Even before UFC 243, and Robert Whittaker’s disastrous loss to Israel Adesanya, doubts were creeping into the discourse. After all, ‘Bobby Knuckles’ had just gone 10 of the most brutal, unforgiving rounds imaginable against the earth-elemental-made-man that is Yoel Romero.
In his first fight with the ‘Soldier of God’ he blew out his knee, in the second, he busted his hand. Between the two bouts he suffered a staph infection in his stomach as well as an intestinal hernia, leaving him in “serious condition” and ultimately requiring surgery to repair. None of this even mentions the intense amount of head trauma he suffered on the way. When Izzy sparked him in the second round of their 2019 title bout, for many it seemed a sign that a decade’s worth of prize fighting had truly taken its toll. Robert Whittaker’s days as an elite talent may just have been behind him.
Those kinds of concerns, after all, aren’t so poorly founded—fighting rarely affords teen prospects the incredibly long & glorious career so often advertised. However, MMA as always, tends to be a bit more narratively complex than that.
Still only 29, it’s clear that as long as Whittaker’s body isn’t actively self-destructing, he’s still one of an increasingly small number of clear middleweight elites. A division that once boasted Jacare, Weidman, Romero, Whittaker, and Rockhold all in their primes (and hilariously lorded over by Michael Bisping) suddenly sits with one clear champion and one clear contender. There’s even word on the street that the undying Romero may finally be headed to light heavyweight. And although other potential contenders have tried to rise and take their place, few it seems are actually ready for the jump.
Paulo Costa made a hell of a run, rattling off five straight victories on his way to contention—only to get so humiliated by Adesanya that Whittaker’s loss to the champ looks like a carefully considered masterclass by comparison. Edmen Shahbazyan ran his hype train straight into the avalanche that is Derek Brunson, who nonetheless remains Derek Brunson—even for that victory. Even Kelvin Gastelum, fresh off of a nail-biting scrap with the now-champion, drifted through a listless loss to Darren Till before getting unexpectedly pantsed by Jack Hermansson.
All that noise has mostly left Till and Cannonier as the new blood fans might have hoped to see challenge for UFC gold. And in back-to-back performances, Robert Whittaker has clearly outclassed them both. He took his lumps getting there – as he almost always has – but showed his consistency and class as a creative, powerful striker. One who can perform with the kind of output and consistency that his competitors simply cannot match. And while he’s slugging it out in the trenches (and battling gruesome maladies on the sidelines) he’s also still one of the UFC’s toughest fighters to put away.
Darren Till clobbered him with a remarkable counter elbow, possibly the greatest single strike he’s ever thrown, and Whittaker merely scraped himself up off the canvas and battled his way back to victory. Jared Cannonier leaned hard on his power kicking game in the first two rounds of his fight with Whittaker on Saturday night. But through it all, Whittaker let his jab do the talking—countering kicks with punches, and setting up opportunities to land the kind of power strikes that would take Cannonier reeling away from his game.
At some point, being a fighter that’s always been willing to eat the shots to create his own will absolutely catch up with Whittaker, potentially in less decisive, but more meaningful ways than a series of well placed counter-shots from the ‘Last Stylebender’. The damage will become such that every exchange will appear to drive him to the edge of breaking, every round will contain the possibility that he’ll end up laid out cold. That’s the way this sport goes for practically everyone who decides to stick with it for long enough.
But, until that day comes, Robert Whittaker is still only 29; sitting square in the prime of his career. And, at this exact moment, triumphant as the only meaningful contender for Israel Adesanya’s belt. Whether or not he can win that title once again remains to be seen, but for the foreseeable future it doesn’t look like the chance to compete for it will be sitting far out of reach.