Robert Whittaker’s middleweight belt will finally be on the line at UFC 243, when “The Reaper” faces interim titleholder Israel Adesanya in Melbourne, Australia, on Oct. 5. For Whittaker’s longtime jiu-jitsu coach Alex Prates, this contest might change the way the public sees the 185-pound champion.
For Prates, a black belt under Rolker Gracie and Royler Gracie, the ability to keep Adesanya guessing throughout the five-round fight will be the key to coming out victorious in his first UFC title defense.
“Maybe you’ll see Robert Whittaker using a style that I think is the one that suits him better but he never really needed it because it was always comfortable for him on the feet for most of his fights,” Prates told MMA Fighting. “With Yoel Romero, for example, it would have been stupid to try to take him down. But Robert has great wrestling and great timing. I honestly think Robert is a better version of GSP. And we might see this now.”
Georges St-Pierre had a relentless wrestling game with efficient ground work and striking skills, a combination that allowed him to impose his will against strikers, wrestlers and grapplers for years as the UFC welterweight king.
Whittaker was victorious in his eight UFC bouts since moving up to middleweight in 2014, defeating the likes of Romero (twice), Ronaldo Souza, Derek Brunson and Uriah Hall. Adesanya is unbeaten in professional MMA with a 17-0 record, and Prates respects his credentials while breaking down the matchup.
“If Adesanya dictates the rhythm of the fight the way he likes to do, like he did against Anderson Silva, it’s going to be a good fight for him and he will probably win by decision,” Prates said. “Now, if Robert takes that away from him, his ability to dictate the pace, it will be bad for him. If they grapple, if there’s a bit of mixed martial arts in the fight, a bit of wrestling and striking, Robert won’t get tired.
“I think that Robert is technically superior on the ground and with his wrestling. I won’t say Robert’s striking is superior, but it’s definitely on the same level of Adesanya’s. I see many people saying that Adesanya is a better striker and I think that’s really unfair. If Robert hasn’t proved yet that he’s one of the best strikers of the division, I don’t know what else he needs to do.
“The main difference of Robert using his wrestling and ground game with Israel is that he doesn’t depend on the ground, if that makes sense. He can take Israel to the ground, but if Israel starts to scramble and gets back up, he doesn’t need to spend energy there. Let him get back up. That’s the difference from a jiu-jitsu fighter or a wrestler that depends on keeping him on the ground. That might get Israel worried about the takedowns as well, which makes it easier to land combinations on the feet. And also get him tired.”
Adesanya has experienced defeats before in the kickboxing circuit, but his impeccable record as a mixed martial artist makes this title unification bout bigger than any of Whittaker’sprevious bouts, especially since both fight out of Oceania.
Whittaker’s coach doesn’t think it would be the biggest win of his career, though.
“Robert defeated Romero twice. If you ask my personal opinion, my understanding of MMA, defeating Romero twice is a bigger feat than defeating Adesanya,” Prates said. “Israel definitely is a star here, but I think there’s a misunderstanding when people say he’s a new prospect. He’s older than Robert, he’s a veteran with more than 60 kickboxing fights. He’s super experienced, and that’s how we look at him. We don’t think his ground game is bad, that his wrestling is bad. He’s a MMA fighter. I just think that Robert combines it really well. When he combines his striking and wrestling, he’s really hard to read.”
When Whittaker enters the cage at Marvel Stadium in October, it will have been 14 months since his non-title win over Romero, the longest layoff of his MMA career. “The Reaper” was originally scheduled to defend the gold against Kelvin Gastelum in February, but had to undergo emergency hernia surgery just hours before UFC 234.
It was the second time Whittaker had to withdraw from a pay-per-view main event in Australia due to health issues—in February 2018, an injury forced him out of a fight with Luke Rockhold. The champion is now in “phenomenal” shape after battling depression during his layoff and “has fuel to go five rounds” at UFC 243, Prates said.
“I’m not trying to sell anything here, but he’s more fit than every other fight he’s been to,” he said. “He’s way better technically than he was when he fought Romero, and I’ve never seen him so strong and in such good shape. His conditioning is phenomenal. He won’t get tired in this fight. He’s super confident, and that’s what makes him a champion.”
Whittaker is working 26 training sessions per week in the gym and Prates promises he will show up to fight this time.
“That’s not something he’s concerned about, but that’s something Fabricio (Itte) and I are concerned. That’s our main concern,” Prates said. “If he doesn’t fight this time I’m not training him anymore, I’m quitting. We’re putting him in a bubble. He will show up to fight. We’re being very careful.”
“I’m not trying to avoid responsibilities, but last time it was something we couldn’t know,” he continued. “He had complained about abdominal pain a month before the fight, he couldn’t sleep, and we took him to the doctor to do a scan, but his hernia was behind the intestine and the doctor couldn’t see it. His diagnostic was food-related so we changed his diet. It was our mistake. If someone has to own it, it’s Fabricio and I, but it was hard, it could have happened to anyone.
“But the Rockhold fight, I’ll definitely raise my hand. It was a staph infection, that’s our fault. So it’s a pressure we have over ourselves. Not him, but his coaching staff. Our priority today is making sure he shows up to fight.”