They’ve been in this situation before in October 2019 at UFC 243. The positions were different, though. Back then, Whittaker was sitting on top of the world. Adesanya was the young cat ready to show he was the new king.
In a battle of two Oceanic elites, Adesanya pieced up Whittaker en route to a second-round knockout. The loss stung Whittaker, and the rebuild was difficult. Through deep self-conversation, Whittaker straightened out his mind and began the trek back toward a title.
One, two, three wins later, he’s back in a UFC title fight.
“I think I was just venting on him, to be honest,” Whittaker told MMA Junkie. “I was feeling the pressure from a lot of different avenues. I wasn’t happy with a lot of different things. I was just angling toward him, to be honest. I’ve let all that go. I’m pretty cool now. I’m quite happy with everything. I’m happy with the process, and I’m happy with where I am with the work I’ve put in. I look forward to getting across from him and getting to work.”
Meanwhile, Adesanya doesn’t like Whittaker. He explicitly said so Wednesday. Despite that, the proverbial tip of the cap comes anyway. Personal feelings are put aside. Adesanya doesn’t like the way Whittaker handles himself at times, but the reinvention even drives respect from the bitterest of rivals.
“He’s young – he’s actually younger than me,” Adesanya said Thursday. “I know I look fresh, but he’s younger than me. He’s made a lot of improvements in his game, but you guys have to understand. From ‘TUF (Nations)’ to being the UFC middleweight champion, this guy did a lot of work. He ran through everyone until he ran into me, then I stopped that sh*t. But the last three fights, he’s done what he’s always done. He’s improved. He’s always been a beast, but I’m a different beast – but the same animal.”
When it came time Thursday for the two to square off for the first time in over two years, the face-to-face staredown was intense. With locked eyes and muscles flexed, the two fighters ended with a handshake. Through all the other nonsense, the respect is still there.
For Whittaker, Adesanya represents an opportunity for self-assessment. How far has he actually come? Analysts can analyze and commentators can commentate, but this is going to be proof – the ultimate test.
“I’ve just been making slight improvements, trying to get better, and be more diverse,” Whittaker said. “Honestly, I’ve put the work in and I’m excited to get in there again with him and test myself. The rematch is just a good way for me to gauge how far I’ve come or how far I’ve got to go. I look forward to getting in there with him. Honestly, it really interests me, this fight.”
The victor of the first fight, Adesanya has something to gain, too. No, he doesn’t have losses to avenge, but he can continue running laps around the middleweight division – and that means something. It means he’s dominant. He’s king.
“After beating them, you’re in their head,” Adesanya said. “I was already in there anyway, but you’re already in their head. Once you beat them the way I did it last time. You can’t get over that. It takes a lot of work.”