INTERVIEW: Robert Whittaker – The Fighter, Family Man and Gamer

He is one of the biggest names in MMA, but Rob “The Reaper” Whittaker; Australia’s first UFC champion has always been fighting. Born in New Zealand and raised in Sydney housing commission, Whittaker took to the professional fighting scene in 2008. It was a strange and storied entrance that saw him make his UFC debut in 2012, following a win in the UFC-produced reality TV show The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes.

With an illustrious career which includes 25 wins, 10 knockouts, 5 submissions, an 8 fight win streak and a UFC middleweight title, Whittaker has gone to war with some of the toughest names in the fight game. However, a disappointing title loss to Israel Adesanya saw the Aussie champ rocked and we now find Robert Whittaker embarking on a new journey to reclaim his throne atop the UFC’s loftiest heights.

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UFC whittaker vs till

Starting first by overcoming the technical striking prowess of Darren Till to secure a unanimous decision victory, Whittaker is aiming to make it two straight wins when he sets foot in the octagon this weekend. The Fight Island battle in Abu Dhabi against Jared Cannonier is tipped to be one his toughest opponents to date.

His devastating striking skills and killer instinct is what makes him exceptional. However, in a profession full of big egos, bloated bravado and relentless self-promotion, Whittaker’s refreshingly down-to-earth and cheeky nature is what’s garnered the adoration of UFC fans worldwide.

We were lucky enough to sit down with Whittaker amid his preparation for the upcoming fight to discuss life in and out of the octagon. And, we can confirm that Whittaker the fighter, the family man and the avid gamer is indeed a top bloke.

Robert whittaker interview 2

In the UFC, before your time there weren’t many Aussie fighters. Who were the fighters that you looked up to?

I certainly, I think everybody looked up to Anderson and all those flashy guys. All those guys that just stood up there for so long. But honestly…it would have to be GSP. He’s a living legend. He’s a perfect role model for the sport and for being an athlete and a martial artist, but also just as being a man, someone who isn’t just a fighter.

You’ve reached the pinnacle of professional fighting. Can you just talk quickly through what that emotion was like putting on the world title belt for the first time?

It was relief, because decisions are always like that. I knew I had done enough, I was comfortable with the counting and the scoring, but you never know; that’s with those judges. You just never know. The first feeling was relief and following it was just, you couldn’t believe it. I had to keep like reminding myself that it happened.

It’s kind of like that after every fight though. After every fight, I’m like what, oh, did I just fight? What just happened? Because you spend all this time building up to an event, to a fight, to a moment, and then it happens. All in the space of a few hours, it happens and it’s done and everything you’ve had your sights set on and been focusing on for the months leading up to it, it’s done. It’s over. It’s a strange feeling.

You had a tough, tough fight against Izzy. You came back, got the win against Darren Till and you’re obviously hungry to regain that belt. Have you got a roadmap planned out in order to do that? Or are you just taking it one fight at a time?

The latter for sure. It’s just one fight at a time sort of thing. I’m enjoying myself with that sort of plan. Just taking every fighter as they come, enjoying the process, enjoying the journey because with fighting you never know what’s going to happen. You can have everything in your toolbelt and you just rock up and it’s just not your night. And that’s just how the cookie crumbles sometimes.

But in just appreciating the present and the journey to it and every single day in the lead up to the fight and the fight is the end result. I find that I’m just having a lot more fun with the entire process. I’m enjoying the start to the camps all the way through to fight week. It’s all just a journey with its different ups and downs and I’m really enjoying it.

You mentioned fun earlier. To the average punter who doesn’t see getting punched, kicked in the face, kneed and taken down as fun, can you explain how you find that exciting?

Let me tell you right now, getting punched and kneed and kicked in the face isn’t the fun part. It’s when you do it to them that’s the fun part. But also that’s what separates us. I like that thrill, that adrenaline, someone sitting opposite me, that forced confrontation, that conflict. Everything’s on the line. It just really, really tickles something primal.

You’ve got your upcoming bout against Jared Cannonier. He’s one scary opponent, but you’ve faced a lot of scary people like a Romero and Jacare. Every fighter has the challenges, so how do you look at taking this next one on?

Much like all the others, I just have to respect his strengths, I have to plan for them. I’m fortunate enough to have a great team behind me. We’ve sussed out his strengths, we’ve worked out some holes to exploit and I’ll go into the fight with that knowledge. I’ll go into the fight with the knowledge that I’ve spent all these months and weeks leading up to it in preparation, that I’m completely prepared that I’m happy with where I’m at, and then I’ll go in there and whatever happens on night happens on the night.

You’re back at a Fight Island for the second time. Can you talk us through what that experience was like compared to a regular fight night?

It was different for sure. I really, really enjoyed it. The whole process was cool. The flight over there, there are no lines, there are no queues, the airport’s empty. And then the flight over there, the plane is dead. There’s nothing in there. And then when you land, you get VIP treatment to your testing hub where you start getting COVID tests.

