Australia’s former world middleweight champion Robert ‘The Reaper’ Whittaker returns to the fray at the UFC’s ‘Fight Island’ in Abu Dhabi on Sunday after the grind – and pain – of mixed martial arts left him wondering if he’d ever fight again.
But the 29-year-old turned his life around again thanks to family and friends.
‘It was a combination of me talking to my team, of me talking to my family, and soul searching,’ Whittaker said of his return, during a pre-fight conference call.
‘I have a new-found love for the sport and for training. All the progression I’ve been making, in my skill sets and on the mats, I’ve been enjoying it, I’ve been having a lot of fun. It’s a new attitude, a new mental outlook.’
Crunch time for Whittaker had arrived on Christmas Day, and the sort of brutal daily training routine that had taken him to the very top of the world.
Whittaker is not the first athlete to have faced down Cronulla beach and the soul-searching Wanda sand dunes – and to have ended up wondering what the hell was the point of all that hard work.
The difference, of course, is that training (and fighting) is how Whittaker makes his living and, up until October 6 last year, he had been the UFC’s middleweight champion of the world.
A loss to the Nigerian-Kiwi sensation Israel ‘The Last Style Bender’ Adesanya via knockout at UFC 243 in Melbourne last December left Whittaker exhausted – mentally and physically – after a two-year run that had seen him claim the title (in July 2017) but then struggle through health issues that included an abdominal hernia, and a twisted and collapsed bowel.
Whittaker had fought his way back from those – and from the stresses that always haunt an athlete when their body simply won’t do what is supposed to. But he’d also lost precious time with his young family, and the three kids he is raising with wife Sofia in their Western Sydney home.
It was time, he thought, to stop.
‘It was career-ending burnout,’ explained Whittaker. ‘It was either have a break or just quit. [But] my team have been the best. To be able to just communicate with them, and talk to them and brainstorm some new ideas and move things around.
‘Honestly from before that [break] there’s been a breath of fresh air brought back into the training. In that it’s brought back so much enjoyment and fun for me.’
Seven months later, and the fire is burning again.
The number one-ranked Whittaker now faces the fifth-ranked Darren Till, a 27-year-old known for his supreme stand-up fighting skills, forged as a former Muay Thai and kick-boxing star.
‘He’s a dangerous guy,’ he said. ‘He’s got dangerous skill sets. He’s fought for titles. He’s been in the top 10 in the welterweight division, in the middleweight division. He’s a good fighter. I just think I’m better.
‘I’m sure he does hit hard. I’ve had people tell me I hit hard. We’re all big guys, we all hit hard. I’ve knocked people out, he’s knocked people out. The trick is to not get hit.
‘I have the ability to. I definitely have that in my arsenal. That’s where I see the difference between the two. His most dangerous weapon is the singular left hand whereas I have such an arsenal of weapons at my disposal I can take it where I want it.’
The UFC’s three-week stint on ‘Fight Island’ in the United Arab Emirates has so far seen Wollongong’s world featherweight champion Alexander ‘The Great’ Volkanovski (22-1) consolidate his position at the top of the game, with a first title defence against the former title-holder in Hawaiian Max ‘Blessed’ Holloway (21-6).
The 31-year-old Volkanovski took a controversial split decision after five torrid rounds and now it comes to Whittaker to bring the curtain down on an experience that fighters – and ground staff – have reported as being as unique as it has been remarkable.
The Las Vegas-based UFC moved its operations to Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island for three weeks and four fight cards, looking to escape the global threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. There were extensive tests before fighters could leave their home countries, and then more tests – and quarantine – when they arrived.
Whittaker said he had ignored the added stresses – and focussed on re-launching his fight career.
‘I’ve got a lot ahead of me,’ said Whittaker. ‘This fight is huge. A lot of questions and answers should arise from this fight. I need this next fight. I need to get to work. I’m looking forward to it. All the work’s done. Making the weight, eating some good food, getting to work and going home.’