When Australian Robert Whittaker won his international season of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) "The Smashes" late last year, the North American fans might not have been taking him seriously.
That all changed in his first fight after the show when he stepped into the cage and not only defeated TUF season 16 winner Colton Smith, but he knocked the American out via third round TKO in a wildly entertaining scrap.
Whittaker had indeed been taking his career seriously, entrusting his training to the good folks at Tristar Gym in Montreal alongside two of the best men in the world in his weight class, Georges St. Pierre and Rory MacDonald.
Everyone who's had a chance to work alongside "The Reaper" has been singing his praises, MacDonald included. The TUF Smashes winner will get a chance to prove the growing hype real tomorrow night (Aug. 28, 2013) when he steps into the Octagon opposite TUF season 11 winner Court McGee on the UFC Fight Night 27 main card in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Whittaker spoke to MMAmania.com about why he sought out Tristar Gym, where he's seen his biggest improvement and how he keeps himself ground as the hype around him grows in this exclusive interview.
Check it out:
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): There's a great tradition of Australians pranking tourists with tales of drop bears and things like that. Were any pranks played on you when you joined up with the guys at Tristar gym in Canada?
Robert Whittaker: (laughs) No, thankfully they've all been really respectful and nice to me ever since I shipped in.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Why Tristar, out of all the places to train? What led to you going there?
Robert Whittaker: They had the best group of welterweights in the world. They're home to the current UFC champion plus one of the top contenders in the division and it's a championship atmosphere. I happened to have a sponsor with a contact in Tristar and they recommend I check it out. I couldn't be happier that I made the decision.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): You've brought up that wanting to experience what makes Tristar fighters champions. Have you pinpointed it yet?
Robert Whittaker: What I've discovered from my work with them Is it's not about training harder. I was already doing that. What they do is they train smarter, they take it to a different level in terms of making sure they're improving themselves physically and technically without destroying themselves in the process.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Can you elaborate?
Robert Whittaker: Yeah, it's about listening to your body, knowing when you've had enough for one day and realizing that going into the gym for that one extra session is going to do more harm than good. That's a huge thing I think a lot of people can learn from with the rate people get injured training too hard and too long.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Something evident in your last fight was the application of strategy from Firas Zihabi and his gameplanning, which merged with your natural talent to dominate Colton Smith. What can you say about his ability to break down an opponent?
Robert Whittaker: Those guys are geniuses. All the coaches at Tristar. They can see things in fights that no one else sees and they can break down strategies and weaknesses as good as anyone. They've really helped take my game to the next level because that's not something I was used to doing before.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Where do you think you've grown the most since you started training there?
Robert Whittaker: My wrestling is 10 times better now. All the work I put in with the grappling instructors over there as well as training alongside elite guys like GSP and Rory day in and day out has really taken me to a whole new level. Hands down, it's my wrestling.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Fighters like Kyle Noke, Rory MacDonald and even upcoming opponent Court McGee have all been praising you. How do you keep things like that from going to your head and thinking, "Yeah, I really am pretty awesome"?
Robert Whittaker: (laughs) I make sure not to let that get to my head. What helps is the fact that I'm my own biggest critic. I look at all the things I'm doing right, but focus even more on the little things I'm doing wrong, even during my best performances. I want to become the best fighter I can possibly be and you can't ever do that by being content with yourself or what you've accomplished thus far.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): I'm sure it's nice that everyone has such good things to say about you though, right?
Robert Whittaker: Yes, it's great to hear all the nice things they say to me, but it also means that I have to work that much harder to live up to the high expectations.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Going back to your last fight strategy, you had the left hand low to prevent takedowns. Court McGee isn't nearly as explosive or wrestling dependent as Smith was, so is it a relief to have your left hand up this time around?
Robert Whittaker: Oh yeah, that was definitely a bit scary the last time around, especially when he clipped me with the overhand right, but I have complete 100 percent trust in my coaches and it paid off in the end. That being said, it'll be nice to go back to a traditional stance and approach to this fight. I'm a bit looser than most when I'm standing up so I naturally keep my hands a little lower than most fighters. Don't worry, I've got a couple new wrinkles I plan on displaying this time around.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): This is your second straight TUF winner as an opponent, and fellow welterweight TUF winner Kelvin Gastelum is on the card as well. If you beat McGee and Gastelum, all you'll have left to do is convince James Wilks and Matt Serra to come out of retirement and you'll go five for five.
Robert Whittaker: (laughs) That's pretty funny. It's not like I went out of my way to call out all the TUF winners at welterweight, that's just how it ended up working out with the matchmakers. If that's how it plays out I don't mind, but I'll just fight whoever they put in front of me.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): What did beating almost a pure wrestler like Colton Smith do for your confidence against top grapplers in the division, especially considering welterweight might have some of the best overall wrestlers in the UFC?
Robert Whittaker: It really made it go through the roof. Colton was able to take someone like Mike Ricci down at will and he dominated his season of TUF with his wrestling but I was able to use proper spacing, movement and stance to keep him off me. I have a long way to go yet, though.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): What would a victory over Court McGee on Wednesday night mean for you?
Robert Whittaker: It would mean I'm one step closer to my goal. I just want to keep setting the bar higher and keep fighting for it. He's a tough match-up, is very well-rounded and I'm expecting a very difficult fight.
Robert would like to thank his sponsors Training Mask, Fund A Fighter, Body Science, Tapout, Booster Fight Gear and MMA Apparel, as well as his family and all of his training partners and coaches at PMA and Tristar. You can follow him on Twitter @RJWhittaker1990.