For Robert Whittaker, the reigning UFC middleweight champion, the road to UFC 225 has been a long one, fraught with moments of despair and delight. In February, he was supposed to defend his title at UFC 221. The event would have been his first title defence made all the sweeter by the fact it was in in his home country.
But injuries would turn that dream to ash, and rising from the smouldering embers were the number one contender Yoel Romero and former champion, Luke Rockhold, battling it out for the interim middleweight title.
That too would go up in flames when Romero missed weight, leaving only Rockhold eligible to reclaim a title held held briefly before losing to Michael Bisping. He failed in his endeavour and Romero went on to claim victory with a vicious left hook, showing why he was undoubtedly the number one contender – albeit with an asterix next to the win.
For Whittaker watching from home, the event was bittersweet. “It was difficult because I couldn’t be there but fortunately for me that week my little daughter was born…it was a complete blessing in disguise. You know it really makes you think sometimes and my family will always come first,” says Whittaker.
The missed weight was not something that went unnoticed by Whittaker, who felt it ‘tarnished’ the victory but it did not affect his perception of Romero – the athlete.
“Half of this for is making the weight – I think it’s unprofessional [not to]. But it does not affect my relationship with him, he’s a good bloke and a great athlete,” comments Whittaker.
And if fighting the man that he won the title against was not already a case of déjà vu, the news that Romero this morning again missed weight certainly seems ironic, if not tragic, as Australian fans and Whittaker are once again left waiting to see the Aussie defend his title.
Despite the set-back, the focus for Whittaker has always been on his own ‘camp’, which he says has left him in the best shape of his life.
“We don’t really have camps – we train hard all year round,” says Whittaker. “It’s just about sharpening the tools. It’s the best I’ve felt before fight and I’m looking forward to seeing the results of all my hard work. I’m just looking forward to getting back in there.”
While the bout has been demoted to a non-title fight, there’s no doubting that Romero still poses a significant threat to Whittaker, a threat the champion is not willing to take lightly, fully expecting his opponent to bring his ‘crazy’ breed of MMA skills to the fore. But having neutralised Romero so well previously, Whittaker plans on doing the same this Sunday.
“I’m not going to change anything…I’m not going to do anything different as I had some good results from the last fight,” Whittaker says. “I have a few new insights about him in terms of the way he moves but I think that I’m going to stick to what I did last time.”
On the night, Whittaker will be looking forward to watching his fellow Aussies do battle, as Tai Tuivasa takes on Andre Arlovski in the heavyweight division and Meagan Anderson makes her UFC debut against Holly Holm in the Featherweight division.
Despite the set-back with his fight, Whittaker is looking forward to stepping into the octagon as the middleweight champion, once more to representing Australia on the world stage.
“It means everything to me to be able to represent the country where you live and you’re proud to live. I think it’s one of the great is our honours an athlete can have.”
Check out all of the action on Sunday from 10am on Fox Sports and Main Event.