Robert Whittaker is in a strange, strange position.
At 30 years of age, the Australian striker is definitely in his athletic prime. His mature and composed demeanor make it easy to forget that “Bobby Knuckles” won the title as a fresh-faced 27-year-old. He’s almost certainly improved since the night he out-dueled Yoel Romero to become UFC champion.
The battle as well as the subsequent rematch seemed to confirm Whittaker as a likely long-time and dominant champion. After all, he took the long road to the 185-pound title. It wasn’t quite Max Holloway’s rise to Featherweight gold, but Whittaker took out a handful of the top-ranked contenders on his way up, handily defeating men like Derek Brunson, Ronaldo Souza and Uriah Hall, among others.
Two of those three are still in the Top 10 today.
Unfortunately for fans of Australia’s “Reaper,” Israel Adesanya exists. Not only does he exist, but he ran through the Middleweight ranks at a nearly unparalleled rate to earn his title shot. Even worse still, Adesanya is perhaps the worst possible style match up for Whittaker: an absolute expert at Whittaker’s bread-and-butter.
What is a fantastic mixed martial arts (MMA) striker supposed to do against a true world-class kickboxer? Adesanya out-classed the Aussie in their first match up, knocking him out twice. Even if Whittaker now mixes in the occasional takedown attempt, it’s hard to see what goes differently in a rematch. Whittaker is the younger man, improving and growing into his prime, yet it’s still a hard sell.
That’s a crappy spot to be in, yet Whittaker is going about the problem in the best possible manner. Rather than focus on the injustice of this nightmare match up materializing from the ether then refusing to leave or grant him a rematch, Whittaker has adopted a position as Middleweight’s second king.
In a non-Adesanya world, Jared Cannonier and Darren Till would have been title defenses. In fact, those are the men “Stylebender” himself has repeatedly expressed interest in fighting for the belt.
Instead, Whittaker stepped into the cage and handled business himself.
Whittaker holds wins over three of the current Top 5-ranked contenders. If Romero hadn’t salsa’d off to Bellator, that would likely be No. 4. Paulo Costa is the only exception, and Whittaker was supposed to fight him this weekend. In essence, Whittaker is continuing his champion’s work of clearing out the division ... he’s just no longer the 185-pound king.
Unfortunately, Adesanya is a special fighter who operates by special rules. Whittaker is more than deserving of a rematch, even if this analyst doesn’t love his odds. Yet, Adesanya is allowed to jump up and challenge for Light Heavyweight gold while Whittaker fights his challengers. Adesanya is also apparently allowed to pass over Whittaker indefinitely, because he’s ... not interested?
There’s no end in sight for Whittaker. He has to keep winning against elite-caliber opposition — including this weekend (Sat., April 17, 2021) against Kelvin Gastelum at UFC Vegas 24 — until a rematch is undeniable. And who knows how long that will take? Every fight is dangerous, a real risk of resetting back to step one.
That’s the reality of Whittaker’s situation. I just hope that fans can appreciate an impressive talent and genuine pound-for-pound great, even if he no longer holds the title or has a clear path back to it.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Vegas 24 fight card this weekend, starting with the ESPN+/ESPN2 “Prelims” matches, which are scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. ET, then the remaining main card balance on ESPN/ESPN+ at 10 p.m. ET.
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