Robert Whittaker announced his arrival to UFC title contention with a booming performance over Ronaldo Souza at UFC on FOX 24. Facing one of the most feared men in the middleweight division, Whittaker dismantled “Jacare” en route to a stunning second-round TKO finish, pushing his UFC win streak to seven straight and extending his flawless 6-0 record since moving up to 185 pounds.
The victory cemented Whittaker as an undoubted force to be reckoned with in the UFC’s middleweight rankings, and Whittaker admitted this past week that his goals have shifted significantly over the course of his near four-year unbeaten run to the top.
“I think it might’ve been after (Brad) Tavares that I guess I moved over that mark of just trying to win fights and just trying to win my next fight, and really came in with the idea of ‘why can’t I be champion?’” Whittaker explained on The MMA Hour. “That’s where I want to go now. I want to be the champ. And then it goes up to where I am today, that, I don’t want to just be the champ. I want to be the best ever.”
For Whittaker, UFC on FOX 24 served as the perfect storm to announce his arrival to MMA’s main stage.
He entered the week as a sizable underdog despite riding one of the division’s best hot streaks, highlighted by first-round knockouts of Tavares and Derek Brunson, and decisions over Uriah Hall and Thiago Tavares. He was then thrown an unexpected diversion when it was revealed that Souza had inked a new deal with the UFC on the eve of fight night — a development which Whittaker found to be an odd thing for his opponent to be focusing on so close to the contest.
“I did see the news, and you know, I thought it was funny,” Whittaker said. “When I go into a fight, I lock myself into a room that whole week. I don’t return calls. I don’t talk to people. I don’t go out and see the city that I’m staying at, because I’m there for work, I’m there for business. I’m there to do a job. And I don’t know, to me, every one percent starts to take away from fight night.
“I may be far away off the mark to say this, but this is a personal opinion of mine, that when I see someone doing that, when I see someone celebrate or not thinking about the fight for even one second, I think, ‘ah, that’s good, you keep doing that.’ And I think (about the fight) twice as hard,” Whittaker continued.
“It’s a funny thing because it’s not bankable and it’s not something I can say, ‘oh, this is how it is,’ but when I square up to someone and I look at them in their eyes, I can tell how this fight is going to play out, and I went into that Octagon on Saturday night with undoubted confidence in my training, my preparation, and my ability. And for me to take that level of confidence into the Octagon with me, there’s not a person in this division that can stop me.”
Whittaker went on to become the first man to finish Souza in nearly a decade. The game-changing performance propelled the 26-year-old New Zealander into the No. 3 spot on the UFC’s media-generated middleweight rankings, although Whittaker now finds himself facing the same dilemma as his divisional stablemates Yoel Romero and Gegard Mousasi.
All three men possess solid cases for the next title shot at 185 pounds, however the division remains at a standstill due to Michael Bisping’s looming championship date against Georges St-Pierre, which has yet to be given an official date. But Whittaker is confident that his current streak, and the way he so decisively defeated Souza, should be enough to warrant a crack at Bisping’s belt.
“It’s funny you say that, because I think with my last performance, I showed the world that I deserve a shot,” Whittaker said. “I did something that no one else in the division has done to a fighter who hasn’t been stopped in that way [in] a long, long time. A lot of the dudes are trying to just scrimp their way to having a shot by waiting it out, by sitting it out, and by doing these little political maneuvers. But at the end of the day, they’re running out of time. I am not. This is the beginning of my run. This is the beginning of my first run, the beginning of my career, just about. And if it’s a time race, they’re not going to win.
“I think ... I’ve set myself up perfectly for that next shot,” Whittaker added. “And the fact that Bisping has called me out on top of that, it’s just cards in my favor; cards in my favor that I should just sit tight, do what I’m doing, and get prepared for that title shot.”
As of this point, Bisping vs. St-Pierre is expected to take place sometime in second half of 2017, likely in the late fall or early winter. That means Whittaker would be in for a lengthy layoff if he were to wait for the match-up to play itself out, but nonetheless, Whittaker is better suited to deal with such a long layoff than the 40-year-old Romero, and he is emboldened by the fact that Bisping himself has called him out for the next title shot.
“If you’ve had a look at my past fight history, I don’t seem to take fights on a rush anyway,” Whittaker said. “I like doing things and taking fights when my body is ready. I sit in the program, I train, and I’m just making huge skill jumps, and that’s the biggest point for me right now as a fighter and as for my longevity for my career, that I need to close these skills gaps for all these high-caliber dudes. How can I try to catch up with Jacare’s jiu-jitsu at my age? I need more time to do things.
“So, the time doesn’t faze me, because I’m always staying active, I’m always trying to get into competitions and just furthering my training. And between every fight, I’m making huge skill jumps. But it becomes a thing where, why shouldn’t I wait? The champ has called me out. To have that in my pocket, and then to have the time that I have and the fact that he called me out, and the fact that I’ve just come off an upset win, a very strong win in devastating fashion, everything says you should just wait for that fight to ride out.”
As for why he finds himself so suddenly in the champion’s crosshairs, Whittaker isn’t sure. But if Bisping is just targeting Whittaker under the belief that he’s an easier opponent than Romero, then that’s just fine with “The Reaper.”
“Trying to think and work out the machinations of Michael Bisping’s mind is a bit beyond me, but I think he does see that he owes me a fight, and what I did on the weekend, he’s not looking past,” Whittaker said, before admitting, “You know, I think he might think I’m an easier match-up. Yoel’s got a lot of hype right behind him as well at the moment, and I’m sure some part of him does think I’m an easier match-up, but I love surprising people.”