To become a champion in the UFC is by no means an easy task. Only a handful of fighters are able to call themselves world champions for any professional organization. Even less can say they became champions by the age of 26. Robert Whittaker is one of those few people.
By now, we all know how good Whittaker is. The current UFC middleweight champ and The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes winner is already one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world at the age of only 27. Oh, and how could we forget? He’s also the first Australian UFC champion, ever.
Enough about his accomplishments for now. Let’s talk about Whittaker the person, not the fighter. What’s most impressive about this young champion is that he carries a true fighter’s trait. Nowadays, the sport of MMA is taking a bit of a different turn. The entertainment value is becoming bigger and bigger, and we hear the term “money fight” tossed around for almost every pay-per-view. Whether you like it or not, it’s hard to argue against the fact that the entertainment value almost outweighs the fight value itself. This is such a shame, isn’t it? It’s exactly why boxing experienced a major downfall — by turning the sport into a show rather than keeping it as a sport.
But let’s get back to the original topic. The reason why Whittaker deserves such huge amounts of respect is because he carries a fighter’s chip. So many fighters say they’ll fight anybody, anywhere and at any time. However, many of these same fighters then pick and choose their opponents. It’s a letdown to all the fans. Guys like Whittaker, as well as Stipe Miocic and Khabib Nurmagomedov, are different. These guys really don’t care who they fight, or where, or when. They just come to fight. This is more valuable than most people realize, because without these guys, there would be no such thing as exciting match-ups. Money may bring in fans temporarily, but it will never keep them.
As for the proof of Whittaker truly not giving a damn who he fights, look at his rise through the middleweight division. He went up against the scariest and the most dangerous guys in the weight class to get to the title. Even now, after eight total fights in his newest division, Whittaker remains undefeated and has gotten better with each and every fight.
Whittaker was a sizable underdog coming into his contest against Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza. Sure, he was coming off a massive win after lighting up Derek Brunson in the first round, but not many gave Whittaker a chance against Jacare, a world-class veteran who had been in the top five of the middleweight rankings for years at that point. However, to the surprise of many, Whittaker ended up passing his first elite-level test with flying colors. He stopped Souza in the second round after dominating him on the feet for most of the fight.
The performance was an eye-opener, and it immediately catapulted Whittaker into an interim title bout against Yoel Romero at UFC 213. Souza was a major obstacle, but Romero was a different beast. An Olympian and an athlete like no other with a ridiculous build, Romero was/is a hard fight for anybody on their best day. Whittaker managed to get past Romero as well, though not easily.
Then, earlier this year, Whittaker and Romero went at it once again in their title rematch. The duo put on one of the greatest wars in the history of the UFC. Whittaker emerged with the title.
Now, Whittaker is set to coach the 28th season of The Ultimate Fighter against Kelvin Gastelum. The two men are expected to lock horns in a title contest following the conclusion of the reality show.
It’s no easy task to choose a nemesis for a 27-year-old champion oozing confidence and on a nine-fight winning streak. Gastelum, who is next in line to challenge for Whittaker’s middleweight strap, has to be the pick for this particular conversation about the possible dethroning of the young champ. It’s a fascinating match-up, really. We don’t get these types of fights often, where two young and hungry fighters yet to reach their prime meet at the top of the ladder. It’s rare.
When we’re talking about youth, we cannot leave Gastelum out of the conversation. He is 26 years of age, with his best days still ahead of him. Gastelum has looked as impressive as ever since moving back up to middleweight in 2016. The list of names that he has been able to take out at middleweight is astounding, to say the least. He has dispatched the likes of Tim Kennedy, Vitor Belfort, Michael Bisping and, most recently, the aforementioned Jacare.
As important as boxing is in MMA, there are not a great number of fighters who are powerful enough with their hands to where they can really put their opponents away with one shot. Instead, fighters rely on technique over power. For every pure power guy like Anthony “Rumble” Johnson, Tyron Woodley and Francis Ngannou, there are those with impeccable technique, such as Conor McGregor, Dustin Poirier and our current subject, Gastelum.
Whittaker, while very tough, has struggled with technical strikers in the past. Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson comes to mind. Whittaker was stopped via strikes for the first and only time in his career against the lanky striker.
Gastelum possesses similar abilities. It’s a dangerous area for Whittaker in this particular fight. We’ve seen Whittaker get hurt before, most memorably against Romero at UFC 225. We’ve also seen that he can clearly take a good shot. Yet, when a striker as technical as Gastelum continues to tag you over and over for the course of the 25 minutes, can anybody really last?
The next step would be to look for solutions against Gastelum’s relentless striking. The easiest answer would be for Whittaker to wrestle. Against Gastelum, that seems to be one of the only answers out there, as Chris Weidman showed in their fight at UFC on Fox 25. However, Whittaker has never been an offensive wrestler. Defensively, he’s incredible. He fended off takedowns for 25 minutes against an Olympic medalist with one leg jacked up and stood still while rocked even when the same guy was trying to take him down. Whittaker might have one of the best takedown defenses ever. Offensively, though, we’ve never seen that much out of Whittaker in the wrestling department.
Who knows? Maybe Whittaker can go out there and take Gastelum down at will. But even if he does, is it really safe to be on the ground against Gastelum, who’s a black belt in jiu-jitsu?
The match-up heavily favors Gastelum. While Whittaker is one of the best champions out there, this is his most dangerous fight yet. Romero was up there, but Gastelum is far more technical on the feet and has a chin like no other.
Don’t think that a loss for either of these gentlemen will make or break their career. Their prime has just begun, and this is one of the most important fights in the middleweight division in a long time.