When Robert Whittaker was first booked to face Michael Bisping at UFC 193, neither man had championship hardware to call his own.
Now, the two men are expected to finally square off in a title unification bout — perhaps before 2017 draws to a close if all goes as planned. Whittaker put himself directly in the crosshairs of “The Count” with a unanimous decision victory over Yoel Romero to claim interim 185-pound gold in the UFC 213 headliner in Las Vegas on Saturday night.
I’m ready to fight Bisping next,” Whittaker said. “I believe it was destiny for us to meet and I am looking forward to it.”
It wasn’t an easy journey for Whittaker to get to this point. The victory over Romero was his seventh straight, currently the longest active streak in the middleweight division. After two rounds, against “The Soldier of God,” it didn’t look like the evening was going Whittaker’s way. A low kick from Romero in round one that hurt the Australian’s knee hindered him for the remainder of the bout.
“My knee was definitely hurt. I injured it in camp and Romero’s kick set it back weeks,” Whittaker said. “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 ability to prevail through adversity against a dangerous opponent. Especially noteworthy was Whittaker’s takedown defense: he stuffed 14 of 18 takedown attempts from an Olympian wrestler in the 25-minute contest.
“I’ve been a Whittaker fan for a long time. How much this guy has improved, at only 26 years old, is phenomenal,” White 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. It looked incredible against Jacare and he looked unbelievable against a guy like Romero tonight.”
Earlier this year, the UFC announced that Bisping’s next title defense would come against Georges St. Pierre, who was returning after a lengthy hiatus. However, numerous issues prevented the fight from being booked this summer, and White is adamant that the promotion has moved on from the matchup.
“The Georges St. Pierre ship has sailed,” White said. “I’ve been saying that for a while. I had a press conference for that fight and it never happened. The main event [tonight] was awesome. This is the fight that should happen, and it’s gonna.”
For his part, Whittaker isn’t bothered by being overlooked. With each passing performance, he’s getting more difficult to ignore.
“I think people were underrating me a little bit. I was flying under the radar a little bit and that’s fine,” he said. “Every single fight I let my actions speak louder than my words and tonight was an example of that.”
Of course, in the modern era of matchmaking, virtually every situation is fluid. But if Bisping does end up fighting St. Pierre first, Whittaker will keep plugging away.
“At this point in time I’m pretty sure me and Bisping are fated to fight. I had to fight a lot of dudes to get back into that range,” he said. “What Bisping does and who he fights is his own business. I’m taking this one fight at a time.”