What. A. Night. 57,000+ rowdy fans packed Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, Australia, the majority of which were in staunch support of the Oceanian fighters. The UFC record-breaking crowd witnessed a little bit of everything, from submissions to quick knockouts to all-out fisticuffs in what turned out to be a special night that realized a new champion. This post will recap three fights that caught our attention (and everyone else’s, too): Brad Riddell vs. Jamie Mullarkey, Yorgan De Castro vs. Justin Tafa, and Israel Adesanya vs. Robert Whittaker.
Brad Riddell vs. Jamie Mullarkey
There was a palpable tension leading up to this fight, with the two lightweight UFC newcomers going nose-to-nose during the weigh-ins. In his pre-fight interview with MMA Junkie, Riddell had said he felt “a little pent-up rage” against fighters who are calling him out now that he is part of the UFC. Mullarkey is one of those fighters. “I’m 100% coming out with my hand raised, and the referee is going to be pulling me off of (Riddell)” said Mullarkey leading up to the fight.
The first round started measured. UFC newcomers tend to have a nervous energy that fades after a few minutes, but both fighters seemed comfortable from the opening seconds. Riddell began with the high guard that is typical of a fighter with extensive muay thai experience, while Jamie Mullarkey had a stance that resembles Rory MacDonald’s. Mullarkey attempted a takedown about midway through the round, which Riddell was able to defend and eventually separate back to the center of the octagon where he is much more comfortable. Although the takedown was unsuccessful, it had a slight impact on Riddell’s defense for the rest of the round as he had his hands a bit lower when in mid-range. The last 30 seconds of the round saw a nice exchange of strikes, culminating with Riddell landing a digging left hook to the body with about 13 seconds left in the round.
The opening 90 seconds of the second round showed Mullarkey’s grappling capabilities, with two takedowns coming from trips and one from timing a kick from Riddell. Riddell was able to display his defensive wrestling and separated almost immediately on the first two takedowns, but was controlled for about 30 seconds until he was able to sweep Mullarkey in to side control on the third takedown. Mullarkey was able to escape from underneath Riddell shortly thereafter, and after a brief grappling exchange against the cage, the fighters returned to facing off in the center of the octagon with a little less than two minutes left in the round. Another takedown attempt by Mullarkey was stifled by Riddell, with Riddell ending up spinning an off-balance Mullarkey and landing in full mount. Mullarkey then gave up his back and with the body lock in place, Riddell began his attempt of submitting Mullarkey. Mullarkey was able to beautifully escape Riddell’s back control and ended up in Riddell’s guard, landing a heavy elbow as the round expired.
This is the round everyone is talking about. For the first minute, it seemed a lot like the first two rounds: both fighters were throwing punches and Riddell was displaying his striking advantage. Mullarkey attempted a takedown, which was again defended nicely by Riddell. Mullarkey then threw a leading uppercut that was timed by Riddell for the takedown, which was surprising but successful. Riddell clearly wanted to keep his distance on the ground and eventually allowed Mullarkey to stand back up. With 3:43 left in the round, Riddell landed a right hook that seemed to briefly stun Mullarkey, who then invited a further exchange with Riddell. At this point, Riddell’s advantage on the feet was very apparent. Mullarkey kept his head on the centerline, opening him up for brutal strikes that included a slicing elbow when separating from a clinch. Mullarkey then landed a brilliant left hook on the jaw of Riddell that froze Riddell for a split second - long enough Mullarkey to take advantage and complete a takedown. Mullarkey was able to take Riddell’s back with both hooks in, but Mullarkey eventually gave up on the grappling and both fighters took to the center of the octagon once again. Riddell then landed three thunderous punches, and Mullarkey attempted a takedown after being stunned. Riddell ended up stuffing it and found himself on top, raining down winded punches on Mullarkey, who had lost his mouthpiece during the previous exchange. Riddell stood up to complete what seemed to be the beginning of the end for Mullarkey. Mullarkey, an iron-tough former rugby player, did not shy away for one second and even advanced forward when given the opportunity to continue to strike with Riddell. Another failed takedown attempt by Mullarkey led to another vicious striking exchange in which both fighters landed shots that would easily put down a normal human. Hooks and elbows landed continuously on an exhausted Mullarkey and with 45 seconds left, Riddell finished the fight in a dominant manner. Riddell even landed a flush right hook from his knees as the horn sounded for good measure and ended a sure contender for Round of the Year. Riddell won by Unanimous Decision.
Yorgan De Castro vs. Justin Tafa
Two more UFC newcomers clashed on what was originally a fight scheduled for the preliminary card and eventually got moved up to the pay-per-view. De Castro is known from his recent TKO victory on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, where the Cape Verdean dropped his opponent, Alton Meeks, with a powerful leg kick and finished him with hammer fists in the first round. Justin Tafa is a 3-0 heavy-handed striker who trains with the likes of Mark Hunt, Tai Tuivasa, and Tyson Pedro. The Australian received a warm welcome from his countrymen and women during his introduction, and that energy carried over in to the opening seconds of the fight when Tafa landed a straight left hand square on the nose of De Castro. The two stout brawlers clinched for a few seconds and exchanged shots when separating. It was at this point that you could see it was only a matter of time before someone was going to get hit with a sledgehammer. After De Castro landed a right body kick, they then clinched on the fence. Tafa initially had advantage with double under hooks and head position, but De Castro seemed to welcome the close-quarters as he was hooking his arms under the armpits of Tafa to keep him close. After breaking the clinch, both fighters once again squared up and De Castro landed another big right kick to Tafa’s ribs. Tafa continued to drone forward and made what ended up being a brutal mistake: as De Castro’s back was about to touch the fence, Tafa loaded up a right hand from his hip and threw a looping right hand. De Castro was able to glide backwards and switch stance, just clear of the missile that was headed his way. During that millisecond, De Castro was able to load and fire his own weapon; a right that landed clean on the off-switch of Tafa. I would say he dropped like a sack of potatoes, but it was more like when any angry ex throws your brand new TV out of the third story window. Tafa was out cold. After he stepped over his torpid opponent, De Castro strutted around the octagon as if he was looking for someone in the crowd to challenge him.
