The UFC’s formula to success can be defined in terms of fighter pay, championship status and or pay per view buys or television ratings. Still, it usually comes down to results and results only come with fight activity. It’s easy to point at Conor McGregor as someone to be inspired by, however the newly crowned interim UFC middleweight champion, Robert Whittaker used his own formula to get to the top of his division and has set himself up for even more success at the age of 26.
Whittaker’s arrival in the UFC came via The Ultimate Fighter back in 2012 and he competed at welterweight, but flash forward to 2016 and that was when things starting to come full circle for the Australian born fighter.
Whittaker entered 2016 carrying a three fight winning streak following his middleweight debut in late 2014 against Clint Hester. Whittaker’s last performance prior to entering 2016 was an impressive win over the flashy Uriah Hall via unanimous decision in Melbourne, Australia on the night Holly Holm dethroned Ronda Rousey in the main event of UFC 193. Whittaker was initially booked against Michael Bisping, the latter was scratched due to an elbow injury. The cancelled bout between two of the best European strikers to enter the UFC could’ve done wonders for Whittaker’s path to the title, but it was not meant to be. Not yet at at least. The win over Uriah Hall was still beneficial as it managed to propel “Bobby Knuckles” into the top 10 of a division ruled by Chris Weidman and Luke Rockhold at the time. The two men were viewed as the future of the division for years to come and their scheduled bout a month later at UFC 194 was described as the two best middleweights in their prime doing battle.
Whittaker was not on the radar entering 2016, but the platform to perform well enough to continue moving up the ladder was present. The middleweight division was set to get a championship rematch between Weidman and Rockhold in June at UFC 199. Bisping locked horns with Anderson Silva in February and was able to secure a decision win over Anderson Silva in a classic. Whittaker was once again overlooked.
He accepted a fight against a lower ranked, Rafael Natal at UFC 197 in April. He did not complain or remain on the shelf until he was given a higher ranked opponent. Instead, Whittaker was content on making the most out of what he was given. The result was another win via unanimous decision over Natal. Several weeks later, the division was dealt a blow when Weidman was forced out of UFC 199, opening the door for Bisping to step in and shock the world as he knocked Luke Rockhold out to win the UFC middleweight title.
Bloody Elbow’s Tim Bissell reported that prior to Bisping accepting the fight against Rockhold on two week’s notice, the UFC was on the verge of booking Bisping against Whittaker for a November date. The fight would once again slip through fate’s hands. Whittaker’s manager, Andrew Kanatli told BE that Bisping underwent elbow surgery to dodge Whittaker in their initial scheduled bout at UFC 193 and expressed frustration in once again losing out on the match up. Nothing really came out of the allegations. Mainly because Whittaker refused to dwell on the lost match up he longed for.
Instead, Whittaker waited to be cleared for his next showing in 2016 as the Fox headlining act that took place in November against Derek Brunson. The fight didn’t last long. After surviving Brunson’s barrage of punches, he answered with heavy counters that put his opponent out. The win was a statement that Whittaker was a major player in the division.
2017 was ushered in by the Bisping and Georges St Pierre fiasco while Whittaker was set to face his stiffest challenge and the highest ranked opponent available. Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, the heavy favorite ended up getting stopped for the first time since 2008, cementing Whittaker as a title contender. While Whittaker initially opted to wait for a title shot against the Brit, he changed his tune when Bisping’s absence created an interim title.
Whittaker didn’t shy away from opportunity or a challenge. He didn’t complain. He fought. And he won. Despite having an injured knee, Whittaker put everything on the line and still pulled off the win after aggravating the injury after a Yoel Romero kick minutes into the bout.
The legend of “Bobby Knuckles” is still growing and his classiness once again came to light in a recent interview with MMA Fighting when he stated that he’d be okay with Bisping fighting another opponent should his knee not be healed in time for a unification bout later in the year.
While there is a strong chance the Bisping-GSP talks return given the potential pay-per view sales, Whittaker will still be recognized as the man who made his own luck by simply defeating the men who stood before him. The rest of the division could learn a thing or two from the Aussie.