National | Hākinakina

Ngāpuhi UFC star confident, 'I can beat' Adesanya

The UFC's first Māori-Australian champion has reflected back to a time that he has been chomping to get back to - a middleweight championship fight.

The last time Ngāpuhi fighter Robert Whittaker fought for such a prize was in 2019, as the prize holder, in front of a raucous 57,000-strong home-country crowd in Melbourne, facing off against Israel Adesanya. Whittaker lost the bout and his title after being knocked out.

Fast-forward to February 12 [US time] later this year, 'The Reaper' and 'The Last Stylebender' will meet each other again in the octagon for the same prize.

Speaking with Ariel Helwani on The MMA Hour, Whittaker reveals that he was drawn into Adesanya's game of trash talk that later turned into anger during their first title fight in 2019, which in turn led to his downfall.

“I got in my own head so much and I had so much grudge towards him and gripe that I wore myself out,” Whittaker said. “I had so much anger and hate, and I wore myself out.

“It got tiring being angry at him, and for no real reason. It’s not like he came to my house and stole my TV.”

That same anger is something Whittaker has let go of.

“I got over it,” Whittaker said. “Honestly, once I let that go, I started seeing him like everybody else. I don’t hate the guy anymore. If anything, I respect his skill sets.

“I respect him just doing his thing. That’s the thing. While I think his behaviour’s a little [out there] sometimes, he’s staying true to it. He’s still doing it. He’s just him. I guess that’s the long answer: I don’t hate the guy.”

Since that fight happened, Whittaker has bounced back to his winning ways with victories over other middleweights like Darren Till, Jared Cannonier and Kelvin Gastelum, holding the #1 middleweight ranking, which ultimately led back to Adesanya.

Reflecting on the champ's last title defence against Marvin Vettori, Whittaker gave Adesanya his due credit.

"He's a good fighter, props where they're due. I think he fights really smart and tactically, that's a good skill set to have. I think that it's a massively underrated thing especially at the top of the ladder - doing what you need to do to win.

"I guess my over-arching feeling of that fight was that I can beat him. Marvin [Vettori] was landing strikes on him, and I'm a better striker than Marvin. Then Marvin was on takedowns, and I think my timing's better for takedowns than Marvin.

"I think I can beat him. I just think that he looked beatable."

Part of a stacked card to main event UFC 271 on February 12 [February 13 NZ time], Adesanya will be journeying with City Kickboxing teammates again. Carlos Ulberg (Tainui, Te Atiawa, Hāmoa) will look to get his first win from his second UFC bout in a light heavyweight clash against Fabio Cherant, while King in the Ring multi-champ Blood Diamond makes his highly-anticipated debut into the Welterweight division against Orion Cosce.