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It ended up taking Robert Whittaker nearly 10 months to wash the taste of UFC 243—where he lost his middleweight championship by knockout to Israel Adesanya in front of a record-setting crowd at Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, Australia—out of his mouth. However, that intermission, during which “Bobby Knuckles” very conspicuously took a step away from MMA and considered his fighting future before resetting his journey as a contender, may just have been key to getting back in the win column and one day to a second Ultimate Fighting Championship title.
Viewed against that backdrop, it’s not surprising that Whittaker’s overwhelming reaction to his unanimous decision verdict over former 170-pound title contender Darren Till was one of relief. He’d marched into his headlining spot at UFC on ESPN 14 as a slight favorite over “The Gorilla,” but there were plenty of people who anticipated the fight could be a coming-out party for the Scouser, who had looked impressive in his upset victory over Kelvin Gastelum in his debut middleweight fight in November. When Till knocked down Whittaker with a perfectly placed elbow in the first round, it felt for a minute like the fight may have been slipping away from “The Reaper,” and it’s anyone’s guess how long it would have taken him to rebuild if he had been stopped for a second consecutive time.
Instead, Whittaker did something for which he has become beloved: battle through adversity and make adjustments on the fly. Rounds 2-5 were about as technical a striking contest as one can see in modern MMA, with Whittaker outlanding Till in every stanza and completing two takedowns on route to a close decision. When Joe Martinez announced Whittaker as the victor, the look on the 29-year old’s face was one of pure catharsis, and at the post-fight press conference, he laid down the gauntlet to whoever’s left standing after UFC 253, where Adesanya is expected to defend the 185-pound title against Brazilian bomber Paula Henrique Costa. “I’m championship level,” Whittaker said with a grin. “I’m ready for a championship fight right now. I displayed that tonight. That’s the level I’m at.”
It’s an old saying from boxing that a happy fighter is much more dangerous than his bad-tempered counterpart, and Whittaker’s attitude and performance on Saturday compared to his more recent appearances reflect the essential truth of that statement.
At both UFC 243, where he lost his title, and the ill-fated UFC 234 eight months earlier, which saw him withdraw from his scheduled title defense against Gastelum due to a collapsed bowel less than 24 hours before he was set to make the walk, it was clear to anyone who spent time around him that the then-champion was in a very different mindset to the one he displayed against Till. In 2019, Whittaker’s answers at the pre-fight media events were curt. His statements were still punctuated with wry smiles and he remained a consummate professional, but one got the sense that Whittaker would very much have preferred to be somewhere else. A few months prior to UFC 234 in February, UFC President Dana White had criticized his Australian champion for reportedly shirking his PR duties, and off the back of his coaching stint on Season 28 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” Whittaker had indicated the experience was less-than-rewarding. The media attention and the monotony of answering the same set of questions in different forums seemed to weigh on the 29-year-old, as did the weight of his training regimen and its effect on his young family.
That much was confirmed in interviews Whittaker gave earlier this year—in the aftermath of his abrupt withdrawal from UFC 248, where he was scheduled to fight Jarod Cannonier in the co-main event. Speaking to The Toowoomba Chronicle in April, Whittaker described the heart-wrenching moment when he realized he needed to step away from the sport while running sand dunes on Christmas Day: “I just stopped. Then stood there asking, ‘What the f--- am I doing?.’ It was Christmas Day. My family was somewhere else. That moment, it’s when everything crashed.” Whittaker described being overwhelmed by the sacrifices he had to make for fighting—including missing weddings, funerals and family time—all of which led to a calamitous burn out and his decision to step away from the sport until he was able to “work out how to stop feeling this way.”
Thankfully for Whittaker and the MMA community at large, that day came. For months, Whittaker siloed himself and his family from the world, enjoying the isolation induced by the COVID-19 pandemic and attendant restrictions on daily life. In an interview with Submission Radio, he described his days as filled with family time, video games and weight lifting; and at the end of it, he realized he was hungry to compete again. A few months removed from that epiphany, Whittaker is back in the winner’s circle and happy to report that he “enjoyed every minute” of the experience.
“I enjoyed the sessions, I enjoyed the hustle, I enjoyed grinding it out and trying to better my skill set knowing there’s a fight coming up and I get to put those to the test,” Whittaker told ESPN. “It didn’t just change the fight game for me; it changed my life, because I enjoyed such a big part of it.”
Whittaker has been one of the best fighters on the planet for years. Now that he’s reignited his love for the fight game? The middleweight division is on notice.
Jacob Debets is a lawyer and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.
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