UFC 271: Adesanya v Whittaker - an MMA rivalry born down under

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Israel AdesanyaAdesanya is looking to make his fourth UFC middleweight title defence at UFC 271

Champion versus champion, Australia against New Zealand and in front of 57,000 fans in Melbourne.

When Australia's Robert Whittaker made the walk to the octagon to defend his middleweight title in front of a buoyant home crowd at UFC 243 in 2019, it represented the highest point of his career.

Just minutes later he would experience the lowest.

After controlling key moments of the fight New Zealand's interim champion Israel Adesanya landed a knockout victory in round two to unify the division, crushing the spirit of Whittaker and his fans inside the Marvel Stadium.

Success helped Nigeria-born Adesanya, 32, become one of the UFC's most marketable stars, while Whittaker, 31, lost his desire to fight, going to what he describes as a "dark place"external-link following the defeat.

Now, following a three-fight win streak, New Zealand-born Whittaker has earned his chance at redemption as he looks to reclaim the same title he lost to Adesanya when the pair meet at UFC 271 in Houston, Texas, on Saturday.

'It's no secret we don't like each other'

Robert Whittaker and Israel AdesanyaWhittaker held the UFC middleweight title for two years before losing to Adesanya

The fierce competition between Australia and New Zealand, coupled with Melbourne as the venue, provided the perfect backdrop for that first contest between Adesanya and Whittaker.

In a part of the world where sports like Australian rules football, rugby and cricket reign supreme, MMA found itself in the spotlight.

Although the groundwork of their rivalry was laid down under, it has gone on to flourish on a global scale, with the pair becoming the two best middleweights in the world.

And there is much more respect between the pair going into the second fight.

"It's no secret that we don't like each other," said Adesanya in the pre-fight news conferenceexternal-link.

"But I'm glad he pulled himself out of that dark place - that he's feeling much better and he's a better man and fighter."

Whittaker echoed Adesanya's thoughtsexternal-link, but added the fight being in Houston adds a different layer to the build-up.

"It's just the way the media is not angling that rivalry [Australia v New Zealand] and that stuff, the fight isn't personal," said Whittaker.

"This one has a completely different tone."

Patience key to Whittaker beating Adesanya - Gastelum

'Not a lot of people can do what Izzy can do'

Kelvin Gastelum has been inside the octagon with both Adesanya and Whittaker.

The American, 30, faced Adesanya for the interim title in 2019 and was narrowly outpointed.

'The Last Stylebender', Adesanya is known as one of the most flamboyant, yet precise, strikers in the UFC. But it was his durability and will to win that impressed Gastelum most in their encounter.

"The way we had to dig in, that fifth round, not a lot of people on the planet can go to those dimensions and survive," Gastelum told BBC Sport.

"Physically, mentally and spiritually - not a lot of people can do it. His (Adesanya's) grit and his ability to dig - I was very surprised."

'If Whittaker stays composed, he could cause an upset'

Robert Whittaker after beating Kelvin GastelumWhittaker has beaten Darren Till, Jared Cannonier and Kelvin Gastelum (right) since losing to Adesanya

Whittaker's most recent fight was a convincing decision win over Gastelum last April.

Gastelum says the fight with 'The Reaper' left him feeling puzzled in the aftermath.

"To be honest, I've never been so impressed after a fight - I went back to the locker room scratching my head," said Gastelum.

"He was operating on another level and I've never felt like that in a fight, even against Izzy.

"He was just better than me that night. I've never been outmanoeuvred like that - I've never felt somebody who was that much faster."

Despite Adesanya being the pre-fight favourite, Gastelum is predicting Whittaker will come out on top.

He said: "I think it's going to be an interesting fight and a different fight [to their first one]. Both guys have matured and both guys have levelled up.

"If Whittaker fights the way he fought against me I think he could run away with it.

"If he does that, and follows a good gameplan, stays composed and doesn't leap in there like he did the first time, I think he could take it."

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