On Saturday, Feb. 12, the UFC will host its second pay-per-view event of the year, when it returns to Houston, Tex. for UFC 271: Adesanya vs. Whittaker 2.
The last time Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker met, it broke the attendance record for UFC events and took place inside Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, Australia. This time, the scenery will be different inside the Toyota Center, but the stakes remain the same with Adesanya’s middleweight championship on the line.
“The Last Stylebender” put on an incredible performance in their first meeting, knocking down Whittaker in the first round, before picking up a second-round knockout. Since that fight, Whittaker has rebounded with three straight victories and showed that he is one of the most well-rounded elite fighters in the world of mixed martial arts. Adesanya has gone on to defend his title three times since defeating “The Reaper” but lost for the first time in his MMA career when he tried and failed to become a two-division champion, taking on Jan Blachowicz at light heavyweight. Whittaker will look to find the same success that Blachowicz did when the pair squares off for a second time.
The co-main event pits Derrick Lewis against rising star Tai Tuivasa in a heavyweight showdown. Lewis currently holds the record for the most knockouts in UFC history with 13, and he will try to add to that record against Tuivasa. “Bam Bam” has turned things around recently, regaining his position as an up-and-comer to watch after losing the momentum by dropping three consecutive fights. He has rattled off four straight victories, and a fifth win in a row over an experienced contender like Lewis would be the biggest victory of his career.
Also on the main card is another high-profile middleweight bout between Derek Brunson and Jared Cannonier. This fight could likely produce the next title challenger. Brunson has vaulted to fourth in the rankings on the heels of a five-fight winning streak. Cannonier has also been enjoying a wave of success, dropping just one fight over his last five contests. That fight he lost came at the hands of this weekend’s title challenger Whittaker.
UFC 271 will be held inside the Toyota Center in Houston, Tex. in front of a capacity crowd. The early prelims kick off on UFC Fight Pass and ESPN+ at 6 p.m. ET. The televised prelims follow on UFC Fight Pass, ESPN and ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET. The action culminates with the five-fight main card on ESPN+ pay-per-view at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the fights in this week’s edition of Toe-to-Toe.
The first meeting between these two middleweights was a lopsided affair that Israel Adesanya won in the second round; will Robert Whittaker fare better the second time around?
Sumian: It is common knowledge that Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker are, by far, the two best middleweights on Planet Earth. Both have cleaned out the division in their respective climbs towards middleweight supremacy. If Adesanya can defeat Whittaker for a second time on the big stage, he will reach a new level of MMA supremacy.
Adesanya is the best striker currently competing in the UFC. He has proven so time after time, and defeated the very best of the middleweight division with relative ease. His resume includes dominant victories over Marvin Vettori and Paulo Costa, who were supposed to be great threats to his middleweight title reign. Izzy used his extraordinary striking and Octagon control to finish Costa within two rounds and utterly dismantle Vettori for a unanimous decision victory. His best weapons include his counter-hooks that have caught the best middleweights over and over. As long as he can stay calm and calculated, there are very few competitors who can give the champion trouble in a five-round showdown.
Robert Whittaker’s title reign as the middleweight champion between 2017 to 2019 was frankly underwhelming. He took part in two epic showdowns with former UFC middleweight contender Yoel Romeo and won both by decision. In addition, he was plagued with numerous injuries that led to fight cancellations and unexpected lengthy recoveries. After losing the title to Adesanya in 2019, Whittaker swiftly bounced back and has compiled an impressive three-fight winning streak at the expense of Darren Till, Jared Cannonier, and Kelvin Gastelum. This version of Whittaker is the best we have ever seen in the Octagon and he has undoubtedly established himself as the biggest threat to Adesanya’s title reign.
This middleweight title fight will be very competitive this time around. Whittaker will need to utilize his strength and superior grappling to continuously pressure the champion and get into boxing range similar to what Gastelum did back in 2019. Despite his elusive nature, Adesanya has been landed on in the past by lesser opponents, when he has been baited into boxing exchanges that take place within his range and length. On the other hand, Adesanya will need to use his movement and craftiness to keep Whittaker on his toes and land precise counter-punches whenever the challenger darts forward to throw a combination.
Adesanya and Whittaker could fight 10 times in a row, and the outcome could be different every time. However, this time round the former champion will enter the Octagon hungry and healthy. He will use his infamous combination to continuously pressure Adesanya and make the fight ugly. After five rounds, Whittaker will be crowned the new middleweight champion and the talks of an immediate rematch will begin.
