Between 2006 and 2013, the middleweight division had one undisputed king: Anderson Silva. He was the Roy Jones Jr of MMA, an eclectic striker of otherworldly skill, who rarely seemed less than three steps ahead of his opposition. In the five years since Silva’s long reign finally came to an end, the UFC middleweight title has changed hands a full five times. Chris Weidman held onto the belt for a while, but had too much of the Spider’s famed durability, and not enough of his cleverness or evasive skill. Luke Rockhold surpassed Weidman’s athletic talent, but didn’t have the chin to make up for his own lack of defense. Michael Bisping and Georges St-Pierre... well, the less said about those reigns the better.
Now, however, the man with the belt around his waist is Robert Whittaker. A former welterweight, Whittaker looks to be reaching his full potential at 185 pounds. He has a beard that rivals the Spider’s. He has a sharp jab, neat footwork, intelligent defense, and shocking power. His ground game is underrated, and his wrestling is shockingly good. He is quick, he is strong, and he is only 27 years old. In fact, Whittaker’s only notable negative quality is his distaste for the “Bobby Knuckles” moniker favored by his fans, and even that criminal behavior does little to dampen his potential.
Of all the champions since Silva’s fall, Whittaker’s style bears the strongest resemblance to that of the middleweight GOAT, and he seems poised to put together a similarly impressive reign, having beaten contenders number one and two on his way to the top of his division. One of those men was Yoel Romero, who himself holds knockouts victories over former champs Weidman and Rockhold.
At UFC 225, he will make the first defense of his crown, versus the very man against whom he won it in the first place. There is no one else more deserving of a shot. Romero is a powerhouse without equal, and the kind of wrestler who would have given Anderson Silva fits. And yet Whittaker beat him down the stretch, despite blowing his MCL seconds into the first round. The fight was close, but it felt like a blossoming. Like a young Georges St-Pierre
To understand the essential greatness of Robert Whittaker’s game, we ought to break it down into phases. A tremendously well-rounded fighter, Robert Whittaker can do it all without ever losing sight of his fight. Let’s take a close look at his skills, and try to understand how it all works so well.
Since he used a dangling low lead and a vicious left hook to decapitate Colton Smith at UFC 160, Robert Whittaker has been lauded for his boxing. Like Anderson Silva before him, Whittaker does not rely on boxing because it was part of his fighting background (it wasn’t), but rather because it works. Straight punching is a tremendously efficient and effective way of delivering damage, controlling space, and managing the pace of a bout. Whittaker’s hands are some of the sharpest in the UFC today, and we could easily spend a few hundred paragraphs talking about his educated lead, or his defense, or his combination punching.
Instead, we are going to talk about the intangible glue which holds all of those elements together.
In fighting, as in life, timing is everything. Robert Whittaker’s ability to time his opponents is surpassed only by his knack for preventing their doing the same to him. Even when an opponent manages to sniff out and evade most of his strikes, as Yoel Romero did in the third round of their first contest, doing so leaves little room for counter attacks, and gives Whittaker the initiative. Trying to read his intentions leaves you playing his game, while ignoring them makes you an easy target. Timing is everything.
Whittaker is especially clever with his feints. A feint is any movement which looks like an attack, but isn’t. Some fighters pump their shoulders to suggest a punch. Some stomp their feet, or lurch forward in their stance. Some change levels, or extend their arms, or dart their eyes toward an opening. Whittaker uses all of these tricks, but his favorite is a sort of combination of methods--a forward step, a pop of the shoulder, and a small movement from the “punching” hand. Boxers are wont to call this move a “pump feint,” and above all, it helps a fighter like Whittaker close in on an opponent.
Here, Whittaker hits Rafael Natal--or pretends to hit him--with a mixture of feints and punches.
1. Whittaker (in white) backs Natal (in black) up to the fence.
2. A pump feint. Whittaker makes as if to throw a jab, stepping in as he does. Natal swats at the invisible punch...
3. ...leaving himself wide open for the real one. Whittaker is now close enough to land, and he fires the jab for real, snapping Natal’s head back.
4. Rafael stumbles into the fence, but Whittaker remains conscious of his distance, and waits for the next move. He maintains distance and waits for his opponent’s next move.
