UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker might already be one of the biggest stars in MMA were it not for his absurdly, almost odds-defying, bad luck.
The misfortune this man has endured since becoming a UFC titleholder in 2017 is hard to keep track of, and it’s affected how fans — and perhaps media — view him. If you’ve questioned in the past two years how good Whittaker truly is, it has everything to do with his poor luck and nothing to do with his skills.
Because there is a chance that, quietly, Whittaker is among the very best pound-for-pound fighters in the world. Since settling into his ideal weight class of 185 pounds in 2014, he has fired off eight consecutive wins. He won an interim championship on July 8, 2017 — at age 26 — against an Olympic silver-medalist wrestler in Yoel Romero. And he did it on one good leg. Whittaker suffered a knee injury in the first round of that contest, but he still managed to win a five-round unanimous decision.
But take a look at ESPN’s pound-for-pound rankings and you’ll see that Whittaker’s current standing is a polarizing topic. Half of the contributors don’t rank Whittaker in their top 10, which is something you can’t say about any other UFC champion.
And it’s not hard to understand that inactivity is the reason why. Whittaker has been nothing short of sublime when inside the Octagon, but his title reign has been cursed from the start. He didn’t even get to enjoy a real “championship moment” when he was awarded the undisputed title. Whittaker was “promoted” from interim champ to undisputed champ in 2017 when Georges St-Pierre vacated his belt.
The 28-year-old Whittaker has been forced to pull out of two scheduled title defenses in his home country of Australia. One of those occurred on Feb. 9 — on the day of the fight — when he was rushed into emergency surgery for an abdominal hernia. The other was on Feb. 10, 2018, when he contracted a staph infection and — among other ailments — chicken pox.
Technically, Whittaker hasn’t even recorded a single title defense, and defending your title is how a champion turns into a bona fide star. His only win since claiming the belt in 2017 — a split decision over Romero in June 2018 — wasn’t an official title fight because Romero didn’t make weight. So, technically, Whittaker has held a UFC title without making a defense for more than 600 days, which is the longest streak of its kind in UFC history.
The sum of all of this bad luck has had an impact on Whittaker. He’s not the household name he might have been had he been able to defend his title on home soil. It’s difficult to pinpoint how dominant of a champion he even is — or where he belongs in discussions of the sport’s very best — because of his inactivity. He hasn’t been able to face some of the biggest names of his division — St-Pierre, Michael Bisping, Luke Rockhold, Chris Weidman, Kelvin Gastelum — which would have helped build his stock with the mainstream fan base.
“To be honest, I’ve never thought about it,” said Whittaker, who has a reputation of taking all of his setbacks in stride. “My whole mentality in this division, and in my career, is I’ll fight anyone they put in front of me. Whether that’s Weidman, Gastelum, Rockhold or anybody else. It’s one of those things. You put them in front of me and I’ll do my job.”
The good news is that all those twists and turns have led Whittaker to the perfect fight at UFC 243 on Saturday, when he’ll attempt to unify the middleweight title against interim champ Israel Adesanya. For everything that has gone wrong during Whittaker’s reign as a champion, everything has gone undeniably right in the buildup to this fight.
This matchup is a contrast in fighting styles and personalities. It’s a humble, soft-spoken champion from Australia, facing a rather brash, unapologetic counterpart from New Zealand.
And, frankly, it’s a clash of two middleweights who have taken very different roads to get here. While so much has gone wrong for Whittaker in recent years, the universe seems to have been behind Adesanya. Since he signed with the UFC in 2018, he has responded with one memorable performance after another. And going into Saturday, it’s Adesanya whom people are pegging as the division’s future superstar. Not Whittaker.
UFC 243 at Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, Australia, might break the UFC’s all-time attendance record of 56,214, which was set four years in the exact same building when Holly Holm upset Ronda Rousey at UFC 193. It’s the kind of platform the UFC has tried to offer Whittaker for years, but he has been unavailable to take advantage of it.
On Saturday, we’ll finally get to see what he’ll do with it.