The pieces are falling into place for Robert Whittaker, who has realised the importance of his life away from the ring. Photo: UFCJust over two years ago, New South Wales UFC fighter Robert Whittaker was at a crossroads in his career after back-to-back losses.
Now sitting just one spot below MMA legend Anderson Silva at seventh in the UFC’s middleweight rankings, Whittaker is in rarefied air as he prepares to fight Brazilian Rafael Natal at UFC 197 in Las Vegas this Sunday.
The 25-year-old may just be Australia’s best chance at UFC gold since Elvis Sinosic fought Tito Ortiz for the UFC Light Heavyweight title 15 years ago and with a murderer’s row of fighters ahead of him, he’s not taking a backward step.
The names are legendary. The aforementioned Silva, possibly the greatest fighter of all time. Vitor Belfort. Michael Bisping. Jacare Souza. Lyoto Machida. The former king, Chris Weidman, and the current champion, Luke Rockhold. All experts at the absolute top of their sport.
Speaking to Whittaker from Las Vegas, however, it’s a name from his past that comes up.
Whittaker, fighting at welterweight, was looking to rebound from his first loss in the UFC when he collided with Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson at the Mandalay Bay Events Centre, opening the pay-per-view card of UFC 170, Ronda Rousey’s third title defence.
Moments don’t get much bigger than that, but for Whittaker, things started badly. A tough weight cut left him drained, and despite a competitive few minutes eventually Thompson caught Whittaker coming in with a right hand, finishing him off with a swarm of punches.
It was in the wake of that defeat that Whittaker realised what was most important to him.
“I had to look at a lot of things in myself….I made some changes,” he said.
“I was spending too much time away from my family, and I’m very family orientated. Being away from them for that amount of time, away from my wife, it was just too much on me mentally. I had to just come back and reconnect with them. I had to bring it all back in and realise what’s important in my life.
“They give me that reassurance that I’m more than just a fighter and that’s a big thing going into a fight that is do or die, knowing that I have my son and my wife I’m thankful for. They mean more to me.”
Fast-forward two years and the pieces have fallen into place for Whittaker. He has won four in a row, three at middleweight, where he feels his speed and power are almost unrivalled without the burden of a massive weight cut.
His last fight, a decision win over Uriah Hall at UFC 193, set Whittaker up for big things in the division, but in a strange move the UFC booked Hall against Silva, with Whittaker left to take on the 13th ranked Natal.
Whittaker doesn’t see that as a reward for Hall. In fact, for a man who admittedly doesn’t watch many UFC fights, Whittaker doesn’t care what happens in his division. He’s coming for everyone.
“I grew up watching the guys ranked above me and they’re idols of mine. I guess though it also humanises them, knowing that I’m in the same league as them,” he said.
“If Anderson’s above me I’m going to fight him one way or another. If he wants to bash someone else in the meantime then go hard. I’m here to stay, I’m here to fight the best and I’m coming. If they want to squabble amongst themselves they can.”
Natal (21-6-1, 10-4 UFC) is a durable veteran on a four fight winning streak, most notable for having excellent submission skills.
While Whittaker’s ground skills have been largely unseen in the UFC, thanks to his excellent takedown defence, he’s comfortable if the fight goes to the ground, but he’d prefer to keep things standing.
“Natal is a rugged dude, he’s got a dangerous skill-set and he’s the kind of guy that if you overlook him, he beats you. I’m not going to have that problem. I’ve looked at him, I respect his skills but I’m going in there to try and take his head off.”
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