It had been a long time since Robert Whittaker climbed into the Octagon and even longer since he tasted defeat.
On Saturday night inside Dockland Stadium in Melbourne, Australia, Whittaker made the first defense of his UFC middleweight title, but the duel didn’t go quite as planned. Whittaker never actually won his title inside the cage, though. He won the interim version of the 185-pound crown two years ago and was promoted to undisputed champion when George St. Pierre retired in November 2017. He was never able to officially defend his belt until Saturday.
Whittaker (20-5) had his first scheduled defense in June 2018 against Yoel Romero, but Romero missed weight, making their matchup a non-title affair. The “The Reaper” then pulled out of his slated bout with Kelvin Gastelum with an abdominal hernia. It’s been a year of disappointments for the Aussie powerhouse and things didn’t turn around in the main event of UFC 243 on Saturday. He was knocked out in the second round by Nigeria’s Israel Adesanya, the UFC record crowd of 57,127 mostly rabid Whittaker fans largely silenced.
“Obviously I’m disappointed, but I took the fight to him,” Whittaker said at the post-fight press conference. “Me and him are two of the best strikers in the world, and it was tit for tat, and I got caught. It happens. He beat me tonight, but I’m 28. This is my first loss in the division and trust me when I say I’m not going anywhere.
Whittaker took the fight right to Adesanya. He threw his punches with murderous intent, but “Bobby Knuckles” was reckless and wild. He threw haymakers from all angles and missed wildly time and again. Adesanya was hit by a few of his punches, but “The Last Stylebender” made him miss badly often and eventually capitalized with a blistering right-left hook combo to the jaw to end his title reign.
“I wasn’t in awe of his striking, and I was confident in my own,” he said. “I was having great success. I need to work on that check-hook defense. We went out there and put our hearts on it, and it happens. We’re two of the best strikers in the world together, and that’s what happens. Someone is going to get caught, and unfortunately tonight it was me.”
Naturally, Whittaker wants nothing more than to meet Adesanya (18-0) inside the cage again. It was his first loss in more than five-and-a-half years and only the second time he had ever been knocked out.
“I’d like to see on another night, let’s go at it again,” he stated. “I think I can do that. And that’s what’s so disappointing, I guess. I feel like I can beat him. I feel like I have the skillset to beat him. But we clashed heads, and I came off second best. I got caught. Hats off to him. He’s a great striker and congratulations. But like I said: I’m not going nowhere. I’m still one of the best in the world. I’ve always claimed that title. I’m one of the best in the world. I got the title once.”
It appears as though unbeaten Brazilian Paulo Henrique Costa will be the next man to fight Adesanya, so Whittaker will likely have to fight – and win – at least once before he’s to get another sniff at “The Last Stylebender.” He understands that and knows he has to go back to the proverbial drawing board and become an even better fighter.
“Thank God I’m not injured,” he told the assembled media. “I took the knockout, but I’m healthy. I’m coming back to work in a couple months. I’m on the market. I’m here to fight. I’m back to work, and I felt great out there. This is the best I’ve ever been. Honest to God, this is the best I’ve ever been. I just got caught, and that’s what happens.”