Hit Man

UFC MIDDLEWEIGHT CHAM­PION ROBERT WHIT­TAKER IS RID­ING AN EIGHT-FIGHT WIN­NING STREAK. AS HE PRE­PARES TO DE­FEND HIS TI­TLE HE RE­VEALS HOW YOU MAIN­TAIN THE HUNGER WHEN YOU’VE GONE FROM ZERO TO HERO

Men's Health (Australia) - - Contents - [ BY BEN JHOTY PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY TO­MASZ MACHNIK ]

UFC’S Robert Whit­taker re­veals how to stay hun­gry sans hubris.

ROBERT WHIT­TAKER IS AD­MIR­ING the sleek lines of a Mclaren 570S Spi­der parked among stacks of tim­ber pal­lets in a stor­age yard on the fringes of Syd­ney’s south­west. The grimy, in­dus­trial set­ting could eas­ily pass for the set of a low-bud­get ‘80s ac­tion movie, with a freshly-shaven Whit­taker on the run from a bunch of heavy-set goons.

Per­haps he slinks down an aisle of pal­lets as he peeps through slits in the wood, be­fore one of the thugs man­ages to get the jump on him and, well, you can prob­a­bly guess what hap­pens next.

Maybe Whit­taker un­leashes an el­bow, fol­lowed by a cou­ple of showy round­house kicks (this is an ac­tion movie, right) then breaks a pal­let over a goon’s head. He then speeds off in the Spi­der un­der a hail of gun­fire, (un­for­tu­nately the im­mac­u­late ve­hi­cle sus­tains some shrap­nel) en route to the movie’s next over-the-top set piece.

One prob­lem with the script? Well the ve­hi­cle is a gar­ish yel­low for a start, which puts it firmly at odds with Whit­taker’s util­i­tar­ian tastes and his no-non­sense at­ti­tude to his fight­ing ca­reer and life in gen­eral.

“Lately I’ve been lean­ing to­ward some­thing like a Tarago,” says Whit­taker, who re­cently wel­comed a third baby. “Or even a mini bus, some­thing I can walk around in.”

As the reign­ing cham­pion of the UFC’S cut­throat middleweight di­vi­sion you could point to the flashy sports car as one of the trap­pings of suc­cess, a sym­bol of what Whit­taker refers to as the “fluff” that of­ten sur­rounds the fight game. You could con­clude that he’s let­ting an eight-fight win­ning streak go to his head. That ahead of his up­com­ing ti­tle de­fence against Cuba’s Yoel Romero at UFC 225 in Chicago on June 9, he’s in dan­ger of los­ing his edge, for­feit­ing the hunger he once had as a raw kid from the back­blocks of Me­nai. It’s a cute the­ory – if it can hap­pen to Rocky, it can hap­pen to any­one, right? For­tu­nately, re­al­ity is a lit­tle less hack­neyed, if more pro­saic.

“Every fight, re­gard­less of whether it’s a ti­tle fight or ti­tle de­fence, they all feel the same,” says Whit­taker, planting him­self on a stack of pal­lets. “You’ve got to un­der­stand, fights don’t have any more mean­ing than what you give them. And for me, it doesn’t mat­ter what’s on the line, fight­ing is just fight­ing. The only thing on the line every time I fight is my body.”

Whit­taker’s straight­for­ward, tun­nelvi­sioned ap­proach to his ca­reer is as much a sur­vival skill as it is a calculated strat­egy – in his line of work to shift your fo­cus or lose con­cen­tra­tion for even a frac­tion of a sec­ond can have dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences. But it’s a reminder to us all to try and fo­cus solely on what­ever chal­lenge or prob­lem is right in front of you and to take it on its mer­its. As Whit­taker is at pains to point out, a fight on its own is not a ca­reer build­ing block, a plot-point in a grander nar­ra­tive or a gate­way to a pay­day. Treat it as more or less than what it is and you in­vite dis­trac­tion and dis­rup­tion. But if, like Whit­taker, you can man­age to boil down what­ever ob­sta­cle that looms in your path to its bare essence, then you have a shot at be­com­ing that most dan­ger­ous of men: the one with noth­ing to lose.

TAKE YOUR LICKS

Whit­taker is watch­ing a pair of fight­ers square off in a padded cage at Gra­cie Jiu-jitsu Smeaton Grange, just down the road from the pal­let yard. A hand­ful of Syd­ney’s top wrestlers and jiu-jitsu fight­ers is tak­ing turns to pair up and en­gage in a grap­pling ex­er­cise for 3-minute rounds while the rest watch on.

