Robert Whittaker was seen as a serviceable welterweight when he joined the Ultimate Fighting Championship roster as the last man standing on “The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes” in 2012, but a move to 185 pounds some two years later forever altered the trajectory of his career.
Whittaker rattled off nine consecutive victories at one point, emerged as an unlikely star and went on to claim the undisputed middleweight championship. The 29-year-old Australia-based Kiwi saw his run interrupted, first by by health issues—he endured a bout with a serious staph infection and underwent emergency abdominal surgery—and then by Israel Adesanya’s meteoric rise to power. Whittaker will return to the cage against Darren Till in the UFC Fight Night 174 headliner on July 25 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where he hopes to regain his footing in the division he once ruled.
Ahead of Whittaker’s confrontation with Till, a few of the rivalries that numbered his steps:
“The Last Stylebender” arrived at the summit as the undisputed middleweight champion with a second-round stoppage of Whittaker in the UFC 243 main event on Oct. 5, 2019 before a record crowd of 57,127 at Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, Australia. Whittaker bowed out 3:33 into Round 2, his reign atop the 185-pound weight class at an end after 660 days. Adesanya allowed “The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes” winner to lead the dance for much of the first round, then turned his aggression against him. Whittaker wandered into a counter right hand in the closing seconds of the opening period, hit the deck and might have met his demise there if not for the bell. Adesanya rattled him again early in the second round and later engaged him at close range in the center of the cage, uncorking a compact counter left hook that connected on the chin. Whittaker collapsed to the canvas, where a short burst of follow-up punches resulted in the stoppage.
Whittaker showed his quality in two attritive five-round battles with the menacing Romero, the first of which resulted in a unanimous decision for “Bobby Knuckles” at UFC 213 in 2017. Their UFC 225 rematch on June 9, 2018 at the United Center in Chicago was far more competitive. Whittaker’s consistency in the first, second and fourth rounds allowed him to withstand crushing bursts of offense from the 2000 Olympic silver medalist across the remaining 10 minutes of the match and escape with a split decision: 48-47, 47-48 and 48-47. Romero executed all three of his takedowns in the third and fifth rounds, where he outlanded the defending middleweight champion by a 100-33 count in the total strikes department. He appeared to have Whittaker on the brink of being stopped on multiple occasions but failed to finish the job, a reality he likely regrets to this day.
Intentions were made known on April 15, 2017, when Whittaker announced his arrival as a middleweight title contender and took care of Souza with a head kick and follow-up punches in the second round of their UFC on Fox 24 showcase at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri. “Jacare” bit the dust 3:28 into Round 2. Whittaker was systematic in his approach. He survived a ground exchange with the two-time Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships gold medalist in the first round, tore into him with accurate punches and bided his time. Whittaker floored Souza with a right hand to the temple but did not overcommit in his pursuit of a finish. He allowed the dazed Brazilian to stand and resumed his assault on the feet. Whittaker later cracked the former Strikeforce champion with a head kick and swarmed with punches and elbows, prompting referee Mario Yamasaki to act.