UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker’s nickname “Bobby Knuckles” hides a talent that has largely been a secret from UFC audiences.
Whittaker has quietly become not just a good MMA wrestler, but a quality wrestler on the international level. Until a few weeks ago, his first international competition looked like it would be the Commonwealth Games, which take place next month on the Gold Coast of Australia.
The Commonwealth Games are like a mini-Olympics for the different countries that are part of the British Commonwealth. The competition within Australia is being talked about as one of the biggest sports events “Down Under” of the last decade.
Whittaker, who quietly won Australia’s national freestyle championship in the 97-kilogram (213-pound) weight class last year, also won the qualifying tournament to make Australia’s national team back in November. This was to be his first time representing the country.
It was an accomplishment that didn’t garner much attention outside Australia, but within the country it received significant coverage.
However, the timing didn’t work out after Whittaker signed to defend his middleweight title against Yoel Romero at UFC 225 on June 9 in Chicago. Because of the timeline, his agreeing to defend the title directly led to him pulling out.
What’s notable is that unlike the plethora of UFC fighters who are known for their wrestling, Whittaker never wrestled until getting into MMA. He had no competitive background in the sport until recent years.
Only one UFC fighter in history — Georges St-Pierre, who didn’t grow up with a strong wrestling background — had ever talked about competing internationally while under UFC contract. St-Pierre at one point talked about taking time off to represent Canada in the 2012 Olympics, which would have been gigantic for the sport in that country, since he was one of Canada’s biggest sports stars. However, St-Pierre noted that to do so, he felt he’d have to devote himself exclusively to that sport to compete at that level.
He, like Whittaker, later decided not to do it.
”Obviously, wrestling is a vital part of mixed martial arts,” Whittaker told MMA Fighting. “I managed to compete in wrestling to sharpen my skills, one thing led to another and it led to the Commonwealth Games.”
But the UFC wasn’t happy about Whittaker’s plans, because of the Commonwealth Games being in such close proximity to his title defense.
Whittaker wasn’t told by the UFC that he couldn’t compete, but he was told that millions of dollars are at stake in promoting UFC 225. Given his missing time already for injuries and other health issues, including the Feb. 11 (Feb. 10 U.S. Time) UFC 221 show in Perth, Western Australia, Whittaker was told that if he was injured by competing at the Games, he’d be stripped of his championship. In addition, UFC officials noted that with Whittaker’s notoriety as champion, that everyone in the competition would be gunning to beat him.
One of the competitors, Joe Hendry, a somewhat well-known pro wrestler in the U.K. who also has gone into amateur wrestling, will be competing for Scotland and had talked publicly about his goal of beating Whittaker.
For Whittaker, the decision wasn’t hard to make.
”The UFC wasn’t too happy with my competing in the Commonwealth Games, “ he said. “I was told I would have been stripped of the title if I had gotten injured. Everyone knows my priority. This (UFC) is my job.
”It’s not really a choice to be made,” he added. “If it’s a choice, providing finances and putting food on the table and being paid for my job, or competing in the Commonwealth Games where I’m not making money, is there really a choice to be made? I thought for an hour or two, but there was never a choice to be made.”
Romero, a former world champion and Olympic silver medalist in wrestling, is Whittaker’s next opponent. While it’s been about a decade since Romero competed in international wrestling, Whittaker conceded that even after winning both the national title and team qualifier in Australia, his wrestling isn’t at Romero’s level and he’d never be able to catch up to him — but, as their first fight at UFC 213 showed, it provided Whittaker with the skill to neutralize Romero’s strength.
Whittaker defeated Romero last July in Las Vegas, by winning the late rounds, to become the UFC interim middleweight champion. When St-Pierre vacated the title after his win over Michael Bisping due to health concerns, Whittaker was elevated to undisputed status.
According to one person affiliated with the Australian team, they were very unhappy because this happened less than three weeks before the start of the games and left the team without a 213-pounder in a major meet in their home country.
It was all about the timing though, as Whittaker’s original thought was to defend his title in February and then train for the Commonwealth Games. When he had health problems that caused him to pull out of the Luke Rockhold fight, that threw things off.
”I’m 100-percent right now,” Whittaker said. “I’ve gotten some of the best weeks of training. I really believe when I step into the Octagon in June, you’ll see the best version of Robert Whittaker ever.”
Whittaker being a national champion opens up questions about perhaps competing in the Olympics in 2020. But that’s not at all on his mind right now.
”I haven’t really given it much thought,” he said. “My priority is MMA. That’s what my focus and passion and where my dedication is.”