has been trash-talked pretty much since Israel Adesanya got a couple wins under his belt. Whether it’s about his culture, his toughness, or injuries, he’s really taken some flak. Fans have gotten on him for those last-minute withdrawals. It is so unfair to him. No fighter suffers through a training camp, a weight cut, and all the press obligations to not even get paid. Whittaker gets to remind everyone this Saturday that he is one of the pound-for-pound best.
Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 243?
Wall: Megan Anderson. Her stock takes a hit more than anything. She will not be a fighter to be feared, like she was when she won the Invicta featherweight title.
Petela: Robert Whittaker. With a loss to Israel Adesanya, his championship reign amounts to being promoted to “full” champion when Georges St-Pierre vacated his belt and winning a non-title bout when Yoel Romero missed weight. If Adesanya wins, then Whittaker will have lost the belt in his first opportunity to defend. That’s not the resume a champion wants, and while he may very well be champion again before his career is over, his first run will end up being lackluster at best.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Petela: Megan Anderson and Zarah Fairn Dos Santos.
It’s now or never for Anderson, whose only victory in the UFC came by the now infamous “TKToe,” where a kick grazed the eye of Cat Zingano and cut her eyelid, causing an eye injury that halted the fight and gave Anderson the win. Other than that, the Australian fighter has largely fallen short of the hype that carried her into the UFC as the woman who could beat Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino. Anderson has a home game this time around. The Australian fighter takes on the newcomer Dos Santos. If Anderson is going to avoid being labeled a bust, she needs to win in emphatic fashion in front of her home crowd at UFC 243.
Wall: Jamie Mullarkey and Brad Riddell.
This should be a banger. It won’t be contested anywhere but at distance on the feet. Riddell only knows how to strike, and Mullarkey loves to strike. Mullarkey can take this to the mat if he wants to, but he will have too much pride in his ability. We have seen decorated kickboxers knocked out in MMA competition by MMA fighters before, which can only bolster Mullarkey’s confidence.
Pair this card with…
Wall: Miller Light. This card is light. It does have a few bangers, but it’s tough to bank on a few fights in a row as fights that we’ll all love.
Petela: Willie the Boatman’s The Bulger. This is hands down the best call to pair with this fight card. Not only does it come from an Australian brewery, but The Bulger is a solid 6.5 percent ABV — not crazy, but, like this fight card, pretty damn strong. Also, The Bulger is made with hops from both Australia and New Zealand, which aligns itself nicely with the main event. It’s not the easiest beer to find, but it’s well worth it if you can get your hands on a six-pack.
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
MW Championship: Robert Whittaker vs. Israel Adesanya
LW: Al Iaquinta vs. Daniel Hooker
HW: Tai Tuivasa vs. Serghei Spivac
WW: Luke Jumeau vs. Dhiego Lima
HW: Yorgan De Castro vs. Justin Tafa
Preliminary Card (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET)
WW: Jake Matthews vs. Rostem Akman
WW: Callan Potter vs. Maki Pitolo
Women’s FW: Megan Anderson vs. Zarah Fairn Dos Santos
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6:15 p.m. ET)
LW: Brad Riddell vs. Jamie Mullarkey
Women’s FlyW: Nadia Kassem vs. Ji Yeon Kim
BW: Khalid Taha vs. Bruno Silva
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