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
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