Rafael Natal’s goals for 2016 includes four wins and a spot in the top 5 of the UFC middleweight division, and he moved one step in that direction with a third-round TKO win over Kevin Casey in January.
Less than three months later, "Sapo" will enter the Octagon one more time to battle rising middleweight Robert Whittaker at Saturday's UFC 197. Both Natal and Whittaker enter the cage at on April 23 riding four-fight winning streaks, and the Brazilian believes that a win over the New Zealand native is perfect for his plans in the division.
"We really wanted this fight and the UFC offered it," Natal told MMA Fighting. "I’m really happy because this is a chance for me to move up the rankings. With a good win over him, I’m closer to the top. Kevin Casey didn’t have a big name, but I was able to win impressively. With a finish over Robert now, I’m getting closer to the top 5."
"He’s well-rounded, but so am I," said "Sapo", who holds a 9-4-1 record in the UFC. "I stood and banged with tough fighters like Watson and Hall, and will be able to do it with Robert Whittaker, but I’m always going for the ground. Whittaker is a purple belt in jiu-jitsu, he’s not a fool on the ground and is hard to be taken down, but he’s too aggressive. If he’s that aggressive against me, he will make my job easier. It will be easier to take him down, and I’m a specialist on the ground.
"I haven’t watched all of his fights yet, but I saw that he has a good jiu-jitsu on top against Hall, passed the guard, but Hall’s jiu-jitsu is not on my level. He’s a striker, I’m a grappler. But what I really want to see is Whittaker fighting off his back, see how he reacts. We all saw how Casey fights off his back now. I want to see Whittaker off his back, and we will see that, because I’m taking him down, no doubt about it."
Excited with his first finish in three years, "Sapo" wants to keep the momentum going at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
"I always train focused on the finish," he said. "You get more attention from media and fans when you finish the fight. The decision can be controversial sometimes, and the finish leaves no doubts. That’s what I’m going after."