July 8th, 2017 is a date now forever marked in Australian fighting history. Robert ‘The Reaper’ Whittaker defeated Yoel Romero to claim the interim UFC Middleweight Championship.
In doing so Whittaker, becoming affectionately known as Bobby Knuckles, became the first fighter of Australian or New Zealand heritage to win an UFC title. While Whittaker may only be the division’s interim champion, his victory over Romero now puts him on a collision course with the division’s injured champion, Michael Bisping.
Whittaker was born in New Zealand to an Australian father and Maori-Samoan mother. His mother gave birth while she was visiting relatives.
From the age of five, Whittaker began playing rugby league. He continued to do so until he was eighteen. Whittaker was at one stage part of Cronulla’s development squad.
While he played rugby league, at age seven Whittaker’s father Jack enrolled him and his brother Steve into karate. Jack was a believer in the value of martial arts. “My father and mother put me into karate at age seven, and it was a natural progression over the years, doing karate, then Hapkido then jiu-jitsu,” said Whittaker. He received his junior black belt at 14 years of age.
Whittaker’s parents split in 2000. He and his brother moved with their father and while things were tough, Whittaker continued his martial arts training and playing rugby league. It was at this point that Whittaker decided to continue his martial arts training closer to home. He joined a hapkido gym run by Henrry Perez. While Whittaker trained at the gym, Perez realised the potential of MMA and incorporated it into Whittaker’s training.
Like a duck to water, Whittaker took to the sport quickly.
Whittaker began his professional MMA career with Australian promotion Xtreme Fighting Championships. He made his debut on March 14th, 2009 against fellow debutant Chris Tallowin. Like any debutant would hope for, Whittaker won his first fight in round one by way of a technical knockout (TKO).
His aggressive style saw Whittaker quickly make his mark on the Australian MMA scene.
With a first up win, Whittaker then moved to Cage Fighting Championships. It was here that he formed his first win streak, between 2009 and 2011. Whittaker put together a 6-0 run, which included a win over future TUF: Smashes alumni Ben Alloway.
On the back of an excellent winning streak, Whittaker travelled to Macau for Legend Fighting Championships 6. He suffered his first loss, against Hoon Kim but bounced back to win two straight fights. Looking for a third straight victory Whittaker suffered another loss, this time to Jesse Juarez.
With an overall record of nine wins and two losses, Whittaker was selected as a cast member for TUF: Smashes. This season, recorded in 2012, was billed as the UFC’s answer to cricket’s Ashes test series, which pitted England against Australia. TUF: Smashes pitted Australian fighters from the wider United Kingdom.
Whittaker’s first fight on the show put him against Luke Newman and he made an immediate impact, figuratively and literally. He connected with a punch flush on Newman’s chin, which had him unconscious for several minutes. The knockout earned him the title of ‘Knockout of the Season’, which also saw Whittaker pocket $25,000 for the achievement.
The victory saw Whittaker move into the semi final round of the series. He was pitted against a replacement fighter and fellow Team Australia teammate Xavier Lucas. While this fight last longer than Whittaker’s first in the series, the result was the same. Whittaker won by way of knockout in the first round with only 87 seconds of the fight occurring.
As a result, Whittaker qualified for the final of TUF: Smashes. The final bout of the series was placed on the UFC on FX: Sotiropoulos vs. Pearson card, though the card was later renamed TUF: Smashes Finale. It was here that Whittaker made his official debut for the UFC. In the final of the welterweight division of TUF: Smashes, he fought Brad Scott to win the welterweight division of TUF: Smashes.
Between the semi final of the show and his debut fight for UFC, Whittaker made the decision to stop playing rugby league. At the time he was also an apprentice electrician for Rail Corp. Quitting both allowed him to focus on being a full-time professional MMA fighter.
Having defeated Scott, Whittaker was booked on the preliminary card for UFC 160. He fought Colton Smith and won by way of TKO. In August 2013, Whittaker was booked against Court McGee, with the latter winning by split decision.
Whittaker fought three times in 2014. Three bouts in a year is a tough schedule for any fighter, however Whittaker showed some of his potential on the big stage. He lost his first fight of the year at UFC 170 to Stephen Thompson, but bounced back with victories against Mike Rhodes at UFC Fight Night 43 and Clint Hester at UFC Fight Night 55. His victory at UFC Fight Night 55 was significant as it marked his first UFC bonus for ‘Fight of the Night’.
At UFC Fight Night 65, Brad Tavares was matched up against Whittaker. He made quick work of Tavares, knocking him out in the round one. Whittaker backed up his ‘Fight of the Night’ bonus with his second UFC bonus but this time for ‘Performance of the Night.’
Now an up-and-coming fighter in the UFC, Whittaker was booked to face Michael Bisping at UFC 193: Rousey vs. Holm. Bisping withdrew from the fight on September 30th citing an injury to his elbow. Given the card was taking place in Melbourne, Australia, the UFC found a replacement fighter in Uriah Hall. The fight went the distance and Whittaker was declared the winner by unanimous decision.
On a four-fight win streak, Whittaker was beginning to gain some real traction.
At UFC 197 Rafael Natal was Whittaker’s next victim, winning via unanimous decision. Whittaker racked up his sixth straight win, defeating Derek Brunson at UFC Fight Night 101. It was a fight that earned him two bonuses, Performance of the Night and Fight of the Night.
