Sport

Mixed martial artist Robert Whittaker on why working out how to beat an opponent is a thrilling adrenalin rush. By Richard Cooke.
Credit: JEFF BOTTARI/ZUFFA LLC/ZUFFA LLC VIA GETTY IMAGES

World of pain: Robert Whittaker, 26, mixed martial artist

I’m looking forward to fighting Yoel Romero. Figuring out how to beat him. The interim title belt doesn’t feel like unfinished business at all. To be honest, the belt is just a bonus I wasn’t expecting. It’s the opponent I’m interested in. And Yoel Romero is an interesting opponent.

I don’t mind talking about my plan. After all, it’s no secret. My plan is the same as my usual plan – to put my hands on him. I’m not a brawler, but striking is the key.

It’s my coaching crew who watch him. They’re the ones reviewing the tapes, studying his style and breaking it down. Yes, there’s a lot of trust in that. But if I didn’t trust them, why hire them? They want the best for me, not just for the fight and the opponent, but for my everything else as well.

I’ve had the same coach since I was 14. He started out running a hapkido gym, but always loved mixed martial arts, and started coaching mixed martial arts. There’s some grappling in hapkido, and also he ran ju-jitsu out of the same place, so the grappling side of things came quite naturally.

Going up from welterweight was a pleasure. I should have done it long before. I’ve always been a bigger guy, so it was natural. I didn’t realise I wasn’t feeling normal until I made the change. It took those losses to realise.

I didn’t have pep in my step. My punches just weren’t what they should have been. So going up was like going back to normal, only I had forgotten what normal felt like. 

The [reality] TV show The Ultimate Fighter was my route to the UFC. Being in the house for that long was a very, very difficult experience. It’s something I’m glad I’ll never have to do again. It was relentless, everyone trying to be top dog, break each other down. You’re away from your missus, your family and loved ones. It was tough.

I kept to myself and slept a lot. I didn’t want to participate in that side of it. I must have been quite boring to watch. But I came out on top in the end.

I didn’t fully realise I could become professional until after winning the show. That was the change for me. And the recognition was a surprise. Coming out and having people know who you are. I don’t mind people coming up for a photo. I’ll always have time for my fans.

The emotional side of things is complicated. It’s very difficult to explain, or even understand. It’s something you have to learn, and the only way to learn it is through experience, through those lead-up fights.

There’s a point somewhere between getting too excited and not getting excited enough that you’re trying to find. I guess it is a bit like stage fright for some people. There are plenty of fighters who have frozen under those lights.

I’m not afraid of being hurt. You can’t be. If you’re afraid of being hurt, and you’re an MMA fighter, you’re in the wrong place, in the wrong game. I don’t fear my opponent, but I do fear failure. Underperforming. That’s a worse feeling than being hurt. 

That doesn’t mean I like pain. I dislike being hurt as much as the next guy. But it has to be accepted. You will get hurt in MMA. You will definitely get hurt. That’s an integral part of it. But you are trying to hurt your opponent, and when you’re fighting well you’ll get hurt less.

For me, it’s about the love of fighting. I know that sounds simple, but for me it is that simple. Ideally, it would be happening somewhere without the lights and the crowds. Off the stage. Still, I don’t mind that aspect of it. But what I want is the thrill of taking on my opponent. Working out how to beat him. That adrenalin rush, that thrill, never ever goes away.

My old man gets sick – he struggles to watch it. And it’s stressful for the rest of my family watching too. But they support me 100 per cent.

My calendar ends at July 8. I’m not thinking about anything beyond the fight. I don’t plan a big future. Just focus on what’s next. That’s more than enough for now.

 

This week’s highlights…

• Athletics: Sydney Harbour 10k and 5k

Sunday, 8.30am and 8am (AEST), Overseas Passenger Terminal, Sydney

Mixed martial arts: UFC 213 – Yoel Romero v Robert Whittaker

Sunday, noon (AEST), T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas, Nevada

• AFL: West Coast Eagles v Port Adelaide

Sunday, 2.40pm (AWST), Domain Stadium, Perth

Cricket: ICC Women’s World Cup – Australia v England

Sunday, 7.30pm (AEST), Bristol County Ground, England

• NRL: State of Origin, game 3 – New South Wales v Queensland

Wednesday, 8pm (AEST), Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane

• Super Rugby: Melbourne Rebels v Jaguares

Friday, 7.45pm (AEST), AAMI Park, Melbourne

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 8, 2017 as "World of pain". Subscribe here.

Richard Cooke
is a journalist and writer for television. He is The Saturday Paper's sports editor.