Sixth-ranked UFC middleweight Robert Whittaker (17-4) is coming off an impressive TKO victory over Derek Brunson last November in the headlining fight of UFC Fight Night 101, which was held in Melbourne, Australia. This weekend he’s in Kansas City, Missouri to take on what might be his toughest opponent to date - Jacare Souza (24-4), on the main card of UFC on FOX: Johnson vs. Reis.
Whittaker’s win over Brunson came around the four-minute mark of the first round. The New Zealand-born Australian had weathered an early rush from the American, before letting loose with a flurry of strikes that ended the contest. ‘The Reaper’ is very happy with the win and credits his team’s strategy as the reason why it came so emphatically.
“The game plan that me and my coaches set up, we formulated for weeks on end,” Whittaker told Bloody Elbow. “We knew Brunson was going to come out hard and try to get the early finish. We knew we just had to stay patient and bide my time, because I know that my striking’s better and I know I’ve just got to lay my hands on him and I can put him down.”
Whittaker admitted that Brunson’s early rush was even more ferocious than he was expecting, and that it required great focus to stick to his carefully thought out gameplan. “When you try and fight fire with fire, at that level of aggressiveness, it’s hard,” said Whittaker. “There’s a lot of holes that open up when you do that. There’s a lot of dangerous opportunities for someone to catch you or you to catch him, so I kinda just weathered the storm and once he started to slow down I took advantage of that, and hurt him.”
The win over a similarly surging middleweight talent was reason enough for Whittaker to celebrate. However, getting the finish on Australian soil made the victory even sweeter. “Headlining an Australian card was one of my lifetime goals for my career. And to be able to do that and be able to put on such a good show for the crowd; that was unbelievable. The way the crowd was screaming after that fight ... It was unreal.”
Whittaker, who is now on a six-fight win streak, will again play journeyman as he makes the long trip to Kansas City for this weekend’s event. Meeting him there is a fellow traveler, Jacare of Manuas. The Brazilian’s only defeat in eight UFC outings was a thin decision loss to number-one contender Yoel Romero. Only four of Souza’s 24 wins have gone to the judges, with the vast majority of them ending via submission. Understandably, Whittaker’s not expecting an easy fight.
“It’s no secret that he’s considered a legend in jiu-jitsu, that mixed with his well-rounded MMA arsenal, means he’s a very dangerous fighter and he deserves to be in the top five,” said Whittaker, alluding to his opponent’s eight gold medals at the World Jiu-Jitsu Championships. “He’s got heavy hands, too,” added Whittaker, who believes striking will make the ultimate difference in their fight.
“He’s got powerful heavy hands, and they’re tight as well. Are they his forte? No. My striking and my stand-up game - I believe - is a lot better and I’m going to try and take full advantage of that come fight night. I’m not going in there with the mentality that this will be a jiu-jitsu match. I’m going in there and I’m going to fight him. It’s a fight at the end of the day.”
Though he watched some footage of Souza, Whittaker doesn’t like to overly concern himself with studying opponents. He leaves the research to his coaches, who then manipulate his training accordingly. Jiu-jitsu defense has obviously been on the docket, but Whittaker won’t be drawn on describing his strategies in any more detail. He did reveal that he wouldn’t be inviting Souza into any kind of grappling challenge on Saturday night.
“I do like jiu-jitsu and I train it a lot in the gym. Is fighting Souza the time to test it? Probably not,” said Whittaker with a laugh. “So it’s no secret that I want to keep this fight on the feet and he’ll want to take it to the ground.” Whittaker then added that he is a “one hundred percent believer” in an saying attributed to Carlson Gracie Sr: ‘Punch a black belt in the face, he becomes a brown belt.’
In order to downgrade Souza down to a lower belt level, the former TUF: The Smashes winner will be forced to test his pain tolerance. Before fighting Brunson, Whittaker had been sidelined due to surgery on his oft-broken right hand. According to Whittaker, his right paw fractures all the time, both training and in fights. He leaves a fight with a sore hand more often than not, at this point. It happened again after the Brunson fight, despite the surgery that preceeded it.
“It’s just the nature of the beast,” sighed Whittaker. “You do a sport where you throw your hands at people’s skulls - you’re asking for damage.” Whittaker expects his hand to keep hurting and possibly get more seriously injured, but said this won’t change the way he fights. “I’ve had this hand my whole life. I’m not afraid to throw it. I’m not afraid to break it. The place to do it is there, in the Octagon.”
The opportunity Whittaker has been presented with this Saturday in the Octagon is another reason why he won’t be holding back. The 26-year-old said he’d been asking for a top five opponent for a long time. “It’s ecstatic,” said Whittaker about the prospect of facing the number three ranked middleweight in the UFC. “I need these fights. I need these level fights to test my mettle, to see where I can grow and learn, and to develop more aspects of my own game. I need this trial. I need this test.”
On April 15th you can see how Robert Whittaker does in what might be the biggest test of his MMA career. The action kicks off at 4PM EST (main card at 8PM EST). You can see it all live on FOX.