An analysis of multiple statistical categories makes a strong case for interim middleweight champion Israel Adesanya in the main event of UFC 243 on Saturday in Melbourne, Australia.
Per the numbers, he has an advantage when it comes to striking with volume, power and accuracy. However, champion Robert Whittaker is used to being overlooked and playing spoiler. Before winning the 185-pound championship in 2017, he was the betting underdog in six of his previous seven fights. The following statistical categories highlight the advantages that Adesanya holds, but also show many reasons why this could turn out to be a title fight for the ages.
Per the official scorecards, the decision was on the line for Adesanya against Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 236. The fighters split the first four rounds, and the winner of Round 5 would walk away with the interim middleweight title. Adesanya recorded three knockdowns in the round, which was scored 10-8 by all three judges. For the fight, he finished with four knockdowns, the most in a UFC championship fight and the second most in a fight all time behind the five of Forrest Petz and Jeremy Stephens.
In the UFC, Adesanya has averaged 1.28 knockdowns per 15 minutes of fight time, and he has never been knocked down. Interestingly enough, his knockdowns have come in bunches. Before scoring four against Gastelum, he dropped Derek Brunson three times at UFC 230. His only other knockdown came in his UFC debut against Rob Wilkinson.
Whittaker has averaged 0.75 knockdowns per 15 minutes during his UFC career. He failed to score a knockdown in his two-fight series against Yoel Romero, which greatly reduced his knockdown rate. Before facing Romero twice, Whittaker had been averaging 1.09 per 15 minutes. Also, in his second fight against Romero he was dropped twice. Before that fight, Whittaker had gone eight straight fights without suffering a knockdown. The silver lining for the champion is that he was able to survive and take the decision despite being hurt and sent to the floor twice against the 2000 Olympic silver-medalist wrestler.
Adesanya's ability to land with power and score knockdowns has been vital to his success in the UFC. Whittaker has been resilient, but his chin nearly cost him in his last outing. If that is a sign of what is to come, he could really struggle against Adesanya.
It is safe to say that neither fighter has had trouble landing meaningful strikes against. Whittaker currently lands 4.82 significant strikes per minute, which is the third-highest rate among ranked middleweights. Adesanya holds the fourth-best rate at 4.44.
The separation between Adesanya and Whittaker, at least statistically, comes in terms of strike absorption. In the UFC, Adesanya has absorbed only 2.49 significant strikes per minute, which is the fourth-best rate among ranked middleweights. Whittaker, meanwhile, has the second-worst strike absorption rate among the same group at 3.65 per minute.
This lack of defense leaves Whittaker with a plus-1.17 striking differential, which is well behind Adesanya's differential of plus-1.95. That number is the second best among ranked middleweights.
Adesanya's ability to land on his opponents without taking very much damage has led to a series of victories in the UFC. Whittaker has also been successful in terms of offensive striking, but he has had to endure plenty of damage to get to where he is today. Not only could that extra wear and tear on his body cost him against Adesanya, but it could also signal defensive openings that the interim champion could exploit.
One of the reasons Adesanya has been able to land consistently without allowing counters is that he is extremely accurate. In the UFC, he has landed 51% of his significant strikes. That is the third-best striking accuracy among ranked middleweights. It is also an improvement from early in his combat sports career. During his four-fight Glory kickboxing career, Adesanya landed only 39% of his strike attempts. He has adapted well to the smaller gloves and improved his accuracy despite dealing with different ranges and the threat of takedowns.
In addition to his strong striking accuracy, Adesanya has also proven to be a difficult target for opponents. He has successfully avoided 65% of the significant strike attempts against him. Whittaker has also been a tough target, as he dodges 61% of the attempts he faces. However, he has not been nearly as accurate. In fact, Whittaker's 40% striking accuracy is the second-lowest percentage among ranked middleweights and below the average for the same group (46%).
Being inaccurate does not make a fighter entirely ineffective, but it does present some issues. Both Adesanya and Whittaker land a similar number of significant strikes per minute. However, due to Whittaker's depressed accuracy, he needs to work much harder to keep up that effective volume. Adesanya averages only 8.61 significant strike attempts per minute compared to 11.85 for Whittaker.
While the champion's ability to throw with high volume is an asset that helps him overcome his inaccuracy, it can also create openings for opponents to counter. This might explain some of Whittaker's defensive issues, and it could put him in a tough spot against Adesanya. The interim champion is adept at making fighters miss and landing with counters.
A possible explanation for Whittaker's below-average accuracy is the fact that he does not vary his target. In the UFC, 70% of his landed significant strikes have come against the head of his opponents. It is common for fighters to land a majority of their strikes to the head, but Whittaker's share is higher than most. It is also possible that he is aware of the issue and making strides to diversify his targets. Going into his last fight against Romero, he had landed only 83 strikes to his opponents' legs. In the second Romero fight, he landed 48 leg strikes or 38% of his significant strike total that night.
Adesanya also lands a majority of his significant strikes to the head (56%), but he also makes it a point to attack other targets -- 18% of his strikes have come to the body and 26% have landed against the legs. His striking to the legs is an essential element of his game. In the UFC, Adesanya has landed 1.16 significant leg strikes per minute while absorbing only 0.56.
If that advantage holds up against Whittaker, it could allow him to pull away from the champion. However, Whittaker has shown both a willingness and an aptitude to change up his striking style in terms of target. If he can find a way to land to the legs and body of Adesanya, it could go a long way to helping him defend his title.