When Israel Adesanya emerged victorious in his Fight of the Year battle against Kelvin Gastelum in the main event of UFC 236 earlier this year, not only did the burgeoning superstar claim the interim middleweight title, but he also set up a showdown with reigning champ Robert Whittaker.
As soon as the pairing came together, the dueling titleholders from Oceania began lobbying for the opportunity to compete close to home, rather than bringing the massive title unification clash to North America.
Three months after the fight came together on paper with Adesanya’s victory, it was made official, with the duo set to headline UFC 243 on Sunday, October 6 at Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, Australia.
The event, which will air on pay-per-view in North America on Saturday, October 5, has the potential to eclipse the record as the most attended UFC event in history, set the last time the promotion ventured to the cavernous venue former known at Etihad Stadium for UFC 193, the night Holly Holm shocked the world by knocking out Ronda Rousey.
“UFC 193, that was at what was back then Etihad Stadium, now it’s Marvel Stadium,” began the charismatic and engaging Adesanya, who has earned victories in all six of his Octagon appearances to date and carries a perfect 17-0 record into his showdown with Whittaker this fall. “I remember I was in the nosebleeds and I remember the feeling of that arena. They had to have people from outside headline the card and stack the card up, and it was a great card, but now, we’re stacking this up with people from our own side of the world and that shows you that it’s thriving.”
“That’s been my biggest focus for the whole fight is that we are coming back to Australia, at a bigger venue,” added Whittaker, who scheduled to defend his title against Gastelum at UFC 234 at Rod Laver Arena in February, only to be forced out the day of the event due to a hernia and twisted bowel that required emergency surgery. “We have a chance to make UFC history and it’s all kept down in this part of the world.
“It’s one of the most anticipated fights and I think it will be the biggest event in combat sports for this part of the world and I really look forward to the growth of the sport after this, for the sport itself and for the athletes more importantly.”
The February fight cancellation was actually the second time in a row that the 28-year-old Australian champion, who was born in New Zealand, but fights out of Sydney, was forced out of the main event of pay-per-view show at home. One year prior to his scheduled date with Gastelum, Whittaker was slated to face Luke Rockhold for the middleweight title at UFC 221 in Perth, only to be forced from the bout due to a serious illness.
That evening turned into a coming out party for several talented newcomers, including heavyweights Curtis Blaydes and Tai Tuivasa and current featherweight contender Alexander Volkanovski, but the man who really stole the show and rocketed to stardom was Adesanya.
Making his promotional debut on the preliminary card, the captivating “Last Stylebender” played with Rob Wilkinson, eventually putting him away in the second round before cutting a scathing promo in the center of the Octagon, announcing his presence. He fought and won four more times over the next 12 months, his popularity growing with each conquest and culminating in his interim title bout against Gastelum in April.
After rattling off six wins in 14 months, the 30-year-old Nigerian-born, Auckland, New Zealand-based kickboxer has spent the last few months enjoying the fruits of his labors and getting recharged because he knows that Whittaker is chomping at the bit to get back into the cage, and that when they meet at UFC 243, it’s going to be one hell of a fight.
“I’m a guy that stays active, even before I got in the UFC,” said Adesanya, telling a story about fighting 20 times in a year after being brought to China to serve as a journeyman, only to be adopted as a star when he started turning back the local talent. “I fought smart, I fought healthy and I did the same thing in the UFC — six fights in 14 months.
“But like (Whittaker), now I’ve had a holiday; I’ve been chillin’,” he continued.
“I was eating very well and now I’m rested, I’m inspired, and I’m rejuvenated. Right now, I feel the best that I’ve ever felt as well, so the best man will win.”
Whittaker shared similar sentiments after being asked multiple times about his fitness, health and hunger following the February fight cancellation and what will be a 16-month absence by the time the dual titleholders take to the Octagon in October.
“I feel great in the sense of overcoming adversity like the surgery and getting back to where I am now,” said Whittaker, whose low key, laid back manner is a perfect natural counter to Adesanya’s high energy, talkative demeanor. “Honestly, I feel in peak condition, but (having to pull out of UFC 234) left a really sour, bitter taste in my mouth and I just can’t wait to get back in there.
“The layoff has affected me more than anyone else,” he added. “I’m hungry to get back in there. I love what I do and I do it for a living, so I’m excited to get in there, do what I love and earn some money.”
Although they’re very different in terms of their personalities and fighting styles, there was no animosity between the soon-to-be warring middleweights on Wednesday evening, though Adesanya did make sure to get in a couple quality quips, including one about going from sitting in the nosebleeds at UFC 193 to making noses bleed at UFC 243.
More than anything, the duo agreed on the importance of having this fight take place in Melbourne, having the card stacked with talent from Australia and New Zealand, and that the best man will emerge victorious come October 6.
They also had similar thoughts on how the bout would play out when asked for their predictions by a fan at the close of the presser.
“I’m hoping it’s a five-round slugfest and I scrape a victory by split decision,” deadpanned Whittaker to a rousing applause.
“For me, I might take him down and lay-and-pray him for five rounds because GSP has done it and GSP built a whole career off it, so I may implement that as well,” added Adesanya.
While no one can say with any certainty how it will end, one thing that is for certain now is that this is a massive fight with record-breaking potential and no matter how things play out inside the Octagon, UFC 243 is going to be a night to remember.