Alex Prates, who man­ages the gym, is seated against a con­crete wall call­ing out in­struc­tions and en­cour­age­ment. As one pair fin­ishes up, Whit­taker rises to his feet to take on his des­ig­nated op­po­nent, wrestler Blake Bar­den. “I want you, Blake,” shouts Whit­taker, as the two fight­ers get into po­si­tion. Prates shouts “go”.

For the next few min­utes Whit­taker is a study in con­cen­tra­tion as he and Bar­den en­gage in a fas­ci­nat­ing game of phys­i­cal chess, us­ing sub­tle changes in body po­si­tion and pil­ing mi­cro-move­ment upon mi­cro­move­ment to try and gain an ad­van­tage. “All fights are about putting your strengths on your op­po­nent, an­gling the fight in a way so you can cap­i­talise,” Whit­taker tells me later. Even­tu­ally he man­ages to flip Bar­den to se­cure a sub­mis­sion. As the two tap hands, he yells out again: “I can die happy now.”

Af­ter­wards I ask him what he meant by that. Whit­taker breaks into a smile. “I was call­ing him out be­cause he beats me every freakin’ time. I was say­ing my an­ces­tors are ashamed of me. He’s a very high cal­i­bre wrestler. To­day was the day I got one over him. But gen­er­ally he taps me every sin­gle time we roll. Ev­ery­one calls him my kryp­tonite.”

Tough op­po­nents such as Bar­den are one of the rea­sons Whit­taker has been com­ing to Prates’ gym for the last eight years. He knows that every time he takes to the floor he’ll have his hands full.

“He gets pushed,” says Prates, a hum­ble Brazil­ian with im­pec­ca­ble man­ners who’s trained in jiu-jitsu for nearly 30 years. “Guys like Blake, Olympic wrestlers. We try to bring the best guys in here.”

Renowned for his sav­age strik­ing power and abil­ity to stand up and trade kicks and punches, Whit­taker’s jiu-jitsu has im­proved dra­mat­i­cally in re­cent times, Prates reck­ons. “Peo­ple are go­ing to get shocked,” he says. “Ev­ery­one thinks the way to beat him is to pull him down to the ground. Well, good luck.”

One of the rea­sons for Whit­taker’s im­prove­ment on the ground is per­haps be­cause he’d been due to com­pete in

YOU’VE GOT TO UN­DER­STAND, FIGHTS DON’T HAVE ANY MORE MEAN­ING THAN WHAT YOU GIVE THEM

wrestling at the Com­mon­wealth Games, although in typ­i­cal fash­ion, he in­sists it had lit­tle bear­ing on the way he ap­proached his train­ing. “Some peo­ple would have fo­cused purely on wrestling but I just try to im­prove all my skillsets across the board,” he says.

Whit­taker had stunned the wrestling world back in 2015 when he showed up un­her­alded to the Aus­tralia Cup and walked away with vic­tory in his very first tour­na­ment. He had high hopes of fin­ish­ing on the podium at the Com­mon­wealth Games but ul­ti­mately the time­line with his ti­tle de­fence proved too tight. He wasn’t about to fol­low in the foot­steps of Conor Mc­gre­gor and risk be­ing stripped of the ti­tle for which he’d worked so hard, by em­bark­ing on a rogue, side­line van­ity project.

“If it came down to a de­ci­sion be­tween pro­vid­ing for my fam­ily and com­pet­ing in the Comm games, is that re­ally even a de­ci­sion to make?” he asks. So wrestling is a hobby? “It’s more of an hon­our and that’s ex­actly how I pri­ori­tise it.” In other words, he wasn’t, as it ap­pears Mc­gre­gor may have wound up do­ing, go­ing to give up his day job.

SIT DOWN, BE HUM­BLE

In Whit­taker’s words, last year’s ti­tle fight against Romero, also known as the “Soldier of God” was “a war”. Forced to come from be­hind after los­ing the first two rounds, Whit­taker also had to over­come a dev­as­tat­ing kick to his knee that very nearly hob­bled him, even­tu­ally win­ning a unan­i­mous points de­ci­sion. With the vic­tory he capped an eight­fight win­ning streak and claimed the in­terim middleweight ti­tle, be­com­ing the first Aus­tralian to hold a UFC belt. When the leg­endary Georges St-pierre va­cated his ti­tle in De­cem­ber, ‘The Reaper’ was el­e­vated to undis­puted middleweight cham­pion.

