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Robert Whittaker admits he battled ‘self-doubt’ after first Israel Adesanya loss: ‘In my own head, he seemed unhittable’

As Robert Whittaker readies for his expected showdown against Marvin Vettori on June 11 at UFC 275, he knows there will be no shortage of questions asking him to relive his rematch against Israel Adesanya.

Whittaker pushed the reigning UFC middleweight champion to his limits in a back-and-forth war of attrition at UFC 271 before losing a razor-thin decision. It was a bittersweet result for Whittaker, who no doubt improved on his infamous knockout loss to Adesanya at UFC 243, yet ultimately still felt short of his goals. So rather than dwell on what he failed to do, the former middleweight king is opting to take the long view as he heads into UFC 275.

“There’s two options I could go with,” Whittaker said on the most recent episode of The MMA Hour, “is either be butt-hurt and then winge and moan about how I didn’t get the nod that I thought I deserved, or just be happy for what I took from the fight and what I gathered, and how much I’ve gained from that fight and from the prep and from the fights leading up to there, and how different the second fight was to the first.

“I left that fight realizing that there’s no ceiling. I don’t have a ceiling. I’m only getting better every fight — you can see that, I’m only getting better. And that excites me. That excites me, because I’m young enough to still make changes, to develop, to get better, to go into fights. And eventually we’ll come across paths again. I mentioned it before — it is, I believe, inevitable. And I’ll make sure not to leave it so close.”

Whittaker is still MMA Fighting’s No. 2 ranked middleweight despite the loss, and he remains a perfect 11-0 against non-Adesanya opponents since moving up to 185 pounds in 2014. He is, by all accounts, the best middleweight in the world aside from his rival.

Many fans argued that Whittaker actually did enough to edge out Adesanya at UFC 271, and while Whittaker doesn’t disagree, he also understands that the responsibility falls to him as the challenger to make his case unassailable in the eyes of the judges. In that regard, Whittaker has just one regret about the way he approached February’s rematch.

“Hindsight is a beautiful thing, right?” Whittaker said. “I try not to play with it too much, because it just makes you regret and hate things. But I guess if I could take a realization and the confidence that I gathered in Round 2, and give it to myself in Round 1, that would lead to a very different fight. A very different fight. Because Round 1 was Izzy’s best round, because I just wasn’t — I don’t want to say not confident, because I’m very confident.

“It’s just that I didn’t have doubted belief in what I was doing. I still had lingering feeling from that first fight. And I shook those off in Round 2, and the rest is history. I was able to execute the game plan and find everything so easy and flowing, and so effective.”

Whittaker acknowledged that lingering feeling was something he battled with not only during the lead-up to UFC 271, but also in the years since his first loss to Adesanya.

“Because I lost the first one, and in the fashion that I lost the first one, it just presents you with so many what ifs and self-doubt,” Whittaker said. “And it’s not like I struggle with confidence or I was battling doubt the entire camp, that’s not what happened. But it’s more like an insidious, just a tiny ‘what if,’ or, ‘you’ve gotta be careful about this,’ or visualizing his reach a foot longer than it really is, you know what I mean? It’s just little things. But those little things over the course of ... five months, six months, or whatever it was, it just annoys you. Like, it drains you, it’s heavy.

“In the fight itself, in the years since I’ve fought him and the way that he beat me in the first fight, it just made him seem so much bigger than he was, so much better than he was,” Whittaker added. “Like, in my own head, that is. Now, don’t caption these things, ‘Izzy’s no good.’ He’s a great fighter, phenomenal fighter. That was a tough tooth-and-nails fight. You could see how serious he was taking it. The thing is, [the first fight] made him seem unhittable — like in my own head, he seemed unhittable. Like, I couldn’t get in, I couldn’t hit him, his reach was crazy.

“But in reality, it was nothing like that. I was landing my hands on him every time we exchanged [in the rematch]. You know? I wasn’t getting touched in the trades too much. Reality was very different. The mind’s a funny thing.”

When asked about his fighting future, Whittaker reaffirmed his hunger to do whatever it takes to pursue a third crack at Adesanya. That road is expected to begin against Vettori in the summer. But Adesanya has already openly discussed aspirations to one day move back up to 205 pounds, and it’s rare for the UFC to award title shots to challengers who have already lost twice to the champion, so Whittaker knows he has his work cut out for him. And if he never fights Adesanya again, that’s just something he’ll have to reconcile.

“It depends how it happens,” Whittaker said.

“If I’m just beating up everybody in the division and there’s no one left and I’m still not giving that shot, then yes, I’ll be upset. But I don’t see that happening. I think everybody likes the fight between me and Izzy, it’s such a technical and aggressive fight.”

Fortunately, the 31-year-old ex-champion also knows he has plenty of time left to make it happen.

“I’ve soft-capped [retirement] at like [age] 35, 36,” Whittaker said.

“But if the health is great and I’m doing well still, then we’ll play it by ear past that. But I think 35 for me is a good time to kick the boots off.”

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