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Is it time for the real Robert Whittaker to return?

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist
·4-min read

Because Robert Whittaker isn’t a trash talker, because he doesn’t boast about himself, his level of commitment to being the best mixed martial artist he could possibly be has frequently been overlooked.

Whittaker, the former middleweight champion who on Saturday in the finale on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi will face Darren Till in an important middleweight bout, used to train seven days a week, four or five times a day.

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There’s dedication, there’s working hard and then there’s Whittaker, who was almost maniacal about his preparation.

But as good as working hard is for a fighter, too much of anything is not always good. And Whittaker found that out on Christmas Day while he was running a hill in Australia. He had to quit in the middle of it. It wasn’t so much physical burnout as mental.

It led him to postpone a planned fight with Jared Cannonier.

“You just get to a point where you aren’t able to do it anymore,” Whittaker said. “I was working all the time, away from my family so much. It was just push, push, push, push. Before I took the break, it was definitely like a slog. It was so difficult. I was dragging my feet in everything I did. I got to where I just couldn’t go on.”

So he pulled out of the Cannonier fight and took a careful look at where he was and what he was doing, in both his life and his career. His work was swallowing him and there was no work-life balance. His life was his work.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JULY 24: Robert Whittaker of New Zealand poses on the scale during the UFC Fight Night weigh-in inside Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on July 24, 2020 in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Robert Whittaker of New Zealand poses on the scale during the UFC Fight Night weigh-in inside Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on Friday in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Even the greatest athletes in the world have to confront mental health issues, and on Christmas Day on that hill in Australia he’d scaled so easily many times before, Whittaker came to that realization.

He took time off, sought help and came to believe that sometimes, less is more.

When he was offered the Till fight, he accepted gleefully and enjoyed himself as he got ready for a bout that could lead him to another crack at the title he lost last year to Israel Adesanya.

“I’m enjoying the process now,” said Whittaker, a -134 favorite at BetMGM. “I made some lifestyle changes, some adjustments to my training and, honestly, to every aspect of my life. I had a great support team to help me through it, and I think it was absolutely the right thing to do and what I needed at that exact time.

“I feel like as I am ready for this fight, I am better in every area of the game than I was. Everything is just a bit better now.”

That’s a scary proposition for the rest of the division. Whittaker is 20-5 and had won nine in a row prior to his loss to Adesanya at UFC 243 in Melbourne, Australia.

He’d beaten Yoel Romero twice and Jacare Souza, Derek Brunson and Uriah Hall, among others, during his streak. Against Adesanya, he said he had a terrible weight cut and was just overwhelmed in the fight. Adesanya’s counter-striking was magnificent, and he took advantage of every opening Whittaker gave him.

But Whittaker wasn’t the Whittaker the world had known. His body was breaking down; he had injuries and illnesses and just knew nothing else other than to push. But it was his mental health as much as his physical health that made things so difficult.

Having come out of what he called “a very difficult place and a very hard time,” Whittaker very well could be poised for another long run.

He’s having fun, even in the mundane tasks that every fighter must do.

“I think now I’m exactly where I need to be and I’m more comfortable than ever before,” Whittaker said. “I’m excited to be here. I am enjoying the process. It’s been a lot of fun. Obviously, here on Fight Island, this is something to see. It’s clear a lot of people did a lot of work to get this place ready, and because of that, it’s not just another fight. It’s a little special.

“This is what I love to do. It’s how I earn my living. I have learned to appreciate it more and the opportunities I’ve been given. I think that makes a big difference in me in my [performance]. I truly am excited about this week and this fight.”

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