Whittaker, Adesanya headline UFC 243 Down Under

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Robert Whittaker says he’s in the best shape of his career for his UFC middleweight world title defense against Israel Adesanya.

Whittaker, a New Zealand-born Australian, and New Zealand-based, Nigerian-born interim champion Adesanya, meet in a much-anticipated 185-pound unification bout which headlines UFC 243 at Melbourne’s Docklands Stadium.

The early Sunday afternoon time slot for the main bout in Australia will translate into a Saturday evening television viewership in United States.

Whittaker weighed in right on the 185-pound limit while Adesanya was at 184. The two fighters shook hands then stood face-to-face while Adesanya said a few words to Whittaker, and Whittaker remained silent.

“I cannot wait to get in there, it’s going to be a cracker,” Whittaker said later.

Adesanya has a 17-0 MMA record and is 6-0 under the UFC banner. He won the interim title in his last fight and in less than two years with the UFC has been fast-tracked into a full championship bout with Whittaker, who is on a nine-fight win streak over five years.

It will be Whittaker’s first fight in Australia in almost three years and the first UFC world title defense by an Australian.

“It’s a milestone for my career, it’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” Whittaker said. “I’m given the moment to get out there defend my title and I’m just making history.”

Whittaker last fought in June 2018 in Chicago. He was scheduled to fight in Melbourne in February but pulled out with an undisclosed illness. So the 28-year-old has put himself through the hardest preparation of his career.

“On the back of what happened last time I just jumped back into training with a fervor,” Whittaker said. “I focused on my strength, my conditioning, focused on my health, on my fitness and just honestly, I’ve thrashed myself this camp.”

Adesanya said Whittaker’s lengthy layoff could be an issue.

“For ring rust, he can say what he has to say to keep him believing, but there’s a difference between fighting in front of 50 people in some hall and fighting in front of 60,000 people in a stadium,” Adesanya said during a conference call two weeks ago. “I’ve been active, he hasn’t. I have momentum on my side, he hasn’t.”

On Friday, Adesanya said Whittaker will be feeling the pressure of fighting in his home country.

“He doesn’t want to let everyone down,” Adesanya said. “Pressure is an acquired taste, like caviar. He’s not going to like the way it tastes. I think it’s delicious.”

Officials said ticket sales are on track to match, if not exceed the world record attendance of 56,214 at the previous Melbourne UFC card in November 2015.

Whittaker won on the undercard that day behind the Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm headliner won by Holm. Holm was scheduled to appear on Sunday’s card, but was forced to pull out with a hamstring injury.

Sunday’s lineup also features a fight between two world-ranked lightweights, American Al Iaquinta and New Zealand’s Dan Hooker. Hooker is the most established Kiwi in the UFC ranks with 12 fights for the organization over the last five years.

Hooker fought in both UFC Fight Nights in Auckland in 2014 and 2017, but New Zealand has yet to host one of UFC’s pay-for-view shows.

Whittaker is currently rated ninth and Adesanya 14th in the pound-for-pound ratings.

“You look at the winner of this fight in the top five pound-for-pound in the world,” UFC chief Dana White said.

When asked what he planned for the next few days, Whittaker replied: “I’m going to make the weight on Saturday. I’m going to fight on Sunday, and I’m going to go back to my kids on Monday.”