Robert Whittaker left UFC 271 without championship gold around his waist, but what he acquired from Israel Adesanya was infinitely more valuable. Whittaker is now equipped with all the things Adesanya stripped him of: confidence, self-belief and his fighting spirit.
Whittaker had the world in the palm of his hands as UFC middleweight champion. A battle-tested, stoic leader proudly raising the Australian banner. Whittaker earned his self-belief by outlasting Yoel Romero in back-to-back wars of attrition, plus stoppages of Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza and Derek Brunson. Adesanya, a charismatic contender with arguably MMA's most refined striking acumen, stripped the champion of everything he earned.
Adesanya embarrassed Whittaker in front of his home nation, repeatedly dropping the defending champion en route to a second-round knockout at UFC 243 on Oct. 6, 2019. Sure, "Stylebender" stripped Whittaker of his crown and title, but Adesanya relieved Whittaker of something far more valuable than hardware. Adesanya yanked Whittaker's soul from his lifeless body and sealed "The Reaper" away.
A ruler no more, Whittaker dusted off his armor and prepared to scale the middleweight mountain once more. Whittaker won consecutive bouts against Darren Till, Jared Cannonier and Kelvin Gastelum to earn a shot at redemption. Heading into UFC 271, Whittaker appeared renewed. His tools refined and weapons sharper than ever. Whittaker had claimed that he had improved at a greater rate than Adesanya. Truth be told, Whittaker was not entirely convinced that he had closed the gap enough. Whittaker's nightmares nearly spilled over into reality when he was dropped by Adesanya in Round 1 of their rematch. At the precipice of reliving his fate, Whittaker broke the cycle. "The Reaper" crashed through the confines of his coffin, emerged from the grave and unleashed his will on Adesanya for the next 20 minutes. Adesanya exited their Feb. 12 rematch as champion, but the margins were narrow. Two judges scored the contest 3 rounds to 2 in the champion's favor. A victory for Whittaker was not inconceivable in the eyes of many.
Check out the full interview with Robert Whittaker below.
"From the way I lost that first fight going into that second fight, there are a lot of things, a lot of caution, a lot of hesitancy, a lot of what-ifs, and they're always present in the lead-up, in the build-up, in the way you train and in the fight itself," Whittaker told CBS Sports. "You can see those coming out in that first round. Second round onwards, it hit me like a bolt of lightning. It's not going to happen like this. I've worked too hard. I took it all back from him. I took away all that hesitancy and caution. All the things that were built up from that first fight. You can see that in [rounds] two, three, four, five. I get better. I didn't get the W, OK, but on the back end of that fight, I took so much more than that. I feel like it's come full circle. I've left that fight as such a better fighter."
The rematch invigorated Whittaker. It was a testament to his growth and affirmation that he can overcome the steepest obstacles presented to him physically and mentally.
"I am just so excited for the future and for the things I can do from here," Whittaker said. "It's like I took part of my spirit back. I've been formulating things and building things up now. Honestly, my biggest obstacle in this division is Adesanya. The way [that fight] went down and how close it was, if that was my biggest obstacle then nothing is going to get in my way of getting back at him. The rate at which I've been evolving and getting better and my age and the amount of time I have to do it and how I'm just entering my prime years, it's all a recipe for something interesting."
Whittaker arrived at the airport in Sydney, Australia, in the aftermath of UFC 271. He popped the trunk of a car open, only to find his children stowed away in the back. It was a warm reminder of why Whittaker traveled across the world and put his body on the line.
"They were so happy and excited to see me. Mate, they're the reason I fight. They're my drive," Whittaker said. "They're why I do this. To see them there, straight off the plane, one day after fighting for my keep makes it all worth it."
Whittaker has flirted with the idea of moving to the light heavyweight division. While a move to 205 pounds is definitely on the table, Whittaker will leave it on ice until his ambition of a third Adesanya fight is actualized.
"It's hard to say. I'm doing really well at middleweight," Whittaker said. "I'm going to work my way up and take the crown of Israel one more time. Depending on how that fight goes, maybe I'll change things up and switch them up a bit. I like the idea of chasing down Adesanya one more time, for old time's sake."
Whittaker remains steadfast in his interest in fighting Marvin Vettori next, another top-ranked middleweight stuck in purgatory following two losses to Adesanya.
"I think my guys are talking. I think that's the next fight. That's really the only guy in the top five that I haven't fought. I think that's on the agenda. Realistically, it's the only fight that makes sense for both of us. It's funny, me and him both have a lot in common, we're both chasing the third fight with Adesanya. If I can get two fights this year, that would be great. That hits my quota quite well."