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Israel Adesanya: ‘I’ve beaten everyone with the old blueprint – I want to refresh my art’

Israel Adesanya’s ascension to UFC middleweight champion came in front of a fittingly seismic backdrop, inspiring a fittingly divisive reaction.

Never in UFC history have as many fans gathered for a fight night as on 5 October 2019, when more than 57,000 packed out the Marvel Stadium in Melbourne. One narrative thread running through the main event of UFC 243 was familiar to many sporting fans, with Whittaker in one corner representing Australia, and Nigerian-born Adesanya standing across the Octagon representing New Zealand.

Whittaker was in fact born in Auckland, an element that tangled the thread somewhat and led the “Reaper” to recently admit that he was confused and disheartened by so many New Zealanders rooting against him. Whittaker has also conceded that burnout and pressure were ingredients in the cocktail of mental hinderances that left him appearing out of sorts and fighting out of character on that autumn evening, when Adesanya picked the 31-year-old apart to take his title with a second-round TKO victory.

“I haven’t heard too much about it, but yeah, good on him for being open and vulnerable,” Adesanya tells The Independent, in a rare moment of empathy for his rival, whom he has mocked for the best part of three years.

“That’s what makes you strong: being vulnerable,” Adesanya continues. “I know this because I do this all the time, I’m super vulnerable with my emotions – on-camera, off-camera.

“So yeah, good on him for bringing that to the forefront. It’s the first step, I guess, in getting over it or learning how to deal with it and manage it.

“Accepting it and sharing it kind of gives other people permission to do the same.”

Regardless of Whittaker’s performance in the pair’s first meeting, Adesanya produced a faultless showing to the delight and dismay of different sections of the Melbourne crowd. The win was the “Last Stylebender”’s 18th in a row, keeping him undefeated at the time and marking a coronation atop the 185lbs division that many pundits believed was an inevitability in Adesanya’s career.

The former kickboxer, appreciated by many fans due to his versatile, sharp striking game but aggravating to others with his equally sharp tongue, has since retained the UFC middleweight title three times – largely untroubled in decision wins against Yoel Romero and Marvin Vettori, and at his best in a stoppage win against Paulo Costa.

The victory over Vettori came in Adesanya’s most recent outing, in June, and marked the second time that “Stylebender” has outpointed the Italian. Now, Adesanya (21-1) is set for a second straight rematch, as he takes on Whittaker (23-5) again in the main event of UFC 271 on 12 February.

If Adesanya is to win, he could even contest a third consecutive rematch, with former foe Derek Brunson closing in on a title shot. Still, the champion insists that no boredom or complacency is creeping in, nor is he tempted by a return to light heavyweight – where he suffered his first professional loss in MMA last year, while challenging then-title holder Jan Blachowicz.

“Lapping the division again motivates me, so when I do that they’re just like: ‘F***,’” Adesanya says.