Robert Whittaker was burnt out. Following his loss to Israel Adesanya at UFC 243, the Australian realized he had reached his current competitive peak, and he had lost a lot of love for the sport that had taken him so far. He continued to put in work to rebound from his loss until one moment when he was climbing sandhills on Christmas Day. He asked himself, “‘What the f**k am I doing?’ It was Christmas Day. My family was somewhere else.”
He realized he was taking time away from his family, which his wife and kids understood, but there was no incentive to continue if he had lost all the joy in something that he put so much work into. He was missing time with his growing family, where he was responsible for raising his younger brother and sister and his three children. This sort of relentless work ethic got him to where he was, but it was killing him. “I sacrificed everything… and because it worked, I just kept at it”, he said, telling the Daily Telegraph and MMA Fighting.
Robert Whittaker’s Rise from Obscurity
Whittaker came from humble beginnings. He grew up in a Sydney housing project, raised by his father alongside his younger siblings. He admits struggling with self-esteem and confidence early on in his life and carried that with him for years. Throughout his early life, Robert Whittaker would disappear to brood and battle depressive episodes. He and his father, however, remained close through this – his Southern Cross tattoo was one his father got him, and he makes sure to touch it before and after his fights as a tribute to both his father and his country.
He began karate at 7 years old at the behest of his father, who wanted the kids to learn to defend themselves. Over the years, the Whittaker brothers earned their black belt in karate, and his father provided the two with an ultimatum – they could either quit karate or pick a different martial art.
Robert Whittaker chose the latter and began learning hapkido, but his coach transitioned to an MMA gym. Having no other choice, Whittaker took it up and was hooked. His coach saw potential, and so after several wins on the South Pacific regional circuit, he was nominated to compete in “The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes”. It pitted eight Australians against eight fighters from the UK. Whittaker cruised through the competition, winning his first two fights by knockout, and the finale by unanimous decision.
He finally made his way into the UFC octagon, but he stepped on the scales at 170 pounds. After winning the TUF finale, he turned around and knocked out Colton Smith, and then suffered two straight losses to Court McGee and Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson. Whittaker realized a change needed to be made, and he decided to make the jump to 185 pounds, one that would require far more work on his part. “My team suggested several plans which I took too… I just wasn’t home,” says Whittaker when asked about his transition to middleweight and the impact on his family.
Jumping to Middleweight and Superstardom
After his middle-of-the-road 4-2 run at 170 pounds, Robert Whittaker realized he needed to make a major change in his career. Whittaker was beginning to skid at welterweight, and this move threw him straight into the deep end of training. It worked, as he went on a seven-fight win streak against Brad Tavares, Uriah Hall, Rafael Natal, Derek Brunson, and others. After his knockout of Jacare Souza, Whittaker went straight to challenge for the title vacated by GSP. His training program worked, but he said that he began feeling burnout during the Yoel Romero fight. He went ten rounds with Romero, who dropped him twice in the second fight which Whittaker won by split decision.
The second Romero fight is regarded as an all-time classic, which saw Robert Whittaker break his right hand and continue throwing lefts, kicks, and right elbows en route to a razor-thin split decision to retain the title. He admits he was burnt out for a while, saying that it “took heaps out of me”, but he continued. In his second defense of the title, Whittaker met Israel Adesanya, who dropped him with a counter left early in the second to finish it. However, he previously welcomed the challenge: “I just wasn’t myself. That’s the game though, you rock up and fight.”
He did acknowledge that he was beginning to feel the mental effects of his schedule, but he didn’t act on it until after his crushing loss to Adesanya at UFC 243. He noted his decision to keep pushing, saying, “You can’t say, ‘hey, maybe I’m burnt out.’ As soon as one title fight is over, you have another title fight on the way. So, the negative thoughts, you block them out. You bite down on your mouthguard and work through.”
This attitude saw Robert Whittaker pull out of his UFC 248 fight against middleweight Jared Cannonier due to nothing but mental exhaustion. He found that his training was taking him places, but it was killing him physically and mentally. He had lost respect for the sport, and he realized that he wasn’t getting to spend time as a father to his three children. That’s when he suspended all of his training and notified his camp that he’d be taking some time off. It was much-needed, as he immediately noticed the changes in his life. “I’m now playing with the kids late into Sunday afternoon rather than being completely spent. The changes I’ve made, it really will change my life,” he says.
Return of the Reaper
Robert Whittaker took the time off and lit the fire – he reeled off three-straight decision wins against some of the top contenders at 185, beginning with a dominant 48-47 decision win over Darren Till. He out-landed the Scouser 69 to 41 on the feet and scored a vicious knockdown via elbow that put Till on his back. Whittaker let everyone know afterward that he was back and feeling better than ever, and the performance should’ve been a huge indicator.
Whittaker followed that up with another dominant performance against Jared Cannonier, knocking down the American with a big right hand that swung the fight in his favor. The strikes were closer on paper, but Whittaker landed the hard shots and eventually came away with the well-deserved decision win. People were quick to call for a rematch with Adesanya, but he went up to 205 to fight Jan Blahowicz.
Instead, Robert Whittaker was booked for a number-one contender bout with Paulo Costa, who was coming off a second-round KO loss to Adesanya himself. Paulo Costa had to pull out with a severe case of the flu, and so Kelvin Gastelum stepped in on two weeks’ notice. This did not sit well with Whittaker, who noted that it “played with his OCD”, but he took it in stride, as the two were originally scheduled to fight at UFC 234. Whittaker had to pull out of that fight due to a twisted and distended lower intestine.
The Australian knows he doesn’t enjoy fights, per him, but welcomed the competition with Gastelum. He saw it as a “cracker of a fight”, telling media members this before their matchup. He was more than ready to go and provide for his family doing what he loved, a stark contrast from the Whittaker a year back who was burnt out. “So I’m just looking at this as it’s how I make a living, this is my job and I love my job, I enjoy making a living providing for my family like this,” he told ESPN.
He saw the Gastelum fight as a “tricky” stylistic challenge, as he prepped for an orthodox fighter in Costa, but he was itching to rise to the occasion. Robert Whittaker looked focused at weigh-ins and making the walk to the octagon, and he more than proved it during their fight. He outstruck Gastelum 150-62 on the feet and made good use of his classic right-cross to high kick combination several times, wobbling the American more than once.
His success continued on the ground, as Whittaker had four successful takedowns to Gastelum’s one, and used the several grappling exchanges to prove he was fully back. Gastelum began to pick up steam through the second round, but Whittaker shut that down early and kept him at arm’s length for most of the fight, something that has never played in Gastelum’s favor. Somehow, Whittaker never scored a knockdown despite repeatedly rocking Gastelum.
Robert Whittaker was more than happy with his win, and he stumped to get a second crack at Adesanya for the title he once held. “I think it’s about time we crossed paths once again. I think we can get a sold-out stadium. They might even open up the borders for Australians in September. Let’s make that happen…I’m going to work hard. I think I have some tricks he hasn’t seen yet, and I’ll give him a good run,” he said at the post-fight interview.
Despite Robert Whittaker’s mild-mannered callout of Adesanya, he seemed laser-focused making the walk at UFC Vegas 24. Hood pulled over his eyes reminiscent of Assassins’ Creed characters and the Grim Reaper, he stepped out to his traditional anthem “Can’t Be Stopped” by Roy Jones Jr. There was almost something different, though, as he looked hungry and rested, something that made the hood choice even more fitting – he has returned to his form as an assassin in the octagon.
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