5. Perhaps looking to negate the jab, Natal switches to southpaw, and begins moving along the fence to his left.
6. Whittaker stays right in front of him, but never gets too close. He measures his distance by covering the lead hand of Natal.
7. And now another feint. Whittaker throws his right shoulder forward, and Natal shies away from the expected right hand.
8. Sidestepping to his right, Whittaker lines up his right hand, while trapping Natal’s own right to prevent him from throwing up a block.
9. Now the real right hand appears, traveling in a quick, straight line from Whittaker’s shoulder to Natal’s chin.
10. Whittaker finishes his attack with an unorthodox left hook. The shot doesn’t land perfectly...
11. ...but the shifting footwork with which Whittaker throws it means he is long gone when the counterpunch arrives.
Though reaction time is vital in combat, a fighter’s defense relies as much on prediction as it does on reaction. If, for example, a fighter were to stand up tall, in range, with both hands dangling at his waist, his ability to avoid every punch—or any punch, for that matter—would be badly compromised, because he would be open to every punch at his opponent’s disposal. Throwing up a high guard immediately mitigates his risk. With the earmuffs on, a fighter knows that hooking blows to the head are more or less unavailable, and so the task of avoiding everything else becomes just that little bit easier. Stepping out of range is even better, as any attack must then be preceded by forward movement, giving our defending fighter yet more time to suss out, adjust to, and defend against his adversary’s attacks.
This is what makes Whittaker’s feints so effective. When Whittaker moves forward with a pump feint, appearing for all the world as if he is about to throw a jab, Rafael Natal reacts accordingly. The moment that attack is revealed to have been false, Natal is already a step or two behind. Worse, Whittaker is suddenly in range and, having not committed himself to an attack, stands in perfect position to strike with authority. With a single move, Whittaker opens up a world of options for which Natal must account, and seizes the initiative in the process, ensuring that it is Natal reacting to him, and not the other way around.
There is much, much more to Whittaker’s timing than feints, however. Like the man against whom he is scheduled to defend his belt, Whittaker is a master manipulator of rhythm. The champion uses his floating, bouncy footwork to establish a tempo, only to change speeds as soon as he has his opponent dancing to his chosen tune. Here, Whittaker draws Jacare Souza onto a set of piercing punches with some deceptive movement.
1. After an exchange, Whittaker (in white) disentangles himself from the grasping arms of Jacare Souza (in black).
2. Though he brings his feet together as he retreats, Whittaker covers his escape with a blinding jab, giving Jacare something to worry about.
3. Jacare’s advance is slowed enough for Whittaker to get completely out of range. He bounces high on his toes as if ready to retreat again.
4. Jacare accepts the invitation, pressing forward. Suddenly, Whittaker’s position changes. He drops into a wide stance.
5. In a sense, Whittaker is now much closer to his opponent than he originally appeared. He leans onto that front foot, surprising Jacare with a straight right. Souza blocks it instinctively.
6. Now Whittaker starts to change position again. He begins to shift, adopting a sort of southpaw stance as he moves his right leg outside Souza’s left.
7. The body weight follows, and brings a deceptively heavy left hook along with it. Whittaker stings Jacare from this new angle…
8. ...and then retreats along it, while Jacare’s defense is still playing catch-up.
Firstly, I must recommend that you watch the GIF of this sequence in order to appreciate the deliberate awkwardness of Whittaker’s movement. There is a half-beat lag between frames three and five that is difficult to appreciate without the benefit of a moving image.
There are layers to this one, four-second sequence of combat. Note, for example, that Souza does little to seize the initiative even as he stalks after Whittaker. As any boxing fan (or one out of every three judges) will tell you, moving forward does not necessarily constitute “control” of the fight. With no jab, no feints, and no alacrity to his advance, Souza is playing the role of the aggressive counter puncher in this example—forcing the fight, but waiting for Whittaker to make the first move.
This opens the door for all manner of tricks. For one, Whittaker’s very attitude is enough to fool many fighters. Not only does his bouncing footwork set a tempo for Jacare to follow, it gives him the distinct impression that Whittaker is in no position to launch an attack, and not particularly keen to try. Body language alone makes Whittaker’s eventual strike a surprise. Looking to counter, as he is, Jacare is almost certainly expecting some kind of offense from the Australian. What he cannot account for is the sudden and unexpected change of distance preceding that offense, nor the awkward timing with which it comes.
