Robert Whittaker might be the most pragmatic fighter in the UFC today.
While winning nine consecutive contests and lording over the middleweight division might cause some to think more highly of themselves and develop a sense of entitlement when it comes to media attention, paydays and the way contemporaries and observers speak about them in general, the 28-year-old standout is even more about the “It is what it is” life than Max Holloway, his Hawaiian counterpart, who has turned the idiom into one of his signature phrases over the last few years.
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Whittaker has been a revelation since moving up to middleweight, systematically working his way up the division ladder, dispatching veterans like Derek Brunson and Jacare Souza before winning and retaining the middleweight title in a pair of classic battles with Cuban superman Yoel Romero.
Regardless of how you scored those contests, there was no way to come away from either fight with anything other than the utmost respect for Whittaker, who pushed through injuries in both encounters and showed the kind of tenacity and heart that differentiates very good fighters from championship-level competitors.
They were — or should have been — star-making efforts for the former “The Ultimate Fighter” winner; the type of performances that catapulted him into the conversation as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the sport today and positioned him as a cornerstone piece for the company as it embarks on a new broadcast partnership with ESPN.
Instead, on the eve of his championship showdown with Kelvin Gastelum this weekend at UFC 234, “The Reaper” remains an ultra-talented competitor who doesn’t get the kind of recognition and notoriety someone of his standing deserves.
Not that he cares.
“I definitely think being in the ass-end of the world plays a part in that, but it is what it is,” said Whittaker when asked about still being underrated despite all his success while speaking with Sporting News earlier in the week. “It’s the nature of the beast.
“A lot of people underestimate me going into my fights,” he added. “They underestimate my skill set, but it’s always to their detriment.”
Aside from his family, continuing to hone that skill set and use the opportunities afforded to him as a result of his standing as the best middleweight in the world are the only two things Whittaker really focuses on.
That includes the UFC middleweight title, which Whittaker — like Gastelum — sees as a byproduct of effort he puts in to continue sharpening his weapons rather than an objecting he’s desperate to protect and secure.
“Being a warrior and being a fighter is who I am; it’s what I was put here to do,” said Whittaker, who began his UFC career with three wins in five appearances at welterweight before moving up to the 185-pound weight division, where he has since rattled off eight straight victories. “I believe certain people are supposed to do certain things and they’re better at it and that’s me (with fighting).
“I think being the champ is about being a role model,” continued the father of three, who was named GQ Australia’s Sportsman of the Year in 2018. “It’s my responsibility to be a positive role model and to use the spotlight that I have for something bigger than just hitting gloves — something bigger, something better and something that can have an impact on something more than just myself. I never put a lot of value in the belt. Whether I hold it or not is neither here nor there — it’s about me getting better as an athlete and as a person, really.”
The thing that really sets Whittaker apart from a lot of his colleagues is how refreshingly honest he is when it comes to offering up his insights on what could transpire this weekend inside Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne.
Where most would run through the myriad of ways and reasons they’re better than their opponent, offering a wishful assessment of how things will play out once the cage door closes, the man known as “Bobby Knuckles” prefers to skip over singing his own praises and predicting lopsided performances and opts instead to be as practical as possible.
“The thing is that there isn’t a lot of difference,” he said of the matchup between he and Gastelum. “We’re going to go out there and we’re going to put our hearts on display and it’s going to be a matter of whose night it is and that’s it. That’s just the nature of the beast. Every fight I go into, I’m going to go out there trying to give my best and trying to put my skill set on display and what happens, happens. I’m always looking for the finish and looking to put on a show.”
Although Whittaker doesn’t put a great deal of value on the middleweight title itself, he does admit there is something special and meaningful to him about being able to defend the belt on home soil, especially after missing out on the opportunity to do so last year.
After winning the interim title at UFC 213 and being promoted to undisputed middleweight champion when Georges St-Pierre opted to relinquish the belt he won from Michael Bisping four months later at UFC 217, the plan was to have Whittaker defend his title against former champ Luke Rockhold in the main event of UFC 221 last February.
But a month before the event, Whittaker was forced to withdraw as a result of a nasty staph infection and a bout of the chicken pox.
Missing out on the chance to compete in Perth left Whittaker gutted, but stepping into the Octagon before the raucous fans in Melbourne this weekend should help make up for it.
“I’m absolutely ecstatic to be able to fight in my home country,” he said. “For one, I love fighting here, but to be able to defend the belt here means everything. Australians love fighting — they love it — and they really just get behind an Aussie. The crowd is going to be absolutely off the hook and I can’t wait.”
He’s also excited to be facing someone new after back-to-back encounters with Romero and entering the cage as close to 100 percent as a fighter can after dealing with serious injuries in each of his meetings with “The Soldier of God.”
“I’m dangerous on a bad night,” said Whittaker, who broke his hand mid-fight at UFC 225 after entering his first meeting with Romero with a partially torn MCL, which the Olympic silver medalist promptly kicked early in the first round, exacerbating the injury. “But I’m feeling great. This is the healthiest I’ve been, so I’m really looking forward to getting in there and putting on a show.
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“And it is great to have someone new,” he added. “It’s great to be able to develop a skill set to put against a new face.”
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