Robert Whittaker: ‘I’m better than when I was UFC champion – I can get the belt back’

When Robert Whittaker’s coach pulled him aside, giving him the news that left an entire sporting community deflated, the Australian’s next move was clear: “I went to breakfast.”

Within two hours of hearing that Khamzat Chimaev was out of their UFC main event, one of the most-anticipated fights of the year, Whittaker had a new opponent. By lunchtime, his preparation was under way.

The former middleweight champion would stand across from Ikram Aliskerov, in a cage in Saudi Arabia, on nine days’ notice. “I was upset, it was stressful,” Whittaker tells The Independent over Zoom, “but my coaches understand that not fighting is not an option for me. I’d put in all this work, flown to Dubai... I was fighting someone!”

Last Saturday, that someone ended up being Aliskerov, whose sole professional loss had come at the hands of Chimaev no less. Still, the Russian was just 2-0 in the UFC before facing Whittaker, who admitted to not having heard of his new opponent. That admission drew concerns, as if the “Reaper” was underestimating Aliskerov.

“I meant no disrespect when I said that,” Whittaker clarifies. “I feel like a lot of media outlets took my words out of context, but the truth is: I don’t watch a lot of UFC, he’s only had two UFC fights, and they’ve flown under the radar for me. But once the name was dropped to me, I did tons of research and understood how dangerous his skillset was. So, I know I dealt with that appropriately.

“Had my team heard of him? Probably, because we have a teammate working his way up the ladder, so I’m sure they’d come across his name. But mate, it doesn’t matter who I’m fighting: I trust my skillset, I take my own strengths into a fight. I like to control the space and throw out a fight that my opponent has to worry about.”

Aliskerov looked worried when his feet began to bend and buckle in all sorts of inconvenient directions, as Whittaker thudded a right hand onto the top of his head. That strike was the beginning of the end, and so close to the beginning itself. Whittaker hunted the wounded Aliskerov with a series of jabs and a head kick, before the perfect uppercut ended the fight – all within two minutes.

In the aftermath of the UFC’s Saudi Arabian debut, a clip circulated on social media. It showed Whittaker using feints in the opening moments of the fight, and rapidly reading Aliskerov’s reactions. Whittaker, 33, exploited those reactions clinically – a word so often associated with the New Zealand-born fighter.

“When I was feinting and moving in, I saw him throwing his left hand out a lot,” Whittaker explains. “Once I had that read, I committed to the one-two. I went over the jab, hurt him, and the rest is kind of history. [That kind of performance] means the world to me, that’s the dream for every fighter.”

The result was Whittaker’s first stoppage win in seven years, remarkably, heralding a huge release of emotion. “The overwhelming feeling is a massive adrenaline rush, but the relief and euphoria from winning – and doing so in that fashion... The trip, the months of work, they’re why my celebration was as wild as it was.”

What ensued was widespread adulation of Whittaker. That has been a trend after his fights, with his eclectic skillset and affable nature proving particularly popular over the last decade. And while the stoppage was his first in some time, the Reaper has nonetheless garnered respect for scything through a murderers’ row of opponents by any means necessary: Yoel Romero (twice), Jared Cannonier, Paulo Costa, Marvin Vettori, Darren Till, Kelvin Gastelum, and now Aliskerov.

Whittaker is pursuing the UFC middleweight title, which he held from 2018 until 2019 (Getty Images)
Whittaker is pursuing the UFC middleweight title, which he held from 2018 until 2019 (Getty Images)

Chimaev was either supposed to join that list or a much shorter one, comprising those to have beaten Whittaker in recent years: reigning champion Dricus Du Plessis, and former champion Israel Adesanya (twice). Chimaev’s uniquely dominant showings in a young UFC career had some projecting a 50-50 fight against Whittaker. Yet the former champion took no offence.

“I didn’t feel anything about it, because my personal philosophy is: Every fight is a 50/50 fight. You don’t know what to expect, except you’re gonna stand across from a guy swinging bombs; 50/50, I think, is a pretty good estimate! Chimaev has a very dangerous skillset, he’s run through just about everybody he’s come across. So, I was taking the fight deadly serious. I trained so hard; I had stacked all the chips in my favour, mate.”

Chimaev withdrew from the fight due to a severe bout of illness, but the Russian has already called for the contest to be rearranged. Whittaker, though, could yet face the winner of August’s title fight: Du Plessis vs Adesanya. Either outcome there would allow the Reaper a chance at revenge, yet he is open to any opponent, with Sean Strickland having also been mooted.

Whittaker during his second fight with Israel Adesanya, a narrow points loss (Getty Images)
Whittaker during his second fight with Israel Adesanya, a narrow points loss (Getty Images)

“They’ll give me a name, I’ll say yes, and we’ll fight in October, November or December,” he says matter of factly. “Who it is, what type of fight, I don’t know. But I’ve given them my dates, we’ve been talking.

“The overwhelming objective is to become the best fighter in the world. I wholeheartedly believe I’m the most dangerous and the best middleweight there’s ever been. Unfortunately, to get people to back that, I need that gold again! I had it once, and I know I can get it again. I’m better than I was then.

“I believe the best run of my career is just starting. Every loss has made me reflect inside and out and better understand myself. My goal is just to try and live up to my own potential. That’s the juggling act: Getting my headspace on par with how good I am.

“I’m really starting to zero in on that, to get those lines touching. Life is amazing, I’m on top of the world – with God’s grace. I’m happy.”

It’s often said that a happy fighter is a dangerous fighter. Whittaker believes he is the most dangerous there has ever been.