Then you get put in lockdown. It’s so good, whilst in lockdown, I spent the entire time playing video games. I’ve never played so many video games. It’s ridiculous. You can’t do anything because you’re not allowed to leave the room.

Fight week dieting sucks, but that never changes.

All the media is online…or you’ll go to a conference room with screens set up, it’s just cool. There’s no one there. It’s quiet, there are no other hotel guests. There are no fans.

And then the day of the fight is the same thing. There’s a little bit more hustle going around, you’re taken to the venue, there’s just the working staff there. There’s no fans or anything. It’s your own little private area. Then when you go out there, it’s quiet, you’ve got your song playing, but it’s quiet and you can hear their corner. You can hear your corner. It’s, it’s a really surreal experience, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have done that before my last fight, which was in the ultimate fighter house, but it’s cool. I really enjoy the whole thing and I vouched to keep it alive forever.

So you prefer fight night without the crowds? Do you find you’re able to focus more or do you miss the energy of the cheering crowd?

It’s hard to say. There’s a lot less hype. There’s a lot less superficial buildup in a way. And being less of that, I feel less pressure. I feel much more at ease, more and more comfortable. Not that I don’t perform with a crowd, I’ve done that a numerous amount of times, but it’s just a different feeling.

I don’t think I’d want it forever because I do enjoy travelling the world for the sport because that’s one of the biggest perks of this career. I do like my friends and family and fans coming to the event because they are part of it, we are gladiators in a way.

Are there any experiences that you have as a fighter that the majority of fans might not know about?

When I first went to the UFC and I went to the US, things are very similar but they’re a little different. The UFC accommodates us with a sauna or a spa, to cut your weight in the hotel. But I like avoiding those so that you don’t run into your opponents or anybody else. So I went out looking for a spa or sauna, I was with my wife and I was looking for one where she could come in and help me cut weight as well.

We ended up finding this place. It was such a dodgy area. The Spa had clay huts. There was just heaps of these tiny little clay huts spread out on the floor and they weren’t even hot. You had to crawl in this hole and lay down and there were other people in these little huts, and it honestly it took like 10 hours to cut the weight. It was a terrible weight cut, absolutely terrible.

You mentioned that you were gaming quite a bit during your quarantine. In fight camps, you’ve got so much to focus on. Has that increased the time that you spend gaming or do you game less?

It’s a balancing act, isn’t it? Because I’m leaving soon and I want to spend time with my family and my kids and I want to do all that. But as my calories decrease and as the training picks up, my energy levels are just gone. And I play a lot of Sandboxy RPG games. Bethesda is a good example of these sort of games like Skyrim or Fallout. I play a lot of fallout and those sorts of games, just because like you create a character and you go off on a wonderful journey, doing whatever you want almost. You just go exploring and adventuring.

As the weeks get in closer to the fight, the pressure builds because I can block it out for so long, but then you’ve got a fighter around the corner and there’s so much on the line. Everything is on the line. And funny enough, there is a lot of pressure that comes with that and stress.

And so, to escape the realities or in the harshness of the world that’s what I do. I jump into my game where this guy has no stresses. He gets stronger without me feeling like exhausted and lethargic and tired. It just a perfect way for me to get into a really, really relaxed. I’ve been doing this since I was a kid and this is like one of my biggest mechanisms to just unwind, escape and always got to come back to it. I’ve got to come back to training but that break, that time apart just makes a world of difference.

Do you do it to unwind and relax or does your athlete’s competitive nature come into your gaming as well?

Not really because like I mentioned before the games that I’ve been playing Fallout and Elder Scrolls online and those sort of things, or sometimes in Elder Scrolls online where I jump on into the PVPC and start smacking around people, but more than likely those things are just about going out on an adventure, taking yourself away or for me anyway, they’re taking myself away from what I’m doing here. So I’m not trying to switch on, not trying to fire the pistons up here real fast.

I really just delve into that character and I am that character for a bit, I go get a house and then I decorate the house, and then I go out on a mission, and then I come back and it’s things like that, they’re just cruisy. I enjoy them.

I heard you recently played Elder Scrolls with the VP of Bethesda SoftWorks.

That was good fun. It was good fun. He had some proper swag apparel on. We were of like minds actually. We just wanted to run at things and hit them. I feel my personality bleeds into my characters a lot of the time. So, so generally they’re always some sort of warrior or barbarian and they just run at things. It was a great time.

I’ve seen some photos, you’ve got a pretty epic, gaming setup. Can you talk us through it?

I think if you want a game, you need a desktop. You need to invest in a desktop. It’s important. When I travel, obviously during this period, I have to spend a lot of time in isolation. I was very fortunate enough to get an Omen laptop from HP that saved my life. It runs everything so cleanly and I could play it on the plane. I could play it in lockdown. It got me through it. I actually enjoyed lockdown. I was made for isolation. They got me through it. It was, it’s crazy. It’s crazy.

