So ... how good is Robert Whittaker (11-2)? To clarify, and in case you were hoping I'd answer that question, I don't know. But it'd be useful for this whole analysis thingy.
Here's what I can tell you: Whittaker advanced to the finals of the inaugural "TUF: Smashes" show, which was filmed down under and pitted Aussies vs. UK'ers, by spending less than a minute-and-a-half in the cage, TKO'ing two opponents straight into the unwelcoming bowels of the spirit world and pocketing a cool 25-grand for earning "Knockout of the Season" honors. The 22-year-old Aussie then won the show with a unanimous decision over Brad Scott and went on to dazzle in a monumental upset -- again by TKO -- over heavily favored wrestler and TUF 16 winner Colton Smith in his last go at UFC 160.
Which means, as far as I can tell, that the only notches in Whittaker's negative column are his two career defeats -- one respectable (decision to 20-8 Jesse Juarez), one iffy (submitted by 9-9 Hoon Kim) -- and the general hazards of inexperienced youth. His recent accomplishments alone vastly outweigh the cons, and I'm particularly intrigued by the fluidity of his offensive boxing, instincts and gameness.
Having throttled or otherwise surpassed his TUF counterparts and proved himself against a down and dirty wrestling specialist, Whittaker's next test is a goat-bearded, brick-chinned and battle-hardened wrestler in Court McGee (15-3), whose black belt in Karate and unorthodox tendencies make him somewhat of an enigma. The welterweights collide on the main card of Wednesday's UFC Fight Night: Condit vs. Kampmann 2 event from the Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indanapolis, Indiana.
Honestly, I didn't think McGee was going to hang around for too long after watching him win TUF 11, and that opinion wasn't merely based on the fact that Nick Ring beat him but was eventually forced out of the brackets due to injury. Not only did McGee seem like a one-dimensional wrestler, he moved around awkwardly and his striking was kind of clumsy and creepy. And he looked ... Amish? There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but they don't necessarily populate the MMA crowd -- what with the noticeable absence of horse-drawn buggy parking and demand for those frighteningly efficient stoves.
Nowadays, McGee has fully earned my respect for his hard-nosed toughness alone. There will always be a place in MMA for someone with the heart and fortitude to keep scrapping after spoonfuls of leather have bounced off their chins freely and often. I've grown to understand that McGee is one of those less than graceful athletes you'll encounter in any sport, but a damn good one nonetheless. I also realized that his funky striking tendencies were likely attributed to his Karate background, which is uniquely prevalent in his wrestle-boxing style.
Overall, McGee makes his atypical conglomeration of skills work, and work well. It could be attributed to John Hackleman, the renowned trainer of Chuck Liddell and the head coach at the Pit Elevated, and his extensive experience with karate and a litany of other traditional martial arts. McGee is also one of the hardest workers in the UFC and no picnic to put away. You just know you're in for a long, gritty war of attrition when you sign up to fight Court McGee, as even the UFC fighters who've defeated him -- Costa Philippou and Nick Ring, both by extremely competitive decision -- would attest to.
We have an oddly vivid frame of reference for this striker vs. grappler match up, as both men have faced their stylistic antithesis recently. Whittaker's last turn was highlighted by his habit of keeping his lead hand dangerously low. It's not that it just wasn't glued to his chin at all times -- Whittaker dangled his lead hand well below his waistline throughout his entire fight with Smith, which he later explained as a specific strategy in an interview with MMA Fighting's Ariel Helwani.
There is no doubt that Whittaker's decision to leave his hand low got him a head-start in the process of digging an underhook and improved his takedown defense, just like there's no doubt that his striking defense was equally compromised. Smith is a takedown machine who's almost entirely devoid of striking venom -- McGee is not. Not coincidentally, Whittaker paid the price for his risky tactic when Smith tagged him in the first stanza and, even in his 19-second KO on TUF, he's been a hittable target on the feet.
That's why I specifically credited Whittaker's offensive boxing, as his defense on the feet is a little shaky. I'd guess Whittaker fits the mold of an aggressive striker who's much more fixated on landing bombs than defending or dodging them. That brings to mind two very key points in this match up: McGee is a puzzling striking threat with a gangly reach (76") and his chin is a veritable bank vault. So being willing "to take a few to land a few" is a sketchy strategy against a rangy and unorthodox striker with Fort Knox for a jaw.
McGee has odd timing, good accuracy and an unconventional bag of long punches and unexpected kicks, but Whittaker's boxing finesse gives him a substantial edge on the feet. I was extremely impressed with his methodical dismantling of Smith -- Whittaker seems to be a 22-year-old who throws his hands like an experienced boxer, especially when you account for the grace of his in-and-out movement, the fundamentally sound combinations and stance, and the sheer speed of his explosive outbursts.
What should make everyone leery about what seems like a logical pick is the scarce amount of grappling we've seen from Whittaker. McGee might be out-matched on the feet but it's quite significant that Whittaker's ground prowess has yet to be proven. Sure, his takedown defense is excellent, but McGee is a different kind of wrestler than Smith: you're never quite sure when he's going to shoot but the attempts are almost always accompanied by set-up strikes or weird timing, he can cover a deceiving amount of ground and do it quickly, he's adept at chaining his takedown attempts together on the fly, and he just has no off-button and will keep coming forward in quasi-zombie fashion.
I'm surprised that Whittaker is the slight favorite at the time of writing, mostly because of McGee's landslide advantage in top-flight experience and proven toughness. I'm not appalled by it though -- Whittaker oozes a certain swagger when he gets a rhythm on the feet and I'm intrigued to see how he handles this leap in competition. A Whittaker win wouldn't shock me but it just feels like McGee's wrestling, durability, experience, chin and toughness make him the safer pick here.
My Prediction: Court McGee by rear-naked choke or decision.