Petela: I disagree. This fight will be just as one-sided as the first meeting between the pair. That’s not to say that this version of Robert Whittaker won’t be better than the one we saw at UFC 243. It likely will be the best he has ever been. Unfortunately, for Whittaker and his team, they will be taking on an even better Israel Adesanya.
The one thing that should have Robert Whittaker fans hopeful is watching Jan Blachowicz defeat Israel Adesanya and knowing that there is now a blueprint for how to defeat the incumbent middleweight champion. That blueprint is surely the baseline for Whittaker’s training camp leading into this fight, looking to use his wrestling to neutralize Adesanya’s dynamic striking. That is easier said than done, especially at middleweight. Whittaker does not have the size and strength advantage that Blachowicz did when he defended his light heavyweight title against the reigning middleweight king.
Whittaker will try early and often to take this fight to the canvas and be unsuccessful multiple times, expending a plethora of energy in the process. By the second round, that will have diminished the gas tank of Whittaker substantially enough that he has to change tactics and look to engage at boxing range with Adesanya. That too will prove to be an unsuccessful venture as the fleet-of-foot Adesanya is able to maintain his preferred kickboxing range where he has the biggest advantage. That will lead to another emphatic victory for Adesanya, most likely before the fight reaches the championship rounds.
The last time Derrick Lewis fought in Houston, he dropped an interim title fight to Ciryl Gane; does he get a victory over Tai Tuivasa in front of a home crowd?
Petela: Tai Tuivasa has won four consecutive fights to bounce back from a three-fight losing streak. All of those wins have come by knockout, and three of those in the first round. He has shown a bit more poise, but has had moments where he is very hittable and that could be a major problem against Derrick Lewis. When Derrick Lewis loses, it is typically due to the cumulative effects of an extended beating over several minutes or multiple rounds. The last time he was stopped in the first round was back in 2014 when he ran into Matt Mitrione’s forearm just 41 seconds into their fight. Tuivasa will have to be patient and wear down Lewis over the first several minutes. Then he will need to capitalize on an opportunity in the back half of the fight once fatigue sets in for “The Black Beast.” That is easier said than done, but, ultimately, that will be a successful venture for “Bam Bam”, and he will notch the biggest win of his career.
This fight is a changing of the guard of sorts. Tuivasa will be the UFC’s next version of Derrick Lewis, a perennial contender who floats around the top ten of the division for years to come. He is nearly a decade younger than Lewis, who is 37 and slowing down just a tad. Tai Tuivasa may not ever win the heavyweight title, but he will announce himself as a threat to anyone looking to climb the ladder. While Derrick Lewis regained some of his footing in his last fight against Chris Daukaus, it is likely that his best days are behind him, and that will be abundantly evident this weekend. The best version of Tuivasa we have seen will show up on Saturday and defeat a slightly less-than-prime Lewis by third-round knockout.
Sumian: My colleague’s assessment of this exciting and pivotal heavyweight matchup is spot on. Tuivasa is the superior mixed martial artist between the two and will use his versatility and surprising athleticism to dominate Lewis for three straight rounds. The key to beating Lewis is constantly backing him up with combinations and kicks. Tuivasa will utilize this strategy and constantly pressure Lewis. Watching Lewis compete in the UFC is one of the most entertaining aspects of being a UFC fan. However, his days as a heavyweight contender are coming to an end, and Tuivasa will take the next step to becoming a top-ranked heavyweight contender.
A.J. Dobson and Mike Mathetha — do we need to know these names?
Sumian: Not yet, no. Both are undefeated fighters who are making their first walk to the UFC Octagon. They have a long way to go before being recognized as UFC standouts. A victory for each will definitely create some minor buzz for both competitors, but it will be their sophomore appearances that will set them apart from the rest of the prospects.
Petela: Of the two newcomers, Dobson is the one who should realize organizational success sooner. He has finished his last three opponents, including a first-round submission victory on Dana White’s Contender Series. He faces Jacob Malkoun in his debut, a fighter who is 1-1 inside the UFC, and, should he pick up yet another stoppage, it will certainly be worthy of paying close attention to him as he makes his way through the ranks of the middleweight division.
Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 271?
Petela: Derek Brunson. This fight card provides him exactly what he needs to earn a title shot. He will notch his sixth straight win and will do so on a card where his division’s belt is fought for in the main event. Brunson has losses to both main event participants – first-round knockout losses to both fighters, in fact. However, he has turned a major corner since those two losses. Especially since the loss to Israel Adesanya, the last fight he lost, Brunson has become a mature fighter and shown an ever-increasing fight IQ. That will be on full display against Jared Cannonier this weekend, and he will secure a decision victory and plead his case for a title shot. On the heels of a rather pedestrian victory by Sean Strickland, a win for Brunson makes him the next logical choice for a title challenger.
