Rivals to meet this weekend in Octagon and at SoFi Stadium

By E. Spencer Kyte | Posted 2 years ago

There is something that feels different about heading toward a championship clash where the parties involved are genuine rivals, as is the case with Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker.

Saturday night at Houston’s Toyota Center, the duo will do battle for a second time in the main event of UFC 271, with Adesanya’s middleweight title hanging in the balance.

The flamboyant and charismatic champion completed his ascent to the top of the division by winning a title unification bout against Whittaker two-and-a-half years ago in Melbourne, and fans, media, and fighters alike have been awaiting a second meeting between the two ever since.

This weekend, the wait is over.

In addition to the championship main event, Saturday’s fight card also offers an opportunity to see last year’s UFC Rookie of the Year make the first start of her sophomore season, and a streaking heavyweight with a signature victory celebration take on the toughest test of his career.

And we’re here to set it all up for you.

Fighter to Know: Casey O’Neill

O’Neill made her UFC debut last February against Shana Dobson, securing a second-round stoppage victory to push her record to 6-0. Four months later, she moved to 7-0 after putting Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt Lara Procopio to sleep courtesy of a third-round rear-naked choke.

And four months after that, she mauled the older sister of divisional champ Valentina Shevchenko, pounding out a second-round stoppage win over Antonina Shevchenko to push her record to 8-0, forcing her way into the Top 15 in the 125-pound weight class in the process.

Now comes the hard part — the encore.

The 24-year-old O’Neill, who represents both Scotland and Australia while fighting out of Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas, makes her first start of 2022 on Saturday, squaring off with “The Happy Warrior,” Roxanne Modafferi, an MMA pioneer who has announced this weekend’s clash will be the final bout of her nearly 20-year career.

When you race out to three straight wins in your first year competing in the Octagon — and three consecutive stoppage wins at that — you earn a great deal of attention, and the projections about how far you can take things start to bubble to the surface. O’Neill was outstanding in 2021 and projects as a perennial contender at the very least going forward, but this year has the potential further clarify how far up the rankings she could climb, beginning with Saturday’s clash with Modafferi.

Though she is ready to hang up her four-ounce gloves for good after this weekend, the 39-year-old Modafferi is no easy assignment for O’Neill. Including her two stints on The Ultimate Fighter, she’s logged 49 appearances against the best in two divisions across multiple generations, and is more than capable of stifling the ascent of a promising, but still unproven hopeful like O’Neill.

Two years ago, Modafferi shared the Octagon with Maycee Barber, an emerging talent nicknamed “The Future” with ambitions to break Jon Jones’ record for being the youngest fighter to win UFC gold. She too had earned stoppage victories in each of her first three UFC appearance and entered with an 8-0 record, only for Modafferi to take control of the fight early and score a unanimous decision victory.

O’Neill will look to avoid a similar fate this weekend, and if she is successful where Barber fell short, the 24-year-old will take another considerable step forward in the flyweight rankings, positioning herself for an even more formidable test later this year.

The 2021 Rookie of the Year has all the markings of a future contender, and could find herself challenging for championship gold within the next two years, depending on how things shake out.

Fighter to Know: Tai Tuivasa

Tuivasa won three fights in eight months to start his UFC career, rocketing into the Top 10 in the heavyweight division and landing a main event assignment against former titleholder Junior Dos Santos.

He lost that fight and two more after it, tumbling out of the rankings and into the background in the big boy division.

A little over a year after his third loss, the engaging former rugby player from West Sydney, Australia returned, collecting a first-round knockout win over veteran Stefan Struve. Five months later, Tuivasa posted a second straight first-round stoppage win, walloping late replacement Harry Hunsucker to put himself on a two-fight winning streak.

Last July at UFC 264, Tuivasa knocked out former NFL defensive lineman Greg Hardy to give him three sets of three consecutive results through his first nine Octagon appearances — three wins, three losses, and three more wins — before breaking that pattern by collecting a fourth straight stoppage victory in December.

Along the way, Tuivasa acknowledged that he let his early success convince him that succeeding in the UFC was easy, and caused him to be a little too relaxed when it came to his pre-fight preparations. But since that rough patch, he’s dialed in his training, continuing to progress from being a big, tough kid that likes to brawl into a more refined, more patient competitor, though one who remains extremely dangerous inside the cage.

Saturday night, Tuivasa faces his toughest test to date when he steps in with Houston’s own Derrick Lewis.

“The Black Beast” is a Top 5 fixture and a beloved figured in the UFC 271 host city. While he enters off a first-round stoppage win over Chris Daukaus, Lewis is looking for a little bit of redemption this weekend, after coming up short against Ciryl Gane when they met for the interim title at UFC 265 last summer in Houston.