In transitioning from retreat to attack, Whittaker drops down and widens his stance, allowing him to close the distance without really having to move forward; all Robert really needs is one foot in range, and he can easily lean forward to punch from that front foot’s position. Remember, Jacare is the one advancing. From his perspective, this must feel like following closely behind a car just as its driver slams on the brakes. Except, in this case, the car simultaneously changes into a semi-truck, and then proceeds to fly into reverse. In the space of a few milliseconds, Souza goes from looking for a way to pass, to mashing his own brake pedal to the floor.
Fighters are frequently cautioned to avoid telegraphing their strikes, because a telegraphed strike can be timed. But what happens when the opponent truly is waiting for the counter? What happens if his opponent moves into position, but throws a half-second later than anticipated? What happens
Whittaker began his fighting life in so-called “traditional” martial arts. As a child, he trained in Goju-Ryu Karate (the style preferred by such notaries as Neil Grove, Gunnar Nelson, and Mr. Miyagi) after which he switched to Hapkido. It is probable that the quality of these schools is better in Australia than it is in the US. Nonetheless, Whittaker’s background probably consisted mostly of something resembling Olympic Taekwondo or Shotokan Karate. Point-fighting.
All martial arts share principles in common, but few styles could seem as unalike as wrestling and Hapkido. One is commonly regarded as both the most difficult sport and the most practical martial art, and its ancient association with athletic competition means that its practitioners are always learning how to actually use their skills in combat. The other is Taekwondo with wrist locks.
And yet, it is clear that Robert Whittaker was born to wrestle. In fact, he might be the most prodigious MMA wrestler since Georges St-Pierre, especially considering the fact that he lives in Australia, which hasn’t produced a standout freestyle wrestler since 1948. Like St-Pierre, Whittaker is not only good at wrestling, but passionate about it. Most MMA fighters learn to wrestle for MMA, in an MMA context. Whittaker wrestles in a singlet, on a mat, with shoes on. He wrestles for wrestling’s sake. He even qualified for the 2018 Commonwealth Games, and likely would have made a good account of himself, were the owners of the UFC just a little less authoritarian and invasive.
But we don’t need to see Whittaker in the Commonwealth Games to know that he really can wrestle. We don’t even need to watch the videos of him blasting through fellow Aussies in freestyle tournaments (good thing, too, because those clips seem to have disappeared from the internet). All we need to do is look at the 14 takedowns he denied Yoel Romero in their first fight, and recall that Romero is one of the best wrestlers ever to compete in MMA. When he feels like it, he looks like the best takedown artist ever—and Whittaker only gave him four, with just one of those leading to any significant time on the ground.
1. Whittaker (in blue) lunges in with a straight right hand, and Romero (in red) manages to duck under the blow.
2. Romero’s level change becomes a double leg, but Whittaker won’t make it easy. He sidesteps, taking his left leg out of Romero’s reach.
3. Romero adjusts with him, sprinting toward a rear waist cinch, but Whittaker drives his right elbow between himself and Romero, trying to turn into the Cuban.
4. Romero drops his right shoulder to keep Whittaker’s bothersome elbow out of the equation.
5. Then, a further level change. Romero hangs all of his weight from Whittaker’s hips...
6. ...finally managing to break him down to his hands and knees.
7. Except Whittaker’s counter-wrestling is equally relentless. As soon as Romero gets back to his feet, Whittaker does the same.
8. Given that extra bit of space, Whittaker immediately drops his butt to the floor and sits through, sagging his full bodyweight onto Romero’s arms.
9. Yoel’s grip is broken, but he still has the back. Whittaker looks to swim out of Romero’s tattered rear waist cinch...
10. ...but Romero simply stays on his toes, circles along with Whittaker, and regains the dominant position.
11. Still fighting the takedown, Whittaker pops back up to his hands and knees, pushing his hips past those of Romero...
12. ...and giving him the angle to reach for Romero’s crotch.
13. Whittaker attempts to “hit the switch,” but Romero quickly counters, mule-kicking his way out of the position and muscling Robert back to the ground.
