Interim UFC Middleweight Champion Israel Adesanya looks to continue his undefeated ways with a victory over current champ Robert Whittaker in a Middleweight title unification bout this Saturday at UFC 243 in Melbourne, Australia.
Undefeated at 17-0, Adesanya faces a massive challenge in Whittaker (20-4). Whittaker has won his prior nine fights, all of which took place in the UFC, while only six of Adesanya’s wins took place in a UFC cage.
Adesanya spoke with Sports Illustrated to discuss the challenges Whittaker presents, as well as whether all of the hype surrounding his own career serves as a detriment or a benefit.
Sports Illustrated: UFC 243 is headlined by an athlete from Australia fighting against an athlete from New Zealand. That makes for a special moment for the region, especially considering this fight features two elite mixed martial artists competing for the Middleweight championship. Does this moment hold any extra significance to you?
Israel Adesanya: Our fight speaks a lot to the growth of the sport in this part of the world. Last time the UFC came out here, the card was stacked with overseas talent. But this time we’re stacking the card with our own. People are going to be shocked at how good this card is–people are sleeping on it, but they’ll be shocked when they see it.
SI: You and Whittaker are two of the world’s most elite middleweight fighters, but there are those who believe that your wrestling is your weakness in this fight. Whittaker has been open about how he is the better striker–even pointing to your Kevin Gastelum fight this past April to poke holes in your stand-up game. Do Whittaker’s wrestling and striking offer him an edge in this fight?
IA: Whittaker can believe whatever he wants to believe. Belief and reality are two separate things, and I’ll show him what’s real in the cage.
And when people talk about the fight, that’s all white noise. I use it to my advantage when I can, but most of the time, it’s just white noise that I either laugh at, scoff at, or ignore.
SI: It is very hard to perform at your peak when you are already atop your field and everyone continues to discuss your greatness. It would be very easy for you to rest on past success, which you refuse to do. How do you challenge yourself internally to remain sharp?
IA: To me, that’s the challenge. Look at all the champs over time once they get the belt–they just fall off. I’m not one of those guys. The belt isn’t my ultimate prize, it just looks good with all my other gold, chains, and diamonds.
The belt is a challenge. But me beating Robert Whittaker in Melbourne, Australia, his home country, that drives me more than just winning a belt.
SI: Your ability to absorb strikes is remarkable. Is that the major difference between you and Whittaker?
IA: Look at what Whittaker said about my last fight. He said I don’t have any pop in my punches. But, like I said, reality is a lot different than what he believes.
Look at Whittaker’s last fight [against Yoel Romero in June]. He fought a 42-year-old wrestler and got dropped and spun around. I’m not a 42-year-old wrestler. If he gets touched by me multiple times, we all know where the fight is going.
SI: Your “hype train” has grown more crowded with every win. We’ve heard you’re the next Silva, the next Jones. How important is it to live up to the hype, or is that simply a distraction from your main focus?
IA: You’re never as good as they say you are, you’re never as bad as they say you are. That’s a quote I live by. All that matters is how you see yourself. I don’t focus on anyone but myself.
SI: For those seeking some foreshadowing, how do you see your fight against Whittaker ending?
IA: It’s going to be me having fun the whole way. I just have to have fun and keep that same energy, and that’s what I’m going to do.