In October 2019, Robert Whittaker lost his 185-pound UFC title to current champion Israel Adesanya. It was his first defeat in five years and one he now attributes partly to a loss of motivation.
“I think I was burnt out after the second fight with [Yoel] Romero,” admits Whittaker. “It really took it out of me. I was in a rut. I was dragging my feet to training sessions. And the results of that were what you saw.”
But you can’t keep a good man down, and the Sydneysider bounced back with a win against tough Englishman Darren Till in July of this year. More importantly, any feelings of burnout are in the past and he’s returned to relishing the grind.
Which is just as well since “The Reaper” is about to face the surging Jared Cannonier in the co-main event of UFC 254 on Fight Island. Where others might be worried, the 29-year-old is finding the fight game fun again.
“I’m really enjoying the process,” he says, noting, “Who you surround yourself with is important – and I surround myself with a great team. I’m very fortunate. We work when we need to, get those hard yards done, but we still have a laugh. Everyone is happy to be here.”
Which is not to say he’s taking Cannonier lightly…
“He’s a dangerous guy. He has a lot of similar strengths to Till. One-shot knockout power. He’s resilient. I’m going to have to give his skillset the respect it deserves, and to adjust.”
Helping Whittaker make those necessary adjustments is an unchanged coaching team determined to squeeze the most out of every session.
“Justin Fitzgerald is my boxing coach. We sync really well together, and he brings the best out of me. My wrestling coach Andrew has also been instrumental. He simplifies stuff, and his expertise and mentoring have been vital to me. Not just in the Octagon, but as a person.”
While some fighters have found the various pandemic restrictions a hindrance, Whittaker genuinely likes being in quarantine – both at home and in Abu Dhabi (where his bout with Till took place).
“It really agrees with me,” laughs the former champ. “Last time I was on Fight Island was great. There’s less media, less walking around, you stay in your room. I love the isolation. I’m built for it.”
The lack of cheering fans doesn’t bother him, either.
“I like fighting in the quiet. I did it before on The Ultimate Fighter. It probably won’t stay that way forever, but it feels more intimate.”
Joining Whittaker on the UFC 254 fight card is his teammate Jacob “Mamba” Malkoun, who’s making his UFC debut.
“It’s amazing to see him reach this goal. I’ve been training with him for 10 years – since he was a kid. His skillset is amazing. He keeps up with me and puts it on me most days. Jacob deserves this.”
Being a good mentor to the guys at his gym is important to the Aussie star, but even more so being a good role model for his children. And the proud father of three recently announced that he and wife Sofia are expecting another.
“I’m very excited to be having a fourth one soon. People think I fight for money or the belt. No, I fight for my kids.”
As motivations go, fighting for your family is hard to beat, but it doesn’t make Jared Cannonier any less of a challenge. “Tha Killa Gorilla” has won his past three fights by TKO and is ranked No. 2 in the division for a reason. So Whittaker is ready for a war.
“I’m accustomed to them,” he states. “My previous hard fights have shown my mettle. They’ve shown what I can go through and withstand. I take confidence from that. I’m not going anywhere – I’m in this for the long haul.”
As for how “The Reaper” will deal with the knockout power his opponent possesses…
“I’ll stay outside of his range and use my speed to my advantage,” he replies, predicting, “I think I’ll be too much for him. I’m going to finish him late in the first or midway through the second. I’ll hurt him too much and he’ll find it very hard to peg me down.”
If the gameplan works, a rematch with Adesanya seems like a distinct possibility. It’s not something Whittaker is worrying about, though. He’s enjoying himself, having fun and, like he said, is in this for the long haul.
“Honestly, I don’t care [about a title shot],” he shrugs. “I’m just going to fight anybody they put in front of me. That’s what I’m here to do. And I’m sure that after I beat a lot of them, I’ll be somewhere near the top.”
UFC 254 SPECIAL START TIME:
Main Card: 2pm ET / 11am PT on ESPN+
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