‘REAPER’ FIGHTING FOR HIS FUTURE
Early years gave Whittaker the weapons needed to climb to top in UFC cage
EARLY ON I HIT HIM SO MUCH AND HE WASN’T TAKING ANY DAMAGE. IT WAS LIKE PUNCHING CONCRETE. IT WAS CRAZY BUT IT COMES DOWN TO STICKING TO THE PLAN AND CHIPPING AWAY.
ROBERT Whittaker is one of those rare individuals who managed to turn his sporting passion of mortal combat into a lucrative living.
The downside is pursuit of that passion involves getting into a cage to face some of the meanest sons of guns on this planet, men like the human brick in Cuba’s Yoel Romero who Whittaker, 27, has somehow found a way to defeat in his past two UFC fights in the US.
‘The Reaper’, as Whittaker is known, grew up in his Sydney home playing the big video games of 20 years ago such as Mortal Kombat and Tekken, at the same time he was honing his karate skills which eventually led to a black belt at age 14.
“Karate is what inspired me, what helped me get my foot in the door. There is so much culture in the sport, history and discipline. Looking back I was always drawn to combat, even if I’m afraid of spiders, heights, but I wasn’t a kid who went looking for fights,” said Whittaker last week as he continued preparations for his upcoming defence of his middleweight title against Kelvin Gastelum at Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena on February 10.
“I grew up in housing commission which led to some insecurities and a low selfesteem.
“If a fight came, I definitely did have natural ability for combat. I have natural instincts and talent.”
Those “natural instincts” have taken him to a world title and respect as one of the most dedicated practitioners in his sport.
Whittaker is obsessive with his attention to detail, something that can relate back 20 years to when he began practising karate.
That pursuit taught him about history, about respect and the discipline required if he was going to make a living from his feet and fists.
At age 14 his father gave him the option to change to another sport or drop karate entirely, and while his brother walked away, the boy who loved mortal combat followed a path that eventually developed into jujitsu and MMA. And a world championship won over five gruelling rounds against Romero.
If you are unaware of the work of Romero, take a peek of him on YouTube and then envisage climbing into a cage with him. Whittaker has done that twice over the past two years.
“Yoel Romero actually looked bigger the second time. But as my Dad says, ‘they’re only human Robert, the same amount of bones and every man falls after a certain amount of hits’,” Whittaker said.
“Early on I hit him so much and he wasn’t taking any damage. It was like punching concrete. It was crazy but it comes down to sticking to the plan and chipping away. My ultimate goal is to bring the best fighter out of me, to reach my full potential as an athlete. I never look past my next opponent because I respect everyone I fight.”
While Whittaker has reached the top of his particular tree in becoming world champion of an ever-growing sport in a highly combative weight, the rewards don’t match what Jeff Horn got for smashing Anthony Mundine recently.
For just over 90 seconds, Horn will pocket well over $2 million, whereas Whittaker goes in against the likes of Romero for roughly a quarter of that amount.
“We have to fight and complain and scrap for every cent we are given,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important fighters realise it’s important to work on avenues outside their fighting career because in this sport your body doesn’t last forever.
“The prizemoney is nothing like boxing. So it’s about the product and making sure it’s a very good one.”