Sumian: Andrei Arlovski. He will knockout Jared Vanderaa and earn his third straight victory. It is truly incredible what Arlovski has been able to do in the second half of his career. The former heavyweight champion continues to compete at a high level and prove how deserving he is of a Hall of Fame appointment.
Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 271?
Sumian: Derrick Lewis. His days as a UFC heavyweight contender will come to an end, and the focus will be matching him up with opponents to create fan-friendly fights. Lewis’s career has been incredibly entertaining to watch, and he should provide fans with many more memorable knockouts before it is all said and done.
Petela: Alexander Hernandez. Just three short years ago, Hernandez had a ton of hype behind him and a big opportunity to make a name for himself when he fought Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone. That fight did not go his way, and he has alternated wins and losses since then. He has an opportunity to change that this weekend as he enters his fight with Renato Moicano after defeating Mike Breeden by first-round knockout in his last contest. Unfortunately, he will come up short against Moicano and fail to gain any real momentum yet again. This will force fans and UFC matchmakers to realize that “The Great” isn’t the next big thing and that he fall into the category of journeyman among the world’s premier mixed martial arts organization.
What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?
Petela: Roxanne Modafferi. That might be cheating because “The Happy Warrior” has announced that this will be her last MMA fight. She has struggled over the latter portion of her career, though that shouldn’t take away from what she has done as a women’s MMA pioneer over the past 18-plus years. She has a tough test ahead of her this weekend in Casey O’Neill, an undefeated fighter who enters this bout after a second-round TKO over Antonina Shevchenko. O’Neill has won all of her UFC bouts by stoppage, and Modafferi hasn’t been stopped since 2011. If O’Neill can notch a finish of Modafferi, it will be a major feather in her cap as she builds her case as a name to watch in the flyweight division.
Sumian: Jared Cannonier as a UFC middleweight contender. Despite a successful run at 185 pounds, Cannonier’s resume lacks significant victories over top-ranked middleweights. He has defeated David Branch, Anderson Silva, Jack Hermansson, and Kelvin Gastelumm. Brunson will convincingly defeat Cannonier and put an end to any talks about the Dallas native fighting for the title in the future.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Sumian: Alex Perez vs. Matt Schnell. Both are very scrappy flyweights capable of putting a high-level mixed martial arts dual. Fans will be treated to constant movement, exciting exchanges and anything else that comes along with an entertaining flyweight clash.
Petela: William Knight vs. Maxim Grishin. This fight will be exhilarating from the opening bell. Knight has notched nine of his 11 wins by knockout, and Grishin has 16 wins by knockout under his belt. These two will both be looking to move forward and pressure the other into taking a step backwards. This fight shouldn’t go the distance and has all the makings for “Fight of the Night”.
Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?
Petela: Carlos Ulberg. His UFC debut did not go according to plan, despite a fast start. Ulberg ultimately succumbed to fatigue and the power of Kennedy Nzechukwu, but that loss will be a valuable lesson for the New Zealander. He takes on Fabio Cherant in his sophomore appearance, a fighter who is 0-2 since joining the UFC. Ulberg will be more patient and methodical this time out and pick Cherant apart without gassing himself out. That will lead to a jaw-dropping knockout late in the second round that shows why there was so much hype behind this prospect when he signed with the promotion.
Sumian: Andrei Arlovski. He will knockout Jared Vanderaa and earn a third-straight victory that comes with a “Performance of the Night” honors. The former champion is certainly not done yet and will continue to compete for as long as he can.
Pair this card with…
Sumian: “Card of the Year” vibes. This card is going to deliver in a big way. The main card is loaded with top tier fighters and competitive showdowns. From start to finish, UFC 271 will mesmerize fans and have them glued to the TV wanting more. This card is worth going all-out for. Bring out the best steaks, best whiskey and best people you can think of and enjoy an evening of ultimate MMA supremacy.
Petela: Sierra Nevada’s Wild Little Thing. This card will be entertaining, but another loss to Israel Adesanya will be devastating for Robert Whittaker and will certainly leave a sour taste in his mouth. So pair it with a solid sour ale like Wild Little Thing so you can empathize a bit with “The Reaper” as he falls for a second time in his bid to defeat “The Last Stylebender.”
Main Card (ESPN+ pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
MW Championship: Israel Adesanya vs. Robert Whittaker
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