Whittaker’s Relentless March Back To Gold

Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Middleweight kingpin, Robert Whittaker, will go to war opposite rising Russian star, Ikram Aliskerov, this Saturday (June 22, 20…

UFC 298: Whittaker v Costa
Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Middleweight kingpin, Robert Whittaker, will go to war opposite rising Russian star, Ikram Aliskerov, this Saturday (June 22, 2024) at UFC Saudi Arabia inside Kingdom Arena in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

At 33 years of age, Whittaker is not an old Middleweight by any means. At the same time, we cannot pretend there isn’t tread on these tires. Whittaker has a been a professional fighter for 15 years, a member of UFC’s roster since 2012. He won his title in 2017 — seven years ago!!! — and lost it two years later to a rising Israel Adesanya.

Since 2019, Whittaker’s focus has been on regaining 185-pound gold. In the process, he dispatched most of the same contenders who challenged for the “Stylebender” throne, routinely dominating world-class opposition. He built his legacy up further in the process, but a shocking loss to Dricus Du Plessis last year (watch it) obscured the path forward.

Whittaker responded by putting his nose back to the grind stone and taking on more dangerous names. Let’s take a closer look at the former champion’s skill set:

UFC 298: Whittaker v Costa


Whittaker’s karate background combines with quality boxing to produce one of the best Middleweight strikers of the past years. He has a unique style of explosive movement that certainly carries some risk but has also allowed him to accomplish so much.

Generally, Whittaker remains light on his feet and bounces like a Karateka. Whittaker commonly uses his speed to blitz forward, looking to catch opponents off-guard. However, once he bursts into the pocket, Whittaker’s combinations are that of a skilled boxer, and he’s willing to extend combinations and continue to fight from that range.

Whittaker most often does damage during and immediately after his spring forward. Often, he leads with the jab, a mark of his boxing experience. Whittaker’s jab and subsequent jab feints make him a very difficult man to deal with at range. Notably, Whittaker did serious damage in the rematch with Adesanya by finishing combinations with his jab, sticking Adesanya before “Stylebender” could return fire with his leaning counters.

The opening two rounds of Whittaker’s second bout with Romero were a great display of what the Aussie likes to do on offense. Keeping his hands low despite the dangerous man in front of him, Whittaker kept his feet bouncing, ready to attack or react. When attacking, most of Whittaker’s offense came from his lead side. He sprung forward with stabbing jabs, lunging hooks, stomping side kicks, and quick step up left kicks.

A common set up for Whittaker’s hook is to roll following his cross. After Whittaker commits to his cross by moving forward with sudden speed, he’ll immediately roll to his own right avoid the counter hook. As he lowers his level into the roll, Whittaker can simultaneously weave with the hard left hand. The roll is built-in defense, and it can produce a huge connection if Whittaker goes underneath a check hook and times his own left.

UFC Fight Night: Tavares v Whittaker

To score a knockout victory of Brad Tavares a few years back, Whittaker showed another crafty left hook set up. After flicking out a front kick to the mid-section, Whittaker returned into his stance balled up and ready to explode. He immediately sprung into the left hook, which caught his opponent still standing tall after the kick (GIF).

Whittaker kicks behind his jab well, often targeting his opponent’s lead leg. However, a signature technique of “Bobby Knuckles” is the right high kick, often hidden by the cross (GIF). Whittaker does an excellent job of varying the timing on his right kick, sometimes mixing in a bit of a pause that allows him to take a better angle before firing. It’s a small detail, but one that gives him a better chance at landing the strike.

In a more recent bout opposite Jared Cannonier, Whittaker’s right kick proved the deciding factor. Early in the bout, he managed to break his opponent’s arm during a blocked kick, a testament to both the power in Whittaker’s kick and his ability to kick from the correct distance. Later in the fight, that same right high kick clipped the temple of Cannonier, nearly finishing him.

This trend continued opposite Kelvin Gastelum, whom Whittaker kicked in the head several times. The really interesting new wrinkle in Whittaker’s offense in that match was his habit of angling off with the left hook. After sticking a front kick or side kick to the thigh, Whittaker would angle off and duck his head while also throwing a left hook, looking to catch Gastelum as he tried to counter.

Whittaker’s most recent bout came against Paulo Costa, who was surprisingly committed to jabbing with the Australian. In that fight, Whittaker showed off his own ability to counter that jab. He repeatedly timed Costa’s jab with his own overhand, and then he began to build off that counter by following up with the left hook or a punctuating jab. As Costa’s hands began to slow a bit, Whittaker’s counters landed with greater consistency.

Since Whittaker is often striking from outside the usual boxing range, his opponents are forced to close that extra bit of distance as well. Most fighters do not set up their blitz as well as Whittaker, and it’s generally slower, too. That’s where Whittaker’s check hook comes into play.

