‘Fifteen minutes won’t define you’: Rebalanced Robert Whittaker returns to ‘Fight Island’ at UFC 254

This year has felt like the most defining of Robert Whittaker's career.

Not the year in which he won the UFC middleweight title, nor the year in which he lost it – in fact, the time the Australian has spent in the Octagon in 2020 has had very little to do with why it has been such a defining period.

But 2020 has been a year in which the former champion has finally understood who he is and what he needs – as a person, first and foremost.

"I've come to grips with who I am," Whittaker, 29, tells The Independent, reflecting on the months in which he at last acknowledged and tackled the burnout that had been plaguing him before and after his title loss to Israel Adesanya.

"What I enjoy doing, how I enjoy doing it, the direction in which I want to take things... it's more about the process now. I do things in a much more balanced way. I'm balancing my needs much better – in terms of my physical needs, my social needs, my family needs – and it's much healthier."

In 2017, the Australian overcame an injured knee to defeat Yoel Romero and become the UFC's interim champion at 185lbs, before Georges St-Pierre's vacating of the official belt saw Whittaker crowned atop the division.

But injury kept 'The Reaper' out of the Octagon for 11 months, also causing a planned title defence against former champ Luke Rockhold in Australia to be scrapped. When Whittaker returned in July of 2018, his reintroduction was another war against Romero. Remarkably, Whittaker again fought through an injury – this time a broken hand – to achieve another decision win over the Cuban muscle crisis.

Whittaker's next lay-off, 16 months long, once again saw a planned title defence in his home country cancelled due to health issues – on this occasion in early 2019, it was a collapsed bowel hours before the event began – and when the third try at a championship bout on home soil came to fruition last October, Whittaker was ultimately defeated for the first time in five years. His second-round TKO loss to Adesanya, who still reigns at 185lbs, marked a difficult moment for Whittaker, who has been open in the past about his struggles with depression, and the solution at the time seemed to be to train even harder – if that were possible.

But while training on Christmas Day instead of celebrating with his family, Whittaker had an epiphany that caused 'The Reaper' to reset and recentre. "I've just been spending a lot of time with my family, my kids," he tells The Independent. "I just want to set a good example for my kids, build a foundation that they can stand on when they come of age and grow up. On top of that, I've just been delving into things that make me happy, focusing on myself. I'm a big believer in just following your heart. A big thing is just how you approach things.

"And my approach to losses... I always want to win – no one likes losing – but winning or losing doesn't really matter. It's about getting there, controlling what you can. What happens on fight night is just one part of something; 15 or 25 minutes, it won't define you. There are many more things you can control and invest in before and after a fight than what's going to happen in it."

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

At one point, surviving 10 rounds against a foe as devastating as Romero looked set to be the distinguishing feat of Whittaker's career. That was until 2020, with Whittaker – already beloved by MMA fans – having seen a seismic outpouring of support for the way in which he has come through his personal battles.

But for a fighter who had previously been putting too much pressure on himself, a return against a striker as powerful as Liverpool's Darren Till this summer had some fans fearing the worst. Yet Whittaker, one of the most well-rounded and versatile martial artists in the UFC, demonstrated his rare quality by edging a tense, tactical bout against the fellow former welterweight.

"It was a very different sort of tactile battle. Trying to sum up what I was thinking in the fight is hard; it's all on the wire, it's a lot of reflex, a lot of weeks of work put into the muscle memory. It's just tense the entire time. But you can't think about it, because if you do, it's too late. Things happen that quickly. But it was a fight I was happy to be a part of – every fight helps me grow. I'm very happy if I have an exciting and honourable fight, and I feel I had that [against Till]."

This weekend, Whittaker returns to 'Fight Island' in Abu Dhabi, where he beat Till. In the co-main event of UFC 254, the Aussie will find himself in the familiar position of facing off against a man whose hands seemingly ought to be registered as explosives. That said, opponent Jared Cannonier, who has three TKO finishes in his three contests since dropping down to middleweight, has oft-overlooked skills beyond his power.

"It doesn't bother me if everyone else is overlooking [his all-round skillset], because I'm not!" Whittaker laughs. "He's very well rounded, he is. He's a good fighter. He wouldn't be ranked No 2 otherwise. I just know I'm better, I know I'm better. I know I can take this fight where I want it to go.

"I think it'll be another tactile battle, but I also think he's gonna have to come in and be aggressive and get inside, otherwise I'm just gonna dance on the outside and pick him apart the entire time."

With Whittaker ranked first in the division and Cannonier ranked second, the winner on Saturday is all but guaranteed a title shot against Adesanya.

"I can't think about things past Cannonier – it's too hard of a fight," Whittaker admits. "But as an athlete, a fighter, and as a warrior, running that back with Adesanya... Sitting on a loss doesn't sit well with me. It eats me up a little bit.

"I'd love to run that back one day, regardless of when it is. He did look very good in his last fight, but I think I've worked out a good way to beat him.

"But I've got my hands full with Jared – I'll have to put him down first."

Watch the UFC 254 prelims live on BT Sport 2 from 5pm on Saturday 24 October, with the main card exclusively live on BT Sport Box Office from 7pm for £19.95.