UFC 243: Israel Adesanya embracing the villain role against Robert Whittaker

Israel Adesanya's impending UFC middleweight title unification bout against Robert Whittaker won't mark the Kiwi's first visit to the Melbourne venue formerly known as Etihad Stadium.

That came in 2015 - four years before his own UFC debut - at the event that set the attendance record he'll soon break, for an iconic moment in MMA history - Holy Holm's head-kick knock-out of golden girl Ronda Rousey at UFC 193.

"I was there up in the nose bleeds," Adesanya told Newshub. "There was a guy who came out to AC/DC's 'For those about to Rock' and I remember the feeling of the speakers blasting.

"It just took over the whole stadium. 

"The way he walked out - camera panning and following him - with the sound, it was just some god-like shit. I remember that feeling and I want to recreate that.

"I also remember the feeling - the sound and the buzz - when Ronda got knocked out… I want to recreate that as well by knocking out Robert."

On October 6, an expected capacity crowd of 60,000 people will pack into Marvel Stadium to set a new high watermark for attendance at UFC 243, an event headlined by Adesanya.

Tickets for Whittaker's last bout in the Victorian capital sold out in less than eight minutes. Expect them to last little longer when they go on sale Thursday, with fans flocking to see if the Aussie can snap Adesanya's 17-fight unbeaten streak.

Measures of a dizzying rise to fame don't come much more tangible than that. To quote the man himself - "from the nose bleeds to making noses bleed".

"It's surreal. It's crazy, but it's what I've always planned, so at the same time, it's just normal.

"It just feels like another memory."

'The Last Stylebender' has gone from debutant to the interim middleweight champion of the planet's premier MMA promotion in little over months and he'll look to level up again by beating Whittaker to become the division's undisputed king.

His diverse striking arsenal - highlighted by otherworldly dexterity with his kicks - blended with a brash and unapologetically genuine demeanour have made him an instant fan favourite with combat fans across the globe.

But - perhaps for the first time - Adesanya will be on the end of the rousing jeers when the two make their entrances to the Octagon. NZ-born Whittaker will undoubtedly be the clear fan favourite.

He may have been born at Middlemore Hospital, but try telling an Australian fan that he's not one of their own.

Adesanya caught the first inklings of those boos at a recent press conference to promote the fight in Las Vegas.

But he's not buying Whittaker's charm offensive, which included his recent press tour to New Zealand in May, when he claimed he was more deserving of NZ support than the Nigerian-born, Rotorua/Palmerston North-raised Adesanya.

"Let him, I don't really care," said Adesanya. "At the end of the day, everything is in my favour, whether they boo me or cheer me - it's all energy that I'm going to use against him.

"He tried all the tricks like a politician - came over here trying to get some likes. 'Hey guys, I'm Kiwi too, even though I said I was never Kiwi'.

"Some people like to position themselves, some people have to play, some people have to pander and some people don't give a f**k."

Undaunted by the prospect of playing the unfamiliar role of the villain, Adesanya believes it may even play in his favour, with the weight of pressure taking its toll on his opponent.

After taking the division by storm in 2017, Whittaker has been plagued by illness and injury that have limited him to just two fights in the past two years, including two 11th-hour withdrawals at events held in Australia.

"He's built it all up in his head, he needs to win this fight. For me, it's just another fight.

"I think he's over-trained right now, to be honest. I think he'll be over-trained by the time it comes to the fight.

"He hasn't really changed much… he hasn't really evolved much. He's in his own country, and I'm going to take what's supposedly his and bring it back to Aotearoa."

Adesanya beat Kevin Gastelum to clinch the interim middleweight title in April.
Adesanya beat Kevin Gastelum to clinch the interim middleweight title in April. Photo credit: Getty

Many Whittaker fans will point to wins over Cuban powerhouse Yoel Romero in his past two bouts as his landmark performances. That's why Adesanya needs less than a second to consider who he wants to come through the Romero v Paula Costa fight at UFC 241 on Sunday (NZT) as number one middleweight contender.

"If Costa wins, I wouldn't mind. I want to get to him before USADA [United States Anti-Doping Agency] gets to him - but I want Romero.

"I just want to show you I don't need 10 rounds," he added, referring to Whittaker's two decision wins. "I don't even need five rounds with him."

Does that suggest he's looking past Whittaker?

"I don't look past, I look through."

Now one of the hottest commodities in the world of combat sports, Adesanya's recent decision to sign with Paradigm Management - home of mega-star Conor McGregor - is set to skyrocket his earning power and create new opportunities.

"That's the motivation," says Adesanya, rubbing his fingers together.

"They're at the top end of the spectrum when it comes to money. They know the numbers we don't know, the intellectual properties that we may not be aware of.

"People have been trying to sign me up for so long, but I took my time, looked around and shopped.

"I keep saying f**k fame, but I like the perks."

For now, he's soaking up every moment at his second home at Auckland's combat haven, City Kickboxing.

"I'm just grateful every day. Getting ready for a fight, preparing for war, training with my brothers in arms… gladiator shit.

"I'm going to miss this one day."

"I only have so much left. I'm savouring and taking this all in, no matter what."

But the 30-year-old insists he has plenty of fighting left in him, before he hangs up his gloves and begins the next chapter of his life as a farmer.

Yes, you read that correctly.

"I know I'll have a farm by then on my own - my own piece of land that I can just seclude myself to. Somewhere out west Auckland, not too far."

From the bright lights of Las Vegas to rural Waitakere. That's the life.


Join us on October 6 for live updates of the Whittaker v Adesanya middleweight title fight


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