Former middleweight champion Robert Whittaker, who flirted with retirement just months ago, has promised fireworks inside the cage Sunday as the Ultimate Fighting Championship ends its stay on “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi.
At the end of last year, the combined physical and mental pressures of mixed martial arts had the Australian seriously considering his future in the sport.
"My head space has undergone the biggest changes. I’m just enjoying the game again," said the number one-ranked Whittaker, who faces the fifth-ranked Englishman Darren Till in Sunday’s UFC Fight Night 174 main event.
"I have such an arsenal of weapons at my disposal I can take it where I want it. If I want to take it to the ground, I can take it to the ground. If I want to knock him out, I can try."
In a story that has quickly become part of MMA folklore, the 29-year-old Whittaker had been ploughing his way up the sand dunes just outside Sydney this past Christmas Day. It was part of a gruelling daily training routine Whittaker had followed for more than a decade but, suddenly, he was struck by the thought every fighter fears.
"It was career ending burnout, it was either have a break or just quit," is how Whittaker explained things Wednesday, during a pre-fight virtual media day.
After eight years with UFC, and 11 years in total in mixed martial arts, Whittaker had fought his way to the very top of the fight game, claiming the middleweight title back in 2017.
He had also won battles over crippling health issues, including medial ligament damage to his left knee, an abdominal hernia, and a twisted and collapsed bowel that forced him out of a series of title defenses.
Whittaker later revealed he had also struggled at times with depression as he battled to return to fitness.
Whittaker then lost his title – via knockout to the Nigerian-New Zealander Israel Adesanya in October last year – but before that fight he had won his way through two brutal bouts against the Cuban powerhouse Yoel Romero (13-5), fights he has said still gave him nightmares.
Then came Christmas Day, the stifling Aussie heat, the sand, and those thoughts of his wife and three young children back home and all the sacrifices everyone had made across his career.
It took Whittaker two full months of rest, and reflection, before the passion returned.
“It was a natural decision,” said Whittaker. “It was a combination of me talking to my team, of me talking to my family. Soul searching. It was a mixture of the lot. That’s the journey of this sport, to just get better.”
What MMA fans will be hoping to see come Sunday is “Bobby Knuckles” back to his brilliant best.
Whittaker was born in Auckland, New Zealand, but grew up in Sydney immersed in combat sports such as karate and, later, wrestling. Since turning his attention to MMA, he has carved out a life-time record of 21-5 in the sport.
In the 27-year-old Till (18-2) he faces a former kickboxer who likes to stand and deliver combinations with fists and feet. Till has moved up from welterweight after an 0-2 run in that division that included a failed title shot against America’s then-champ Tyron Woodley (19-5-1) in 2018.
The common thinking around MMA is that the winner of Sunday’s Whittaker-Till clash will next get a crack at the middleweight crown.
"This fight is huge. A lot of questions and answers should arise from this fight," said Whittaker. “I need this next fight. I need to get to work. I’m looking forward to it.”
Sunday’s 15-fight UFC 174 card is the last of the UFC’s four-event stay on Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island – rebranded “Fight Island” for the occasion – as the Las Vegas-based promotion looked to isolate fighters from COVID-19.
There have been no fans watching and, like all athletes, Whittaker had to pass tests before leaving for the United Arab Emirates, more on arrival, then spend 48 hours in quarantine.
"But I’ve been enjoying it, I’ve been having a lot of fun," said Whittaker. "I’m even enjoying this Fight Week right now. Cutting weight is cutting weight but everything else I’m just enjoying. It’s a new attitude, a new mental outlook.”