‘REAPER’ FIGHT­ING FOR HIS FU­TURE

Early years gave Whit­taker the weapons needed to climb to top in UFC cage

Central and North Burnett Times - - SPORT - JON AN­DER­SON

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.”

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