With his two-and-a-half year journey through the wilderness behind him in the aftermath of his 2019 middleweight title loss to rival Israel Adesanya, Robert Whittaker believes he is better off for having endured such intense tribulation entering Saturday's much-anticipated rematch at UFC 271.
Riding an impressive three-fight win streak, Whittaker (23-5) returns to a neutral location this time at the Toyota Center in Houston, which is a far cry from the setting of his UFC 243 mishap in Australia when a UFC-record 57,127 fans watched a star-making performance from Adesanya (21-1) in their All-Oceanic superfight.
The 32-year-old Adesanya remains the only man to have had Whittaker's number at middleweight since the native of New Zealand, who fights out of Australia, first entered the division in 2014. But the jury is still out as to whether the physical damage and mental fatigue Whittaker experienced throughout his tumultuous title reign was the reason for the defeat or whether Adesanya is simply the better man.
Either way, the 31-year-old Whittaker is running high entering his shot at reclaiming the title, having won a trio of hard-fought decisions over top contenders Darren Till, Jared Cannonier and Kelvin Gastelum to get to this point. And all indications appear to be that Whittaker is not only a more well-rounded fighter than the version Adesanya conquered in 2019, but a stronger person to boot.
"Undergoing all of the mental journey I went through after that loss just made me a better fighter," Whittaker told "Morning Kombat" last week. "It made the whole process easier, which just made me better. You can see that skills and performance wise in my last few fights."
"Fighting throughout my career in mixed martial arts has been the catalyst for a lot of changes to who I am as a person. That effect of me changing as a man has made me a better dad, a better husband and a better person. That's much more valuable than my performances in the Octagon, although those have been good, too."
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The turmoil in question seems to have started with Whittaker's 2017 decision win over Yoel Romero to claim an interim middleweight title that was eventually upgraded to the full title when new champion George St-Pierre announced he was vacating his title. The physical toll of the five rounds led Whittaker to knee surgery and eventually a withdrawal from a title defense against Luke Rockhold due to a staph infection in his stomach.
After Romero demolished Rockhold as a replacement for Whittaker, the champion was forced to face the Cuban knockout artist a second time in 2018, with the five rounds of hell Whittaker endured in a disputed split-decision win leading him to yet another year-long absence from the cage.
"That really took a lot out of me," Whittaker said. "That second fight was an absolute nightmare."
After coaching "The Ultimate Fighter" opposite Gastelum to hype up his next title defense, Whittaker was forced to pull out just hours before it in early 2019 to undergo emergency surgery due to an abdominal hernia and a collapsed bowel. For as bad as Whittaker was feeling physically as his body continuously rejected the year-round hard training needed to maintain as champion, the mental toll was even worse.
"I think I was just run down a little bit and burned out from the process of training for fights and dealing with injuries," Whittaker said. "I think I was just a bit run down and time became a catalyst for me to sit back, take a deep breath and work things out."
Whittaker would eventually have all the time he needed to begin the turnaround that led him back to the title level. Not only did he make a series of mistakes inside the cage against Adesanya six months later that seemed to only speed up his knockout defeat, he admits in retrospect that he let Adesanya get to his head throughout the promotion of the fight.
For all of the talk about his rivalry with Adesanya and the dislike between one another, Whittaker can honestly say it's behind him. All of it. And it's a big reason why the former champion feels he couldn't be in a better place entering their second fight.
"I think that's the biggest change that there isn't a chip [on my shoulder] or any of that revenge sort of drive. It's just another day in the office," Whittaker said. "I have the same mentality and it feels the same as the last three fights. I'm going in there just to get my work done.
"[The first fight] was personal. It got too much. It started to consume me, the fight started to consume me, the media started getting to me and everything just started building up. Nowadays, I don't dislike him at all. He's just another guy doing his thing. We don't get along, but that's just him doing him. I don't think about it too much."
In addition to rebuilding his intangibles following such an understandably dark journey after the loss, Whittaker believes he has done more with the time removed than Adesanya to round out his game.
Whittaker was forced to rely on his poise and timing in his return nine months later, edging a calculated Till in a chess match over five rounds. Next, he survived getting clipped late against the more powerful Cannonier to prove his chin had no lingering damage in another close win. And even though the scores were wide in his April 2021 victory over Gastelum over five rounds, Whittaker dealt with a determined striker who took on heavy damage to continuously keep it competitive.
Adesanya, meanwhile, went 3-1 over the same time frame, including an odd five-round dance with Yoel Romero that lacked output from both and a whitewashing of Paulo Costa, who would later blame his poor performance on drinking too much wine hours before in a failed attempt at calming his nerves so he could sleep.
Along with a dominant title defense over Marvin Vettori in their rematch last June, Adesanya also came up short in attempting to challenge Jan Blachowicz for the light heavyweight title. Many believe the gameplan the larger Blachowicz used by wrestling Adesanya throughout the championship rounds could provide a blueprint for Whittaker, even though "The Reaper" isn't so sure.
"There were a lot of good things I saw that Jan incorporated into his game that were effective against Adesanya. But at the end of the day, that was Jan doing it," Whittaker said. "We are two very different fighters in different weight classes and that changes the dynamic.
"[Wrestling Adesanya] is definitely not that easy, otherwise everyone would have done that already. Honestly, I'm just looking forward to getting in there and executing my gameplan. My skill set is enough to beat him and I have absolute confidence in that. I think my skill sets are much more diverse than his and I think I am a better fighter. I honestly do and otherwise I wouldn't be fighting him if I didn't have that confidence and belief that I can beat him."
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