Robert Whittaker had battled his way to the top of the fight game with nine consecutive wins to capture the UFC middleweight championship. The sport is always changing, however, and Whittaker ran into a force of nature in Israel Adesanya and lost the title via second-round knockout in October 2019.
With the 185-pound division lacking in clear title challengers some nearly two years later, Whittaker finds himself back in the mix for another shot at Adesanya after picking up decision wins over Darren Till and Jared Cannonier. He will face Kelvin Gastelum on Saturday in the main event of UFC Fight Night and a victory could land him back in the Octagon with Adesanya.
The fight was originally set to be with Paulo Costa, who suffered his own knockout loss to Adesanya in the champion's second title defense, but Costa was forced to withdraw from the bout. The change did affect Whittaker's mindset, he told ESPN in March.
"It really plays with my OCD, to begin with, I really hate last-minute changes," Whittaker said. "But it is what it is, I've done it to enough people to know that these things happen. Once I got over it I started to look at the positives; luckily I'd done work for Gastelum and I've had a lot of fights with southpaws, just to adjust to the movement and what I need to do for this fight. And I've had a good camp, I'm ready, I'm fit, this is how I make a living, this is what I do and I'm going to go and do that."
Gastelum represents a big change through being a southpaw fighter, the opposite of Costa's orthodox approach to striking. These are, however, the changes a fighter needs to make to compete at the highest levels of the sport, something Whittaker is more than a little familiar with. These are the twists and turns a fighter has to accept to reach the mountaintop.
While a win over Gastelum would seem to set Whittaker up as the only sensible option for Adesanya, the Australian was accused of turning down a rematch with Adesanya in late 2020.
"Definitely not," Whittaker said in a separate ESPN interview. "I would never do that. Which sane man would? You get paid more for title shots. I guess there was a miscommunication and maybe the timelines didn't work. I guess some people can argue, 'If he wanted it that bad, he would have fought straight away.' I wanted December off at all costs. I wanted to enjoy Christmas with my family and there was nothing more important than that. I got to experience that and I'm very happy. I was there for the birth of my fourth child, which is great. And I'm back working now, anyway. Life is really good and I try not to get bent out of shape about that kind of stuff."
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Paying attention to those times when he needs to step away from the sport has become key for Whittaker. After losing the title, he was scheduled to fight Cannonier in March 2020, but withdrew due to personal reasons.
It turned out Whittaker was experiencing burnout, and missing significant moments with his family was wearing him down. Getting his metal health in check has become as important to reaching his prior greatness as opponent-specific preparation.
"It is what it is, it was miscommunication," Whittaker said. "There were two sides to the story and there were two groups of people that understand what they heard. It is what it is. I'm very fortunate in the sense that I got the time to spend with my family and I'm still here."