And what’s your favourite gaming snack?

When I’m not dieting, or not in fight season, I’m just a glutton. I’ll have anything. Anything I can get my hands on. I’ve got a bit of a sweet tooth, so probably some chocolates.

I like doughnuts a lot. Doughnuts are great. Doughnuts, I feel like doughnuts next level heavy on you. You can have chocolate bars and favourites…but I once you start delving into like doughnuts and pastries and stuff, you’re going that one step further. You’re just, you’re doubling down on it, and it’s almost too much. But I really do like doughnuts, like when I’m playing games.

And what about your post-fight meal? What are you usually craving?

I have to eat light things because your stomach has got to expand again. So I have like things like rice and salmon for the first few meals just to get my body used to it. Then I’ll just go wholesome spaghetti bolognese. It’s what my wife makes all the time for me at home. It hits me with a bit of nostalgia, a bit of a home feeling. It’s just a wholesome meal for me…a meal that I’ve had my entire life. It’s probably my favourite meal period.

I also heard a rumour that you dressed up in Cosplay for PAX?

Yeah. Me and my mate Pete we were at PAX and they had a little booth where we could put on some armour and swing around some of those weapons and it was a bit of fun. I always like seeing that sort of stuff and I think it’s so cool, the people that put in the time to make the cosplays and things for the different games and I’m interested because for one, I think it’s cool and two generally it’s on the games that playing like Elder Scrolls or Skyrim.

I also respect the courage they have to dress up and walk around the entire show grounds just as that person; proud. It’s crazy. I put it on in the booth and I was happy to do it, but I don’t think I could walk around the showgrounds in it.

I’m guessing there’s no Rob Whittaker, Cosplay Onlyfans account popping up anytime soon?

Maybe there is. I’ll keep on your toes for that one. Keep your eyes peeled.

You’re also a father. I believe you have a new one coming on the way?

Yep. Three and one on way. What have I done?

So how do you find balancing everything? A unique career as an athlete and enjoying some of your passions like gaming, I see the guitars in the background there. I’m guessing they’re yours?

Yeah, I’m terrible with them. I picked up the hobby this year.

Honestly, I think that the secret of life, you heard it here first, is balance. That balancing act, that juggling act of giving everything the time it deserves is the trick. I think people who have it down-pat are very successful or very happy.

Like I mentioned earlier, I want to play my games because I’m tired, I’m exhausted. The stresses have built and I’m so tired from everything. My calories have dropped. The training is so hard. This fight is around the corner and I’m about to leave. Everything’s on me, plus all the other things like the gym and everything is still going on, life is still going on and I just want to sit down and brain out on a game and just unwind. But I’ve got kids and they want my attention and I want to give them attention, but I’m so tired and just juggling that, and then I’ll have a wife that needs attention too. Just trying to make it all work. And my friends, unfortunately, get seat number five. It’s just a juggling act. I have to give every one of those aspects sometime, otherwise, I start to fray at the edges.

I guess just trying to find that sweet spot, that sweet balance is what I’m striving for. It’s just constant, you have to be diligent. You have to be on it.

I imagine, your profession is very different to most of the parents at your kid’s daycare. What do your children think of your job? Are you the cool dad?

I’m only the cool dad when I give them chocolates or take them to buy some toys. My kids have no idea what I do, they’re still very young. My oldest is five and honestly, he doesn’t care. He likes his video games. I’m the coolest dad when I start playing video games with him or when I help him on a certain level that he can’t get past. That’s the beauty, with kids, they’re just appreciative of you and that is amazing.

What’s next for Robert Whittaker?

Because all the training is winding down on, I’m about to go and my kids are at daycare, I’m about to go on some Epic raids on ESO with some of the Guilds mates got a lot of iso ahead of me, so I’ve got to really try to double down on my grinding, and getting some of that sweet loot drops.

Otherwise, focusing for that fight against Cannonier. He’s a tough guy and I’m going to have a hard fight on my hands. So I look forward to going to that.

But after that, like life goes on, I’m going to get to work in the next three weeks. I’ll go overseas. I’ll get to work. I’ll come back and then it’s done. And everybody’s forgotten about it. And my workday’s done.

Then I’ll be bingeing out on pizzas and food and doughnuts and I’m just going to be enjoying myself into Christmas. I can enjoy that with my family. That’s one of the reasons why I doubled down on the fight so quickly because I wanted to have Christmas off. I wanted to enjoy that time with my family, not worry about diet. So really looking forward to that. And I’ve got the new bub on the way, which will be chaos.

The Aussie star is back in action this weekend in a monster showdown at UFC Fight Island. Robert Whittaker takes on Jared Cannonier at UFC 254 this Sunday 25 October.

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