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UFC champ Robert Whittaker calls the concept of backup fighters ‘a little silly’

LOS ANGELES — Kamaru Usman weighed in on Sept. 7 as an alternate — a backup fighter — for the UFC welterweight title fight between champion Tyron Woodley and Darren Till. If either Woodley or Till had missed weight or dealt with some kind of catastrophe, Usman, in theory, would’ve filled in for either one.

Woodley, though, said he’d only fight Till, even if Till had missed weight. However, if Till for some reason wouldn’t have even it to the scale, Woodley said that he just wouldn’t have fought anyone.

Robert Whittaker, the UFC middleweight champion, sees where Woodley is coming from. Whittaker said at a recent media lunch that he didn’t even know what a “backup fighter” was. And the concept of such a thing seems ludicrous, he added.

“I think the idea behind backup fighters is a little silly or there should be different incentives and things involved in it,” said Whittaker, who was promoting The Ultimate Fighter 28. “I think it should be more thought out. I can’t envision a guy getting paid to make weight. That’s not the sport, that’s not the name of the game. I think fights need to be made and deadlines need to be made. I think athletes themselves need to be more professional about the sport. I think a lot of guys are getting lax, a lot of guys are taking advantage of different loopholes they can exploit.”

Whittaker, 27, faced a dilemma at UFC 225. He was supposed to defend his title against Yoel Romero in the main event of the card in Chicago, but Romero missed weight. That meant the title could no longer be on the line. Whittaker went ahead and fought Romero anyway. He said it was an impossible choice — not really a choice at all — because he flew all the way from Australia and wouldn’t get paid unless he fought.

If there was a backup fighter available, Whittaker said he’s not sure what he’d do. But it’s not a decision he really wants to make.

“Again, you’re putting me in a corner, aren’t you?” Whittaker said. “it’s like we get to the fight night, my opponent can’t make it and you’re like, ‘You still gonna fight?’ What am I a pussy? You’re kind of forcing my hand when you put me in a corner like that.”

The New Zealand native puts a lot of the blame on fighters who miss weight or cannot fight due to a bad weight cut. Whittaker said he cut more than 16 pounds the day of the weigh-ins for his final fight at 170 pounds and considered quitting the sport. But he still made weight. So, he doesn’t have much sympathy for those who do not.

“Look at any other sport,” said Whittaker, who will defend the middleweight title against Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 234 in February. “Do you see any other high-caliber athlete walk up on game night or game day and say, ‘You know what? Nah.’ It’s silly. you’ll get crucified. If MMA athletes want to act and get paid and be respected as high-caliber athletes, you need to act the part.”

Like Woodley, Whittaker has a big issue with the idea that a high-level UFC fighter should be fighting a different opponent on a days notice. What’s the point of preparing for someone like Till or Romero if they’re going to miss weight and someone else will be slotted in their place 24 hours out of the event?

“Does no one else see any holes in that plan?” Whittaker said. “I think there are a lot of holes to be exploited in that plan. It seems silly to me, because the whole idea between fighting is you have an opponent that you prepare meticulously for, for weeks. And then all of a sudden, the guy says, ‘Can’t fight.’ And the backup guy is conveniently there? Nah, dude.”

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