Hav­ing claimed the much-prized belt Whit­taker was ea­ger to de­fend it. Sched­uled to meet Amer­i­can Luke Rock­hold at UFC 221 in Perth back in Fe­bru­ary, a hor­rific run of in­juries and ill health – a popped hammy, staph in­fec­tion and fi­nally chicken pox – forced him out. “That event was my fight card,” says Whit­taker, his re­gret ob­vi­ous. “That was my ti­tle de­fence in my own coun­try. To not be able to do that was ab­so­lutely gut­ting.”

In­stead, Whit­taker will again meet the 41-year-old Romero – who stepped in and cleaned up Rock­hold – in his first ti­tle de­fence. How much will the first fight in­form the rematch? You’d ex­pect to en­ter a fight against a van­quished op­po­nent with a cer­tain de­gree of con­fi­dence, wouldn’t you? Whit­taker shakes his head. “It has no bear­ing what­so­ever,” he says. “I’ve taken every fight the same way. I worry about my own skillsets and I go in there and be­come a prob­lem for them. It’s no se­cret what he’s go­ing to want to do. He’s a great wrestler, that’s his field of ex­per­tise, that’s where he wants to put it.”

If you were look­ing for a through-line in Whit­taker’s re­mark­able win­ning streak it’s pos­si­bly right there in his res­o­lute fo­cus on him­self and his own game plan. Op­po­nents are largely face­less. While you might an­a­lyse their pre­vi­ous fights and be across their strengths and weak­nesses, you never buy into their nar­ra­tive or el­e­vate them to hero or vil­lain. Whit­taker will never have a neme­sis be­cause he’ll never let him­self cre­ate one. “The most suc­cess I’ve had in the Oc­tagon is when I go in there and be me,” he says. You, as the say­ing goes, should do you.

But that doesn’t mean he’s been idly watch­ing the vic­to­ries pile up. Such is his com­mit­ment to re­main­ing hum­ble and hun­gry, in Whit­taker’s world even wins can serve as wake-up calls. “A lot of peo­ple don’t re­flect on what they did wrong be­cause it’s masked by the win,” he says. In do­ing so, he adds, you un­der­es­ti­mate the im­por­tance of luck. It’s an over­sight that can cre­ate lead­ers who lack back­bone (hello Steve Smith), cham­pi­ons who lack judg­ment, even busi­nesses built on sand. “You get false con­fi­dence,” says Whit­taker, “be­cause some­times you’re just lucky. You clip a guy and you win that way. That doesn’t mean you were bet­ter than him. I see a lot a lot of fight­ers let that go to their head and they think they’re some­thing they’re not. That can be dan­ger­ous in our line of busi­ness.”

In the overblown world of com­bat sports, it’s rare to meet a fighter as clear-eyed as Whit­taker. In part it’s due to his back­ground in mar­tial arts where hu­mil­ity is prized as the start­ing point for growth. But part of it is sim­ply his love of fight­ing. He loves the thrill of it, the pu­rity of it and per­haps most of all, walk­ing that ra­zor-thin line be­tween vic­tory and de­feat. “It’s hard to ex­plain to peo­ple who haven’t fought but there’s a rush when the threat of los­ing is get­ting your head kicked in,” he says qui­etly. “It’s not just like a match that you lost where you can make it up next week. Nah, you got your head punched in in front of mil­lions of peo­ple. He just put it on you and that just sucks. Every time you step into the Oc­tagon that threat is there.” What’s not to love, right?

But here’s the thing about Whit­taker. As psy­cho­log­i­cally seis­mic as win­ning and los­ing have the po­ten­tial to be, if you were to meet him the day after the fight you’d be hard-pressed to guess the re­sult. What will he do should he lose against Romero? “Then I get back to train­ing and worry about the next fight,” he says lev­elly. And if he wins? Whit­taker turns to look me in the eye and with­out a hint of a smile or a trace of irony he re­peats the line word for word. “Then I get back to train­ing and worry about the next fight.”

THERE’S A RUSH WHEN THE THREAT OF LOS­ING IS GET­TING YOUR HEAD KICKED IN

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