When facing wrestlers especially, Whittaker will carry his lead hand low to help secure an underhook. It’s a bit defensively riskier, but it also allows the counter hook to land from a blind angle (GIF). Perhaps the best example of Whittaker’s counter left hook came opposite Derek Brunson, who insisted on pressuring Whittaker face-first. He was able to get away with it for a couple minutes, but eventually Whittaker was able to gain a solid stance while moving backward and crack him (GIF).

Defensively, Whittaker’s burst forwards can be timed. It’s been an issue in various fights — Adesanya 1, Darren Till, Du Plessis — but it’s also an integral aspect of his offense. Whittaker disguises his lunges forward with good feints and lateral movement, but he’s providing a ton of force if his forward advance is timed.

UFC 271: Adesanya v Whittaker 2


In 2017, Whittaker won a gold medal at the Australian National Wrestling Championships and qualified himself to represent Australia in international competition, which is quite an accomplishment. There’s a reason Whittaker rose to prominence by laying waste to a series of fighters who rely on the takedown: the man can wrestle.

Whittaker’s offensive takedowns are undoubtedly his biggest improvement since losing the title. Previously, Whittaker had used the left hook to raise his foe’s guard to set up the double-leg, usually along the fence. Since losing the strap, however, Whittaker has instead made use of the Frankie Edgar-style running single leg pick up. Since he’s already tremendously quick and very active with his lead hand, it’s proven a very smart adjustment. Blitzing forward, Whittaker still blinds his foe with a high left hand, but his right hand reaches out and grabs the leg.

From that position, Whittaker looks to run his foe to the mat. Often, they instead turn their backs, allowing Whittaker to continue chaining takedowns and mat returns.

Whittaker also pretty soundly out-wrestled Gastelum, which is no easy accomplishment, and he showed off different aspects of his wrestling game. Early in the fight, Whittaker slipped inside a punch to secure double underhooks, won the knee position battle, and tipped Gastelum to the mat (GIF). Later, Whittaker changed levels and ran the pipe from a high-crotch position as if he were in a wrestling match (GIF).

Whittaker’s defensive wrestling is historically excellent. He has both great hips and a great whizzer. His wrestling defense was most on display in the first fight against Yoel Romero, like in this clip (GIF). Despite a solid entry from the Olympic silver medalist, Whittaker flings his hips backward and punishes the attempt with a knee to the midsection. Romero continues to drive into a hybrid body lock/double leg, but Whittaker backs into the fence and cranks on the overhook to break Romero’s posture. The result is Romero losing control of the Aussie, allowing him to escape back to the center.

Whittaker’s range control makes it difficult for fighters to set up shots on him, which goes a long way in denying the takedown. However, Romero did show that Whittaker’s leaps forward can be timed for a takedown, but even then Whittaker is nearly impossible to hold down as a result to his refusal to accept bottom position. Whittaker kicks at the hips and frames away, potentially giving up his back and trusting his excellent hand-fighting to keep him safe in that situation.

The Du Plessis loss was the first time Whittaker was taken down and beaten up in years. In classic Du Plessis fashion: it was strange! The South African flipped Whittaker over with the type of schoolyard headlock throw I’m always complaining about in women’s mixed martial arts (MMA). Obviously, the Aussie was surprised, but what was more surprising was that Du Plessis’ strength and grappling skill were enough to pin Whittaker to the floor with an overhook/d’arce/elbow triple threat.

A sign of decline or a sneaky one-off from the current champion? It’s too early to tell.

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Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Though he holds a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, Whittaker isn’t often showing off his submission skills. In his recent wins that relied more upon takedowns, Whittaker did pass well, but he focused more on control and damage than strangles.

Still, his grappling defense has been tested in several fights. For example, Romero will destroy people with elbows if given the opportunity. Whittaker did not allow him to do so, immediately wrapping up double under hooks to control his opponent. From there, Whittaker grapevine’d the legs — again, preventing posture and significant strikes — before transitioning into a butterfly guard. He was unable to fully sweep, but elevating Romero did allow Whittaker to scramble to his knees and fight hands.

Whittaker also showed very intelligent defense opposite “Jacare,” who at one point nearly took Whittaker’s back standing. To defend, Whittaker remained calm and isolated a two-on-one grip on Souza’s arm, ducking underneath it. Without the ability to use that arm to latch onto Whittaker, Souza was unable to advance further toward the back mount, making a very dangerous position worthless.

UFC Fight Night: Whittaker v Till


Whittaker is already a future Hall of Famer, the best Australian MMA fighter in history. Even as small cracks have begun to show, he remains an elite talent fully capable of getting his title back. Seeing as Khamzat Chimaev is injured (details here) and Sean Strickland’s last win was lackluster, perhaps a strong showing here could earn him one final opportunity?

Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.

Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Saudi Arabia fight card right here, starting with the ESPN/ESPN+ “Prelims” matches, which are scheduled to begin at 12 p.m. ET, then the remaining main card balance (on ABC/ESPN+) at 3 p.m. ET.

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