Tafa’s skill is clearly there. He has a bright future and a great camp behind him, but just happened to get caught. It happens, especially in the heavyweight division.
Before, during, and after his fight, you could see the comfort De Castro had in front of the cameras in the spotlight. He was jovial and confident in interviews; respectful of his opponent and appreciative of the opportunity he’s been given. His ground game is still unseen, but his quick finish in this fight should result in a quick turnaround against another fighter that is in the beginning stages of their career. With the right matchups, the UFC may have a budding star on their hands in De Castro.
Israel Adesanya vs. Robert Whittaker
The one we’ve all been waiting for. This is one of the better matchups we’ve seen in quite a while and no one was able to confidently predict how this fight would turn out; it was truly one of those “anything can happen” type events. In one corner we had the electric master of striking and fan-friendly interim champion, who had already garnered massive backing from the UFC because of his style and skill that is reminiscent of the blue silhouette fight scene in Kill Bill: Volume 1. In the other corner, we had a stoic, intense, and well-rounded champion who has sat on the middleweight throne for 2 years but has dealt with injuries that have kept him sidelined for a large part of that time. In Israel Adesanya, we have the same person in and out of the cage. He is a quick, fun, and entertaining individual who is “The King of Culture”. He is essentially a comic book character with the personality of a rockstar and the fighting style of a samurai. Robert Whittaker is not that person. In fact, his transformation from civilian to savage can be seen by millions every time his name is announced before his fight. He begins to pound his chest and screams, officially completing the transition from the family man named Robert Whittaker to the warrior demon named Bobby Knuckles.
The walk-ins of the two fighters could not be more symptomatic of their personalities. Adesanya’s began with a synchronized dance crew that he eventually joined to complete their routine, backed by a hip-hop/orchestra/robotic soundtrack. Whittaker walked out to a song about a guy with PTSD after the Vietnam War with his hood up like he was Mike Tyson about to eat someone’s children.
Once the spectacle of the walk-ins was completed, both fighters faced off to show us again how much of a height-difference there would be between the two fighters. Both looked to be hydrate and in supreme shape, with neither being impact by intense weight cuts.
What I (and everyone) first noticed in the opening seconds was the distance between the two fighters while feeling each other out. I couldn’t help but wonder if Whittaker was going to have any opportunity to get Adesanya into his range without taking some sort of punishment. That concern became apparent as Whittaker ineffectively pushed the pace, swinging and missing on numerous strikes while Adesanya glided around the octagon like a world-class figure skater. Robert Whittaker got close many times, but by the end of the first half of the first round, Adesanya had slipped enough punches that he had likely read the thread count on the seams of Whittaker’s gloves. Adesanya did a fantastic job fainting the right kick, which threw off Whittaker’s timing and caused him to cover up when he was looking to attack. As the round went on, Whittaker was able to take advantage of Adesanya’s exposed lead leg, which didn’t seem to impact Adesanya at all. The first round was high-strung and I was on the edge of my seat for the first 4 minutes and 59 seconds. I was off of my seat, yelling, and scaring my dog in the last second when Adesanya threw an awkward-but-skillful double right shovel hook/uppercut from his pocket that dropped Whittaker flat on his back. Calling it “saved by the bell” wouldn’t do it justice. Whittaker was in deep trouble and the masterful striking from Adesanya was peaking its head.
Maybe it had just been a flash knockdown, or maybe all he needed was the minute in-between rounds to recover. Either way, Whittaker’s movement and fast-twitch after the break didn’t appear to be of someone who had just been struck by lightning one minute ago. In fact, Whittaker began the second round looking more comfortable than when he was fresh in the first. Within the first 30 seconds, Whittaker had landed a stiff jab after timing a kick from Adesanya. After that, it was much of the same as the first round. Adesanya used his footwork, distance, and head movement to Matrix his way around being hit by Whittaker’s powerful, but looping strikes. Midway through the round, Whittaker had landed a few more straight shots, taking advantage of Adesanya’s tendency to lean back, leaving his chin exposed. At the two minute mark, Whittaker landed a head kick on the 6’ 4” striker that impressed everyone but Adesanya. Close-quarter exchanges were happening more often, with each fighter doing a good job with throwing disciplined combinations then backing out into a safer distance. With about a minute and a half remaining, Israel Adesanya did was he does. Whittaker threw what would normally be a safe, basic combination. His jab landed flush, and with Adesanya’s straight-back head movement, actually pushed Adesanya’s head back far enough that it was out of range of Whittaker’s followup straight right, which extended Whittaker out a bit. Adesanya then landed a right hook that didn’t faze Whittaker. Whittaker then attempted a left hook, but Adesanya was a hair quicker and landed his own left hook first. Whittaker stumbled to the ground, and Adesanya hit him with a few parting-shots before referee Marc Goddard stepped in. With 1:28 left in the second round, Israel Adesanya became the new UFC middleweight champion of the world. In a time where UFC global superstars are slowly losing their light, Israel Adesanya has created a galaxy of his own.
Written by Rob Modeszto