Sydney’s Robert Whittaker (16-4) will be taking a short flight into Melbourne this week to headline his first ever UFC card, versus Derek Brunson (16-3) at UFC Fight Night 101.
It’s been six months since the 25-year-old Australian last entered the Octagon, where he eased past Rafael Natal at UFC 197 in Las Vegas. Whittaker’s long pause between fights was due to surgery on his right hand.
“I needed a little bit of bone taken out,” said Whittaker to Bloody Elbow. Whittaker then stated that, after rehab with strength and conditioning coach Justin Lane, the hand is was, “better than ever.” Leading up this surgery Whittaker would often break his hand in training camps and/or leave fights with a soreness that would require weeks and sometimes months of rest.
With his hand now at ‘one hundred-percent’, Whittaker looks forward to using it this weekend versus the surging Derek Brunson - who has won his last four contests by first KO/TKO.
Given the 8th ranked Brunson’s impressive run of form, it’s no surprise that Whittaker, who is ranked 7th, has a lot of respect for the threat the American poses to his middleweight title aspirations.
“He’s definitely an athlete,” remarked Whittaker. “He’s got a skill-set that demands respect. He got into the top-ten in pretty good fashion. I think I’ve got to be wary of his power.”
Though Whittaker sees danger in Brunson’s left hand, he believes wrestling is the ‘highlight’ of his opponent’s skill-set. “I’ve definitely got to be on my game and be on the ball to make sure that I dictate the pace and I dictate where the fight goes,” added Whittaker.
Asked whether he thought Brunson was his most difficult middleweight opponent to date, Whittaker was unsure. “It’s hard to say, every fight’s different, and every fighter has a unique skill-set and something to bring to the table,” reasoned Whittaker.
“If you play by your opponent’s rules and you enter their game and their realm, it’s always gonna be a hard fight. Whether, I think Brunson’s my hardest fight yet... it is going to be a hard fight, but as I said before, every fight’s hard.”
Whittaker believes his striking is the best tool he has for coming through this hard fight with a win. Whittaker himself has finished seven of his professional fights by KO/TKO. According to Fight Metric, Whittaker lands 4.95 significant strikes per minute (SLpM), more than any other active UFC middleweight.
“I think my striking is faster [than Brunson’s] and I think he underestimates my power a bit,” said Whittaker. “My striking and my timing are huge advantages, I’ve got them both down pat. That’s what I’m good at and I know I’m good at. So it’s gonna be interesting to see what happens.”
Whittaker is bullish on what he thinks his striking will do to Brunson. “I think... I don’t think; I know my striking is going to make him wrestle.”
Before the match between Whittaker and Brunson was made, a source revealed to Bloody Elbow that the UFC were ‘trying’ to set-up Whittaker versus Michael Bisping (before he was crowned middleweight champion). The source also revealed that it was thought Bisping would not take the fight, “unless forced.” Bisping refuted these claims on the Three Amigos Podcast.
After Bisping defeated Luke Rockhold for the middleweight belt, Whittaker’s camp again raised the issue of a potential fight against the Brit. This time Whittaker told Bloody Elbow that he felt Bisping ‘owed’ him a contest after ‘strategically’ avoiding him.
Whittaker opted not to rehash these claims and instead stated simply, “I still want to fight Bisping and I wanted to fight him before he had the title... but you know, it will happen when it happens and I’ll have to wait and see.”
When asked whether he thinks Bisping wants to fight him, Whittaker paused and then replied, “Probably,” followed by a laugh. “It’s hard to say, it’s hard to get inside someone else’s head.”
Regardless what happens with Bisping, Whittaker enforced that his current focus was purely on this weekend’s event and who he’ll be meeting there. “I can’t think past this fight,” stated Whittaker. “I can only think of Brunson, until that fight concludes. Then I’ll start making plans and looking forwards.”
“Me and Brunson have to have title shot potential,” continued Whittaker. “I think we’re going to put on a show, to show who wants it more. This fight, I think we’re going to put on an absolute war. He’s on a hot streak and he’s gonna come out full confidence and try and knock my block off and I’m not gonna let him. I’m gonna disrupt his plans a little bit, and put him away.”
You can see whether or not Whittaker succeeds in halting Brunson’s hot streak this Saturday night at UFC Fight Night: Whittaker vs. Brunson, live from the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, Australia.