With glorious nicknames like “The Reaper” and “Bobby Knuckles,” perhaps Robert Whittaker was destined for greatness in hand-to-hand combat. The Australia-based Kiwi reached the pinnacle of his profession over the last 12 months, as he gave Oceania its first Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholder with wins over two-time Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships gold medalist Ronaldo Souza and 2000 Olympic silver medalist Yoel Romero.
Those exploits gave Whittaker the slightest of edges over featherweight champion Max Holloway as the Sherdog.com “Fighter of the Year” for 2017.
“The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes” winner capped off his remarkable campaign on July 8, when he took the best Romero had to offer, surged in front over the final three rounds and walked -- correction: limped -- out of the cage with a unanimous decision in the UFC 213 headliner at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Whittaker carried 48-47 scores across the board, the victory bringing with it the interim UFC middleweight championship.
Romero made him earn it. The American Top Team representative appeared to injure Whittaker’s left knee with a series of side kicks in the first round before incorporating takedowns and top control in the second. All his work came at a price. Romero’s pace slowed to a crawl over the third, fourth and fifth frames, his muscle-bound frame becoming increasingly starved for oxygen. Even wounded, Whittaker managed to capitalize. He ripped into Romero with a punishing jab, mean left hooks upstairs and front kicks to the body. More importantly, he shut down the 40-year-old’s bids for takedowns, Romero growing more desperate by the moment. Whittaker assumed top position late in the fifth round and carved up the exhausted Romero with punches and elbows from above to seal it.
“My knee was definitely hurt. I injured it in camp, and Romero’s kick set it back weeks,” he said afterward. “I know that Romero will capitalize on any weakness he sees, so I had to play it off. That’s just what champions are made of.”
UFC President Dana White was impressed by Whittaker’s mental toughness.
“I’ve been a Whittaker fan for a long time. How much this guy has improved, at only 26 years old, is phenomenal,” he said. “His leg was shot right in the first round. His corner did an amazing job of calming him down and walking him step by step through what he needed to do. His takedown defense was ridiculous.”
Romero tired to the point of exhaustion over the final 15 minutes, allowing “Bobby Knuckles” to slowly but surely leave his imprint on the match. By FightMetric count, Whittaker outstruck the Cuban brute in each of the last three rounds: 13-5 in the third, 19-8 in the fourth and 45-38 in the fifth.
“I think people were underrating me a little bit,” Whittaker said. “I was flying under the radar a little bit, and that’s fine. Every single fight, I let my actions speak louder than my words, and tonight was an example of that.”
If his encounter with Romero was more or less a coming-out party, his showdown with Souza was the springboard. Whittaker announced his arrival as a legitimate title contender at 185 pounds on April 15, when he took care of “Jacare” with a head kick and follow-up punches in a featured UFC on Fox 24 pairing at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri. Finished for the first time in more than eight years, Souza bit the dust 3:28 into Round 2.
Whittaker was systematic in his approach. He survived a ground exchange with the longtime Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt in the first round, tore into him with accurate punches and bided his time. Whittaker floored “Jacare” with a right hand to the temple in the middle stanza but did not overcommit in his pursuit of a finish. Instead, he allowed the dazed Souza to stand and resumed his assault on the feet. Whittaker later cracked the former Strikeforce champion with a head kick and flooded him with punches and elbows, prompting referee Mario Yamasaki to act.
“I prepared for the fight to be that way,” Whittaker said. “I’ve been training countless hours -- in the gym, out of the gym -- for this fight. We went through all the situations and scenarios that could possibly happen, and we drilled them.”
After beating Romero and Souza, Whittaker found himself on an eight-fight winning streak. He was promoted to undisputed middleweight champion on Dec. 7, when Georges St. Pierre vacated the throne due to his being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis a little more than a month after he choked Michael Bisping unconscious in his long-awaited return at UFC 217.
As the calendar continues to turn and Whittaker continues to recover from his knee injury, his focus has shifted to his next challenger. He will put his middleweight crown on the line against former champion Luke Rockhold in the UFC 221 main event on Feb. 10 in Perth, Australia. Rockhold held sway over the 185-pound division from Dec. 12, 2015 to June 4, 2016 and enters the match on the heels of his blowout win against David Branch at UFC Fight Night 116 in September.
“It’s going to be a hard fight,” Whittaker said at a pre-fight press conference. “I know this. I’m sure he knows it’s going to be a hard fight. We’re going to go in there and put on a good show.”
Sherdog’s year-end awards were voted upon by a panel of Sherdog.com staff members and contributors: Jordan Breen, Tristen Critchfield, Chris Nelson, Mike Fridley, Brian Knapp, Eric Stinton, Todd Martin, Jordan Colbert, Josh Stillman, Jesse Denis, Edward Carbajal and Anthony Walker.
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