This is a huge opportunity for Tuivasa, who has become a fan favorite around the globe for his “shoey” post-fight victory celebration, which involves pouring a beer into someone’s shoe and chugging it down. Occasionally, a gob of spit is added into the mix for good measure.

Lewis has been a staple in the title picture for the last several years and stands as the guy you’ve got to beat in order to enter that elite class in the heavyweight division. And as good as Tuivasa has looked, he hasn’t shared the Octagon with anyone as experienced or dangerous as Lewis during his current run of success.

Things at the top of the heavyweight ranks are more than a little muddy at the moment, with Ngannou and the promotion locked in a stalemate and the direction the division will go in his stead still undetermined.

But a victory on Saturday would set “Bam Bam” up to share the cage with another Top 5 opponent next time out, and a win there would have him squarely in the championship conversation, regardless of how things shape up going forward.

Middleweight Championship Fight: Israel Adesanya (21-1) vs. Robert Whittaker (23-5)

Adesanya and Whittaker first shared the Octagon at UFC 243 in Melbourne — the former entering as the undefeated interim champion; the latter, the reigning middleweight titleholder, returning for the first time in well over a year.

It was a collision course fight everyone had been waiting for since Adesanya started blazing a trail to the top of the division just under a year prior, when he knocked out Derek Brunson in less than a round to give him four victories in 10 months and extend his record to 15-0. The boisterous and beguiling “Last Stylebender” looked the part of a conquering raider, but Whittaker had shown incredible resolve, grit, and technical skill while cementing his place as the top fighter in the division before Adesanya had even first set foot inside the UFC cage.

The two traded barbs and comments in the press and on social media in the build to their meeting, and when the fight began, Whittaker looked uncharacteristically hurried — lunging with punches where he traditionally stayed measured, creating grand opportunities for Adesanya to land crisp counters.

Just before the bell to end the opening round, Adesanya put Whittaker on the mat, taking him off his feet with a clean right hand at the end of an exchange. Whittaker clambered back to his feet and walked carefully back to his corner, but didn’t make it out of the second round.

Adesanya continued piecing him up early in the second and again took advantage of an opportunity to land a sharp counter in the midst of a chaotic exchange, bashing Whittaker with a left hand that sent him tumbling across the cage before driving home a coffin nail to close out the fight.

Since then, Adesanya has successfully defended his title three times, but also suffered the first loss of his career after venturing to light heavyweight in an unsuccessful bid to unseat Jan Blachowicz last March.

Whittaker initially took some time off after feeling burnt out following five years of high-pressure assignments and dealing with numerous injuries, ailments, and maladies. He returned in the summer of 2020 and has rattled off three straight victories over a tetra-pack of top middleweight talents, setting the stage for this weekend’s highly anticipated rematch.

What makes the contest so intriguing is that for as good as Whittaker has looked since returning — and for as uncharacteristically frantic as he fought the first time — Adesanya has remained incredibly sharp in each of his last three middleweight appearances, showing no signs of decline or reasons to assume he’s incapable of replicating his efforts from their first meeting.

The onus to change the way this fight plays out is on Whittaker, who has shown in the past that he’s adept at making mid-fight adjustment and carries a full compliment of tools with him into the Octagon, but can he do that on Saturday?

Whittaker admitted that some of the banter between the two got to him ahead of the first meeting, and has remained relatively quiet since, while Adesanya has always and will always be someone that looks to maximize opportunities to tweak his opponents in any way he can.

Did Adesanya’s loss last year provide a glimpse into how to beat him or was it simply case of the middleweight champion taking a big swing because there was nothing else available to him at the moment?

Has Whittaker made enough adjustments and re-focused himself to the point that he can draw level in this rivalry or will Adesanya had him a second straight defeat to end any and all discussions about who the superior talent is inside the Octagon?

This is going to be one of those “on the edge of your seat from the outset” type of matchups that you don’t want to miss.

Super Bowl Selections

While their focus is often on the action happening inside the Octagon, plenty of UFC competitors are big-time football fans, and many of them have forged relationships with NFL athletes over the years.

So with the big game set to take place on Sunday, I thought it would be fun to ask some fighters and coaches their picks for this weekend’s Super Bowl. Here’s what they had to say.

Jared Gordon, UFC lightweightI’m going Bengals. I don’t even know who the other team is, but I’m buddies with (defensive end) Sam Hubbard of the Bengals.

Max Griffin, UFC welterweight: I got the Bengals — they beat the Chiefs and Joe Burrow is a cold (bleep). He’s gonna get the job done. He’s the future.

Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson, UFC welterweight: Take (Los Angeles) because you’re pulling for veteran Matt Stafford and legend OBJ, not to mention that stud Cooper Kupp.

Eric Nicksick, Head Coach at Xtreme Couture: I gotta go Rams. For me, it’s Jalen Ramsey — he’s able to shut down half the field and allow the defense to do some elaborate blitzes and schemes.

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