Several times, Robert Whittaker referred to Yoel Romero as “a monster.” The UFC middleweight champion meant it as the greatest of compliments, as praise for Romero’s incredible physical talents.
Romero is an Olympic silver medal-winning wrestler who is one of the best pure wrestlers in mixed martial arts. His thick, powerful build exudes strength.
Whittaker spent 50 minutes locked inside a cage with Romero, and not only lived to tell about it, he won both fights and left the cage a champion each time.
The second bout, in the main event of UFC 225 in June in Chicago, was one of the best fights of 2018.
“It was a good one,” Whittaker said in his typically understated style.
He’s among the most underrated fighters in the world, and far down the chain in the hierarchy of the UFC’s biggest stars, despite a nine-fight winning streak that includes two victories over Romero and knockouts of Jacare Souza and Derek Brunson.
Despite that résumé, Whittaker is only ranked 12th in the UFC’s pound-for-pound ratings, which says more about the rankings than it does about Whittaker himself. He’s behind one fighter who hasn’t competed in well over a year (Georges St-Pierre) and three others who were finished in their most recent bouts (T.J. Dillashaw, Conor McGregor and Stipe Miocic).
Whittaker, who will defend his belt on Saturday (Sunday in Australia) against Kelvin Gastelum in the main event of UFC 234 at Rod Laver Stadium in Melbourne, isn’t more heralded because he’s not the type to sing his own praises.
When his skills are praised, he deflects the compliment and takes the opportunity to rave about his coaches.
“I have the best team in the world and the best coaches in the world and there’s no doubt about that, I don’t think,” Whittaker said. “I’m pretty fortunate in that regard.”
His coaches can’t fight for him, though, and they certainly couldn’t prepare him for the situation he found himself in during both of his fights with Romero. In the first bout, he injured the medial collateral ligament in his left knee and had trouble putting weight on it following the bout.
In their rematch, Whittaker broke his thumb in the first round. It went numb, rendering his hand all but useless, and leaving him to scramble to find a way to keep Romero from overwhelming him.
He had to fight more than four full rounds with his left hand only against one of the most fearsome fighters in the world. Romero is a handful for the best fighter in tiptop condition, but it’s almost unfair to have to tangle with him at anything less than full strength.
There were many who believed that Romero wasn’t properly focused in his first fight with Whittaker and that he’d simply steamroll the Australian champion in the rematch.
Those who bought into that line of thinking had to feel all the more confident in their belief when Whittaker suddenly became a one-handed fighter after breaking his thumb.
One of Whittaker’s greatest assets, in addition to being a superb athlete and above average in every area of MMA, is his unflappable nature. He didn’t panic and didn’t waste energy worrying about what he couldn’t control.
When he broke his thumb, he was presented with two choices, neither of which were all that appealing: quit and surrender the title to Romero; or try to find a way to beat the physical monster in front of him without the use of his dominant hand.
For Whittaker, there was no choice to be made.
“You just have to find a way; it’s that simple,” Whittaker said. “It sucks to have it happen, but it’s not anything you can train for. It sucks to be in that position, but it’s something that goes along with the job.”
And so Whittaker went out and pulled out a split decision in one of the year’s finest fights. For whatever reason, it didn’t earn him widespread acclaim outside of Australia, where he lives, and New Zealand, where he was born, and even UFC president Dana White joined the chorus in noting how underrated Whittaker is for some reason.
He is, in many ways, much like Gastelum, his opponent in the main event. Most fighters have a base they rely on, but Whittaker and Gastelum are able to compete at a high level no matter where the fight goes.
Whittaker insists he won’t look past Gastelum because he has an idea of what makes Gastelum tick.
“He wants this so badly and he’s very hungry,” Whittaker said. “He has nothing to lose, and to my way of thinking, that makes him very dangerous. I think this is one of my hardest fights to date. He has a lot of pop in his hands and you know he’s going to come hard with his best.”
It’s a fight Gastelum can win, but it says here he probably won’t. Gastelum’s not a fearsome puncher, and Whittaker has a slight edge overall in striking.
It’s probably going to be a fight contested mostly on the feet, so look for Whittaker to pull out a unanimous decision by landing the cleaner, harder and more varied shots.
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