14. But guess what.
15. Whittaker pops right back up to his hands and knees.
16. This time, he makes the smart decision to run toward the fence, which will make it much easier to stay upright.
This sequence is comprised of just ten seconds of wrestling. Had our image including every slightly significant moment of positioning, the example would probably take over 30 frames to illustrate, rather than my already cumbersome 16. What this should tell you is that Whittaker positively excels at creating and continuing scrambles.
There are many ways to play a wrestling game, but for strikers, the key to solid defensive wrestling is to never stop moving, and never accept an inferior position. Throughout much of this sequence, Whittaker was reactive, responding to Romero’s wrestling attack. Generally in fighting, the man leading the attack, the one holding the initiative, is taken to be the dominant fighter. Nonetheless, despite constantly being forced to defend himself from Romero’s superior positioning, Whittaker’s takedown defense is aggressive in its own right.
Whittaker responds to Romero’s takedown with footwork--then he challenges it with his own clinch wrestling. He responds to Romero’s mat return with a solid base, then challenges it with a creative scramble and some quick mat wrestling. He responds to position with position, threatens Romero whenever he finds a moment of stability, and never once accepts the prospect of being outwrestled.
But even as he must wrestle with Romero to prevent control, Whittaker has never needed to “outwrestle” the Cuban in scoring terms. Romero may be an athletic freak for the ages, but he ages. At 41, Romero is 14 years Whittaker’s senior, and his explosive style simply isn’t fit for sustained exertion. In other words, Yoel must manage his energy over the course of a fight in order to retain his end-you-at-any-time brand of potency.
If relentless wrestling is the key to Whittaker’s effective takedown defense, it also forces Romero to fight at a pace that he cannot maintain for long. This is defense as a tactical necessity, and a strategic weapon.
One of Whittaker’s deadliest weapons is his whipping right high kick. He has a way of letting the kick trail after his shoulder and hips, so it’s like feint and attack all rolled up into one vicious package. His right side pushes forward, the opponent ducks, sidesteps, or retreats to get away from the perceived cross, and then the round kick whips up over the shoulder, totally out of sight until the moment it connects. Perfect pressure fighting weapon, and plays off the jab much the way a right hand would. Use slo-mo of the Jacare high kick, because it shows the fake right hand perfectly.
Boxing is Whittaker’s calling card, and since his remarkable wins over Souza and Romero, no one has been able to discuss his style without mentioning his ever-improving wrestling chops. Still, the man comes from a kicking background, and to this day, his legs are likely his most dangerous limbs. The speed and creativity of Whittaker’s hands force his opponents to react defensively; the kicks are there to punish them when they make the wrong choice.
1. Whittaker has a rattled Jacare Souza cornered.
2. He leads with the Fedor special, reaching out to trap Souza’s lead hand. Jacare overreacts, and ends up committing his free hand to parrying Whittaker’s left.
3. As Whittaker’s right hand extends, Jacare can already tell he is going to eat it.
4. In fact, he ducks his head to avoid the brunt of the shot, unaware of Whittaker’s intent as he merely posts said right hand against the target.
5. With his eyes still on the floor, Jacare continues to move along the fence. Whittaker launches a Karate-esque high kick, first throwing the chambered leg forward...
6. ...before letting the lower leg whip around to the target. Jacare’s lateral movement carries his chin directly to a meeting with Whittaker’s shin, just as Whittaker intended.
Here, we see a move that could, in time, become Whittaker’s real trademark finisher. It has featured prominently in every one of his last three fights. Against both Derek Brunson and Jacare Souza, this weapon was the stamp with made Whittaker’s dominance official. Yoel Romero ate the same shot twice, just not quite cleanly enough to shatter his formidable chin. In all three fights, no one has actually seen this shot coming, a testament to Whittaker’s patience and intelligence in applying it.
The mechanics of the technique are pure Karate/Taekwondo. Whittaker draws a line through the target with his knee, first, chambering his heel behind his hamstring. When the leg extends, his foot follows like the tail-end of a whip, sacrificing some power for a great deal of precision and speed. However perfectly “TMA” the kick may be, though, the set-up is what makes it brilliant.
