Boxing, like every other sport, dwindled during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Australia and New Zealand have had many great fighters, but the rise of Robert Whittaker and Israel Adesanya to sit atop the UFC’s middleweight division denotes a new era, one marked by not only their superb skills, but their differences.
Rivalries spur us on and create a story we can all attach ourselves to – and these are two titans in what is now a global sport.
In ancient Greece there was one human rivalry which stood out across the ages, a story of one man defending his homeland against another who had dared to cross the seas which stood between them. Those rivals were not put into the simple categories of good and bad, heroes and villains. They were both heroes, it simply depended on who you aligned yourself with.
I am of course talking about Hector, Prince of Troy, and Achilles, greatest warrior of the Greeks.
As the aggressor arriving on foreign shores, Adesanya does have some similarities with Achilles: he is a brash, confident fighter blessed with extreme ability.
Achilles was gifted supreme abilities by the gods and Adesanya’s long, rangy frame – combined with his huge amount of experience as a kick boxer – has elevated his striking ability to a level arguably not seen before in MMA.
His ring name is Stylebender and he earns that name by melding together striking styles and techniques, seamlessly flowing as much as fighting.
He may not be a demi-god, but Adesanya does have a love for superheroes and anime, which he channels in the cage.
He was born with what Dana White calls the it factor, which attracts people to him and marks him out as special.
Meanwhile, Rob Whittaker has more than a few similarities to Hector. He is the honorable family man who is supremely talented in his own right, the greatest warrior amongst his own people, a role model and leader.
Whittaker adopted his own siblings out of foster care as a young person, and quietly works with Indigenous youth programs to be a role model and mentor for troubled youth.
Do not confuse good guy with nice guy. He lived up to his Reaper nickname on a death-defying run through the middleweight division.
Perhaps his greatest achievement was not only surviving but ultimately winning two five-round fights over Yoel Romero. Romero is a former world champion wrestler, and a clear genetic freak. In the 1990s there was a Russian wrestler, Aleksandr Karelin, who was dubbed The Experiment due to a rumour he was bred from a test tube. Romero is his Cuban equivalent.
And yet, Whittaker is somewhat of an Achilles-like figure himself. Athletically gifted, he won the Ultimate Fighter to emerge as something of a chosen one, and in seizing his title at the age of 26, he achieved his crowning glory at a younger age then Adesanya.
Nonetheless, if my analogy holds true, it would appear Adesanya is the fated winner. But is that accurate?
MMA match-ups are notoriously hard to pick, as the range of skills, tactics and styles on offer throw up a mindboggling number of variables.
Adesanya is clearly the superior technical striker at range, which is no slight on Whittaker – he is on a different level to anyone.
Yet as Stylebender’s fight against Kelvin Gastelum showed, quick entries with a solid jab and combinations can still damage the Kiwi.
Whittaker’s childhood karate background has blessed him with the ability to enter quickly and this background combined with more traditional boxing and kickboxing techniques give him an unconventionality. In addition, the grappling realm is an area the Reaper may well have a clear advantage.
Whittaker’s pathway to success lies in getting close to Adesanya, either quickly with devastating entries and counters on the feet or taking the long-limbed Stylebender to the fence and the ground.
However, if the fight remains at distance and Adesanya can bend styles and make reads, it’s hard to see Whittaker’s title defence succeeding.
In any event, the real winner of this contest will be the fans. Australia and New Zealand have two athletes at the peak of their powers, in their physical primes and sitting at the summit of the sport.
Whether this cross-Tasman challenger proves successful or not, it will not be the last.
This is a rivalry for the ages, one born in Oceania, under the bright southern sun. It is a new era, and this championship bout is just the beginning.