HOUSTON -- Israel Adesanya was the story all week. His new, lucrative contract with the UFC. His teammates from City Kickboxing fighting on the same card. His current and future stardom.
It felt like no one here was talking about Robert Whittaker, the challenger and former champ who talks no trash and draws absolutely no undue attention to himself. It was almost like it was a foregone conclusion that Adesanya would walk away with his UFC middleweight title without much fuss.
That was very much not the case, though. Adesanya did defeat Whittaker via unanimous decision (48-47, 48-47, 49-46) in the main event of UFC 271 on Saturday night at Toyota Center. Adesanya did indeed leave the Octagon with his middleweight belt, using his length and reach to counter Whittaker's boxing. Adesanya's biggest success came with his kicks to Whittaker's left leg, which was showing bruising and swelling early in the bout.
But the fight was incredibly close -- so much so that the crowd booed the decision, thinking Whittaker was the rightful winner. At the start of the bout, the Houston fans were completely behind Adesanya, but that changed as the bout went on and they sensed a possible upset. Chants of "Bobby!" could be heard in the late rounds.
Adesanya said he rated his own performance as a "seven out of 10."
"Not bad," he said. "Good night in the office. Good chess match."
The important thing, he said, was the victory. Whittaker said afterward he believed he "did enough" to win. Adesanya shut that idea down.
"He did not win that fight, and he knows it," Adesanya said. "He needs to go have a shower as well and reflect and realize that's not true. ... You don't do 'enough' to win the title. You take the belt. That's how this works."
Judges Jacob Montalvo and Doug Crosby had Adesanya winning the first three rounds and Whittaker taking the final two. Judge Mike Beltran had Adesanya winning all but the second round, which he gave to Whittaker.
Adesanya outlanded Whittaker 79-59 in significant strikes, according to UFC Stats. But Whittaker landed more significant strikes to the head, 38-36, with Adesanya outlanding Whittaker in strikes to the legs, 29-13. Whittaker landed four takedowns, which matched Marvin Vettori for the most by any opposing fighter against Adesanya in the UFC, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
"We're just two guys trying to be the best in the world," Adesanya said. "Tonight, I was the best in the world."
Coming in, ESPN had Adesanya ranked No. 2 and Whittaker ranked No. 9 on its MMA pound-for-pound rankings. At middleweight, Adesanya was No. 1 and Whittaker No. 2.
Adesanya's best round was the first, and he looked like he would carry that performance throughout. He beat up Whittaker's left leg with kicks and kept Whittaker on the end of his striking attacks, not letting the challenger get close enough to land anything of significance. Late in the first, Adesanya dropped an off-balance Whittaker with a left hand.
Whittaker showed a nice left hook and uppercut in the second round, while Adesanya continued to torture Whittaker's leg with kicks plus a nice punching combo at the start of the frame. Whittaker landed a late takedown in the second and then another in the third after catching an Adesanya kick. Adesanya's best strike of the third was a very hard leg kick late that clearly hurt Whittaker.
In the fourth, Adesanya landed a nice left hook and right hand. Whittaker used his jab more in that round and mixed in some level changes and takedowns. He also got Adesanya down and took his back briefly. The fifth was much of the same.
UFC president Dana White said he had Adesanya winning three rounds to two and that he saw no controversy in the decision.
"He's the champ," White said in the postfight news conference. "He continues to win. That's just the way it works. The more you win, the more you do, the more you make."
Adesanya (22-1) stopped Whittaker via second-round knockout at UFC 243 in October 2019 to win the title. The Nigerian-born New Zealander is undefeated at middleweight, but dropped a unanimous decision to then-light heavyweight champion Jan Blachowicz in a UFC title fight at UFC 259 last March. Adesanya, 32, picked up his fourth middleweight title defense with the win over his rival, though he argued this should be considered his fifth defense because he was the interim champ before unifying the title against Whittaker.
Afterward, Adesanya called out top contender Jared Cannonier for a title fight in June. Cannonier stopped Derek Brunson earlier at UFC 271 via TKO. Adesanya said he's not sure about a third fight with Whittaker in the future.
"We'll see," Adesanya said. "The division is filled with killers. It's filled with killers. But I'm looking forward to fresh meat."
Whittaker (23-6) had won three in a row after dropping the title to Adesanya, knocking off contenders Darren Till, Kelvin Gastelum and Cannonier. The New Zealand-born Australian has won 12 of his past 14 fights overall. Whittaker, 31, held either the interim or undisputed UFC middleweight titles from 2017 to 2019. "The Reaper," a former Ultimate Fighter winner, was the UFC's first-ever Australian champion.
"You can see in this fight how much I've come [from the first fight], to the point where I think I beat him," Whittaker said. "I'm just excited for the future. I believe there is no ceiling for me."
Whittaker said it was "inevitable" that there will be a third fight with Adesanya.
"I think I am the person to beat him," Whittaker said. "My mission stays the same. Beat the next guy and then the next guy."