Back in 2012, the UFC held The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes in Australia in a Team UK vs Team Australia with the finals taking place in UFC on FX 6. The standout victor for Team Australia’s welterweights was 21-yea-old Robert Whittaker who won a back-and-forth bout against Brad Scott to earn himself the TUF trophy. At 26, Whittaker now finds himself knocking at the door of an interim middleweight title should he add Yoel Romero’s name to his winning streak.
Whittaker would go on to win another fight at welterweight until he tasted his first UFC defeat via split decision against Court McGee in 2013, followed by a brutal TKO loss at the hands of Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson at UFC 170 in early 2014. The loss set him back and the knockout loss was the first in his MMA career. A quick return against Mike Rhodes in New Zealand four months later resulted in a decision win, but his next bout was more interesting for it took place at middleweight. An entertaining fight against fellow TUF alumni Clint Hester that ended in a TKO victory in the second round in late 2014.
Whittaker ia notable for his striking ability, which is probably why his next three of his last five opponents consisted of strikers. Whittaker made quick work of yet another TUF alumni Brad Tavares at UFC Fight Night in 2015. Six months later, UFC 193 would’ve presented Bobby Knuckles with his biggest challenge yet against the current UFC middleweight champion Michael Bisping, but Bisping uncharacteristically pulled out with an injury and was replaced by the dangerous Uriah Hall. The flashy TUF alumni knock out artist, Hall was still a worthy challenge, but he would go on to lose via unanimous decision in what would be the biggest name on Whittaker’s resume to date.
Whittaker was slowly establishing himself as more than just a prospect climbing up the middleweight ranking. A fight against the 5th Degree Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt, Rafael Natal was booked for UFC 197 and despite being known for his grappling, Natal showed he could hang with Whittaker in the striking department, but his efforts were outmatched by Whittaker’s superiority as he picked up the unanimous decision victory. It’s clear the UFC saw something in Knuckles as he was booked to fight in his home soil for the fourth time in six fights since winning TUF: Smashes.
The difference of course was the fact that he’d be headlining his first event against fellow rising middleweight Derek Brunson, who was yet another striker, but more importantly Brunson was coming off a TKO win over Uriah Hall who hadn’t been finished since 2010 against former champion, Chris Weidman. Brunson’s power appeared to be his advantage over Whittaker, but it was also his undoing as he started off the bout pressuring the Australian native against the cage with heavy handed flurries and it seemed at one point that Whittaker would be yet another victim until he unleashed a savvy left hand shot that stunned Brunson and changed the complexion of the bout. Brunson was forced to respect Whittaker’s counters and was no longer leading the dance as he ate a head kick that followed a 1-2 combination a nice combination that nearly took him of his feet followed by a barrage of punches that sealed his fate. Another impressive performance that featured flashes of perseverance.
The storybook ending couldn’t have been any better as his hometown crowd created a deafening atmosphere for their superstar. The win would set things up for what many believed was the UFC metaphorically feeding him to the alligator known as Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza. The previously #3 ranked Souza could’ve arguably been next in line for a title shot, but given the nature of the middleweight frenzy, he’d instead have to put his impressive 7-1 run up against the # 6 ranked 26-year-old. This did not bode well for Jacare in a fight he was expected to win. Early on Jacare was able to climb onto Whittaker’s back and it appeared as if we’d be in the presence of yet another victim. Instead we witnessed a complete fighter in Whittaker as he managed to shake off his opponent followed by putting a stop to the anticipated take down attempts from Souza. With the threat of the take down no longer present, the platform for Bobby Knuckles’ coming out party and boy did put on a show.
Whittaker started the second round with a mental advantage and put his speed and footwork on display as he delivered a loud sounding straight right that dropped Jacare followed by brief ground and pound. Forcing Jacare to stand back up, he smelled blood in the water and went back to moving around and throwing two-punch combinations. Souza was visibly tired and hurt with an uppercut and eventually ate a head kick that signaled the end. Whittaker jumped at the opportunity to finish his injured prey off and secured his spot among the elite middleweights.
The win was met with some mixed feelings as Whittaker stated he’d settle for waiting in the sidelines for a title shot since he lost a chance against Bisping nearly two year ago rather than challenge someone like a Luke Rockhold or Gegard Mousasi. Fortunately we were given the news of the division moving on without Bisping as the dangerous Yoel Romero was booked to fight Whittaker for an interim title at UFC 213 rather than waiting for the champ’s knee to heal completely.
Now, we await a battle between olympian wrestler/slugger and crisp and speedy kick boxer next month. Whittaker has shown a tendency to trade shot for shot in the past, but lately we’ve seen a rather patient fighter who is confident that things will work in his favor should he keep the fight standing. Whittaker believes Romero, “will fall like everyone else,” which is a lot easier said than done. Romero will enter the contest with an 8 fight winning streak rivaling Whittaker’s six fight win streak and also defeated Jacare back at UFC 194 in late 2015, but did it via split decision. Whittaker has the advantage in age against his 40-year-old counterpart, but he’ll have to get past the brutal abrupt flash of punches Romero is known for throwing. We’ll likely be in for a careful and patient chess match between both competitors with a careful eye on Romero’s gas tank and Whittaker’s ability to take a punch and ability to evade the take down.