Whittaker’s victory over Brunson drew particular praise from one of the division’s former champions and arguably one of the best of all time, Anderson Silva. “I think he’s going to build up his legacy in the UFC,” said Silva. “At the level we’re at in the UFC, everyone’s very good and everyone has their chance to build their own legacy, but I think that he’s a great athlete.”
On paper, Whittaker’s following fight against Ronaldo Souza was his toughest. A win over Souza would finally see Whittaker title contention but a loss would set him back in the rankings. While many knew this fight was Whittaker’s first real test as a potential contender, his fans needn’t have worried.
He defeated Souza by way of a second-round TKO at UFC on Fox 24. It was an impressive victory, as Souza hadn’t been knocked out in almost a decade. The win secured his third-career Performance of the Night bonus.
“I’m a different fighter. He’d never fought anyone like me,” said Whittaker of Souza. “I knew what I was bringing to the table. I did something that nobody in the top ten has ever done. I took Souza and I stopped him in devastating fashion.”
With that win, Whittaker was firmly entrenched as a middleweight title contender. At first, it seemed that Yoel Romero would fight champion Bisping, however Bisping was focused on a money fight with Georges St. Pierre (GSP). The problem though was that neither Bisping nor GSP could meet in the middle and with both fighters succumbing to long-term injuries, UFC was left in a precarious position.
UFC could either strip Bisping of the title or create an interim champion.
To Whittaker, it didn’t matter who the champion was. He was after the gold. “I’m not after Bisping. I’m after that belt. If Bisping gives it to his neighbour, I’ll fight his neighbour. I want that belt and I think I’ve earned the right to get that belt.”
With little choice, the UFC created an interim middleweight championship. The division’s number one contender, Yoel Romero would face off against Whittaker for UFC 213. The winner would then undoubtedly progress to face injured champion Michael Bisping.
“This fight is the biggest fight of my career thus far,” said Whittaker after UFC confirmed they would create an interim middleweight championship. And through the misfortune of others, the fight was moved to the main event of UFC 213.
“Romero is a top calibre fighter. I need to go into this fight giving him the respect he deserves, but in no part of my mind is he unbeatable,” Whittaker said. “His wrestling is Olympic calibre. You can’t simulate that, you can’t prepare for that, it is what it is. But I’m going to control the fight with my striking.”
The fight didn’t disappoint. And nor did Whittaker.
Romero controlled the first two rounds. At 40 years of age, he needed to conserve his energy against a younger and faster Whittaker. Watching the fight, you knew round three was make or break for the Australian.
Whittaker came out in rounds three and four to level up the fight two rounds apiece. Romero was clearly exhausted and unless he could find a knockout or submission, the fight and the interim championship was there for Whittaker’s taking.
And Whittaker obliged. He took round five and was unanimously awarded the fight by the judges. On the back of seven fight win streak, he recorded win number eight and gained the interim UFC Middleweight Championship.
Bisping was in attendance and was brought into the cage to hype what clearly is the next fight: Bisping vs. Whittaker for the UFC Undisputed Middleweight Championship. Ever the trash talker, Bisping tried to get into Whittaker’s head.
“It disgusts me that you have that belt. Here, take mine and I’ll fight you for it soon,” said Bisping. Clearly, he forgot that the reason there’s an interim belt is because he’s injured. “We were destined to fight,” Whittaker responded, not biting at Bisping’s barbs.
Watching Whittaker fight in the cage, you can visibly see the hard work he puts into his performances. “I’ve never been given anything easily. I work hard for everything,” says Whittaker. Just because I come from a single parent family living in housing commission and going to a public school doesn’t stop me from achieving my goals”
His hard work has culminated in being crowned UFC’s Middleweight Champion, albeit an interim one. Pending any medical issues, one would presume that UFC’s scheduled Fight Night card for Sydney in November could very well be switched to a pay-per-view card, with Whittaker and Bisping the headline fight.
“Me going up against the world with Australia behind me and the Australian flag with me, it’s my dream. I love going out there and knowing I’m representing the nation and making people proud. When I was a kid I wanted to play first grade NRL. And the apex of that sport is putting on the green and gold. And I feel like this is what I’m doing now, every time I go out on the world stage I’m putting on the green and gold.”
In UFC, sometimes timing is everything. Rarely is timing a good thing in UFC when they attempt to book fights. But things look like they will fall into place, especially with UFC confirming a return to Sydney in November. Sydney is Whittaker’s home town.
November will come sooner rather than later and if you were a betting man, you’d be thinking that this could be the most stacked Australian-heavy UFC main card to take place in Australia. You’d certainly gamble on UFC looking to book Mark Hunt, Megan Anderson and fellow middleweight Dan Kelly.
“I’m behind all the Australians. We’re all on the same team,” says Whittaker of his fellow Australian UFC fighters.
Hunt has been perennially close to a heavyweight title shot and is the division’s most entertaining fighter. Anderson could very well fight the winner of Cris Cyborg v Tonya Evinger, who are fighting for UFC’s vacant featherweight title.
Timing is everything. At 26 years of age, Whittaker still has plenty of time left in the MMA game. And November could be his perfect timing.