Whittaker nearly always initiates exchanges with his lead hand. Sometimes this comes in the form of a feint, like we’ve already seen, or a jab (or cracking hook), or, as in this example, a simple open-handed probe. The point of this gesture is that when you want to introduce your instep to another man’s brain, it helps to get him looking at something else first. Most MMA fighters—even among the best—cannot manage more than two rushed defensive moves in a row without leaving themselves open to something else. Above, Souza scrambles to defend Whittaker’s harmless parry, and barely has the presence of mind to get out of the way of the perceived follow-up—but, of course, not without taking his eyes off his opponent and leaning straight into the arc of Robert’s foot.
The subtlety with which Whittaker throws away the right hand while winding his leg into the kick is a thing of beauty, and his method of following through with his right shoulder only to drag the right leg along after it is also preferred by the likes of T.J. Dillashaw and Stephen Thompson. Looking at the big picture, however, Whittaker’s right kick is so reliable because it complements his boxing perfectly. Once he has established his hands as a threat (it doesn’t take long, usually), Whittaker knows that his adversaries will be loathe to give him the range for those strikes. As he pressures, they back off, always trying to circle away from those deadly straight punches. The sweeping arc described by Whittaker’s right high kick is the perfect tool to surprise those who give his hands the respect they deserve.
One last sequence, to let the sheer depth of Whittaker’s game sink in. Setting up kicks with punches is one thing, but setting up punches with kicks is a trick far fewer MMA fighters have mastered. Take a look at the deceptively simple combination Whittaker used to finish Brad Tavares in 2015.
1. Whittaker (in black) stands opposite Brad Tavares (in yellow), at long range.
2. He throws the right front kick, very nearly connecting on Tavares’ chin.
3. Instead, as Tavares pulls back to evade the blow, the kick serves to blind him. Whittaker’s foot hovers in front of Tavares’ face for an extended moment.
4. Then, the explosive follow-up, Whittaker brings the leg back--note how his right hand reaches out almost instinctively, mid-recovery, to judge the distance of his target.
5. As his kick comes back, Whittaker’s torso stays forward. So does his weight, now coiled onto his left leg.
6. Whittaker unleashes the stored energy in an instant, springing forward and knocking Tavares down with a perfectly placed left hook.
Here, we see the real creativity of the man they call Bobby Knuckles. Anderson Silva made the high front kick a must-have weapon for any aspiring middleweight GOAT when he sent Vitor Belfort crashing to the canvas with one in 2011, but I imagine even he would be impressed with this bit of transitional fighting.
Whittaker treats the front kick like a pawing jab. Sure, he would be happy to place the ball of his foot right on the point of Tavares’ chin, but the fact that Tavares gets his jaw out of range is really no problem for a fighter who thinks in combinations. Instead, the front kick becomes a set-up, Whittaker’s foot obstructing Tavares’ vision for a moment, and giving him a false sense of distance. If Whittaker is too far away to land a long, straight kick, it stands to reason that he cannot possibly connect with a left hook.
This is also where Whittaker’s outstanding athleticism comes into play. In the upcoming rematch with Romero, as in their first fight, it is the muscle-bound Romero who gets endless praise for his physical abilities. It pays to remember that, even as a welterweight, Whittaker has long been a densely built, extremely powerful fighter. In our second example, we saw him load his legs for a combination of punches by suddenly widening his stance, changing levels and loading his legs in the process. In this case, the front kick puts Whittaker’s weight onto his front leg, creating a veritable battery of kinetic energy for the leaping left hook he sends in after. Robert’s game is full of these dynamic bumps and jumps, small movements that load the legs and lend extra explosion to his attacks. It is all well and good to lay bare the thought behind Whittaker’s style, but let us also remember that he can move in ways that other athletes simply can’t manage, and do things that lesser fighters never will.
As someone who covers MMA professionally, I do not hesitate to call myself a fan of Robert Whittaker. His clean-cut demeanor might be too milquetoast for some, but I consider it the perfect complement and contrast to his fighting style. Soft-spoken with his fists as well as his tongue, Robert is unafraid to go to war, but too smart to do so without reason. At the end of the day, the success of his style has everything to do with balance. However specialized his intentions may seem, Whittaker is a truly well-rounded mixed martial artist, and he is only getting better.
Yoel Romero could be the most singularly dangerous man in the entire sport. If Robert Whittaker manages to beat him a second time, it will be difficult to imagine another middleweight who could unseat him.
For more on Whittaker-Romero 2 and the rest of the long-awaited UFC 225 card, check out this week’s episode of Heavy Hands, the one and only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.