Considering the abundance of high-level talent pouring out of Australia and into the Octagon these days, it’s notable that an Aussie representative hadn’t captured a UFC title until Robert Whittaker did so in the summer of 2017. It is a testament, however, to the sport’s explosion since then, as several top fighters fly the country’s flag proudly.
After spending his childhood and adolescence training in multiple martial arts disciplines, Whittaker made his professional debut in March 2009. Over the course of three years, he amassed a 9-2 record with nine first-round stoppages. This led to an opportunity on The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes welterweight tournament, where Whittaker would rack up the Knockout of the Season for his efforts against Luke Newman, whom he knocked out in less than 20 seconds.
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After an up-and-down, 3-2 start to his UFC career, Whittaker moved up to middleweight, and the legend of “The Reaper” began in earnest. He opened his 185-pound account with a pair of Performance Bonuses: a Fight of the Night effort against Clint Hester and a 44-second knockout win over Brad Tavares.
Following a pair of thrilling wins over Derek Brunson and Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, Whittaker earned his first shot at UFC interim gold against Yoel Romero at UFC 213, which he successfully secured with a unanimous decision victory. After Georges St-Pierre vacated the title, Whittaker was promoted to the undisputed champion.
However, he would face a familiar foe in his first official defense as Romero once again stepped up at UFC 225. The rematch ended up as not only as Fight of the Night, but also roundly considered the Fight of the Year. Despite Romero dropping Whittaker on two occasions, Whittaker did enough to get the split decision nod to extend his undefeated middleweight streak to eight.
Although “Bobby Knuckles” had the respect of everyone in the MMA world, his reign as middleweight champion wasn’t all smooth sailing. Injuries and other health problems kept him out of action for much of his championship reign. Whittaker was eventually chosen to coach across from Kelvin Gastelum on The Ultimate Fighter: Heavy Hitters, with a date set up for his second title defense at UFC 234. However, on the morning of the fight, Whittaker was forced to pull out of the matchup due to an abdominal hernia.
That opened the door for an interim title fight between Gastelum and Israel Adesanya, the latter winning the duel in 2019’s Fight of the Year and setting up an Australia-vs-New Zealand matchup to unify the title. At the record-breaking UFC 243 in Melbourne, Whittaker relinquished his title to “The Last Stylebender,” but he remains entrenched as the second-best 185er in the world.
Since that fight, Whittaker has thwarted several hopeful contenders. A three-fight streak over Darren Till, Jared Cannonier and Gastelum earned him another crack at Adesanya, although Whittaker dropped the razor-close rematch at UFC 271. Whittaker did the simple task of going right back to work seven months later, defeating Marvin Vettori via unanimous decision.
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Whittaker, who was born in New Zealand but moved to Australia shortly afterward, embraces both countries when he walks to the Octagon. Whittaker’s tribal tattoo on his right arm is a nod to his Māori heritage from his mother’s side of the family. On the left side of his chest, he bears the Southern Cross seen on the Australian flag, and as he hypes himself up in the Octagon, Whittaker often repeatedly taps his chest. Although he says the motion is more a nod toward his father and the sacrifices he made while growing up, Whittaker also said he doesn’t mind the interpretation that he is immensely proud of the country he reps.
His efforts outside of the Octagon are notable, as well, between hosting youth clinics at his gym or connecting with the community. In 2018, GQ Australia named him Sportsman of the Year.
The 32-year-old’s legacy as a pioneer and groundbreaker for mixed martial artists from the region is cemented. That said, he is very much in the mix at the top of the division and likely a title contender for years to come.