It’s late in the third round. The two men circle one another, gloves up, eyes wide, breath hissing through their nostrils. They’ve already been trading punches, kicks and furious snatches of grappling for 14 minutes, give or take, and both are beginning to feel the pinch.
Outside the cage, on the padded mats of the PMA Gym in Sydney’s south-west, a collection of primary-school kids are tapping away at punching bags. There’s chatter and bursts of laughter. But inside the octagon it’s serious business. The men’s faces drip with sweat. Blood is flowing from Robert Whittaker’s nose, turning his beard a rusty colour. His sparring partner, David Francis, has a gash under his left eye – the result of a Whittaker knee in the first round. The skin around the gash is raw and purple.
Francis suddenly feints a lunge. Whittaker straightens, tenses, and pivots on his right foot, unleashing a short, sharp leg kick that hits Francis just above his right knee. The sound reverberates around the bare concrete walls of the gym like a whip crack. Francis grimaces, wavers, then collapses onto his back. Whittaker moves in for the kill.
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Outside the octagon, his arms draped over the top of the cage, stands coach Henry Perez. As Whittaker assumes the ground-and-pound position on Francis’ chest, Perez calmly looks down at his stopwatch. “Forty seconds,” he calls, counting down the seconds left in the round as Whittaker unloads on the prostrate Francis. “Thirty . . . Twenty . . .”
Ten minutes later, with the sparring finished – gloves peeled off and blood wiped away – I ask Whittaker about that leg kick. “It’s a risky move,” he explains. “All the other guy has to do is turn his knee out a fraction and I break my foot.”
And if that happens, do you keep fighting?
Whittaker looks affronted: “One hundred per cent I keep fighting.”
No, I mean in sparring . . .
“One hundred per cent I keep fighting.”
These words give insight into Whittaker’s mentality. The man is a fighter in the purest sense of the word.
He believes there are three distinct mindsets in the UFC. There’s the martial artist, who revels in perfecting the various fighting styles (Whittaker points to Georges St-Pierre as a classic example). There’s the brawler, whose primary goal is to break his opponent (“Rampage” Jackson springs to mind). Then there’s the fighter, the man who revels in the thrill of hand-to-hand combat. Whittaker puts himself in this category.
He loves the risk, loves the adrenaline, loves the rush of someone trying to hurt him. “I was just born with the fighter mentality,” he explains. “I can honestly say I was born to fight. A thousand years ago, I would have been a warrior for the village. That’s my calling.”
Thing is: in modern society, the “fighter’s mentality” can be a dangerous thing. It’s the kind of psyche that – under certain circumstances – could land a man behind bars. Or worse. And yet Whittaker has climbed into the upper echelons of the UFC’s middleweight division with a sparkling reputation. He fights with passion inside the octagon; he carries himself with dignity outside it.
And therein lie lessons any man can learn from.
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COLLECT YOUR TOOLS
Fighting has been part of Whittaker’s life for as long as he can remember. Growing up in a housing commission estate in Sydney’s south-west – parents separated, money scarce – he found himself weighed down by insecurities. “Going through primary school, then high school, I carried those insecurities with me,” he says with a wry grin. “And I probably didn’t react to comments and jests as well as I would these days.”
So he started to fight. He liked it – he was good at it. At age seven his father enrolled him in a karate school. Within six years he’d earned a black belt. Looking for a new challenge, the 14-year-old wandered into Henry Perez’s PMA Gym. And it was there that Whittaker’s notion of combat sports changed.
Perez vividly remembers the first time he recognised the teenager’s potential. It was during a local karate event. Whittaker went on to win the tournament, but it wasn’t the victory that stood out in Perez’s mind. “It was his predisposition to fight his way through. When Rob’s in the midst, he swings his way out. He finds a way. He seeks out what he’s aiming for and he achieves it.”
For Whittaker, the realisation that he had potential as a fighter was a slower burn. Yes, he had an urge to fight. Yes, he’d been in more fights than he could count. But martial arts was simply an outlet for his physicality. It was mere exercise, something to wile away time. “But through Henry, I learnt that karate, hapkido, Brazilian jiu-jitsu – they’re not just martial arts. They’re skills. They’re tools to be used effectively in combat situations.”
For the teenager, it was subtle shift in outlook that saw his trajectory as a fighter explode. Suddenly he wasn’t just mindlessly laying into punching bags and kick shields. He was honing skills and gathering tools; training with a clear and defined purpose. It’s a lesson, Perez believes, that extends beyond the octagon. “Everybody has to have a purpose to their training. Ask yourself: why am I doing this? What is the ultimate goal?”
For Whittaker, this end-goal focus provided solid buttressing for his fighter’s mentality. In 2009, six years after wandering into Perez’s gym, he had his first professional fight against fellow debutante Chris Tallowin in Perth. Whittaker won via TKO in the first round. From there, he went on a two-and-a-half-year tear, winning via knockout and submission as he built a 6-0 record.
His aggressive style garnered attention. In October 2011, he flew to Macau for the Legend Fighting Championship 6 – his first fight on foreign soil.
Then a strange thing happened – he lost.
TURN SHIT INTO SUGAR
Perez admits that he and Whittaker made a string of mistakes leading into that Macau fight. They trained in an octagon, even though the fight was taking place in a boxing ring. They travelled too close to the fight. They cut weight too late. Above all, they underestimated the ground strength of Whittaker’s opponent, Korean Hoon Kim.
In the opening exchange of the first round, the fight went to ground. Whittaker never looked comfortable. In the third minute, he found his neck scissored in a triangle choke hold. Within seconds he’d tapped out.
Whittaker’s first words to his coach after that loss were: “It’s over. It’s all over.” Perez describes the next few minutes as the most important in his 13-year relationship with Whittaker. He pulled his fighter aside, looked him in the eyes, and said: “Do you want to do this?”
“Yes,” came the mumbled reply.
“So right now, we turn this loss into a win. We learn from everything that went wrong and we find the winning path through this loss. We look at how you lost, we look at why you lost, and we turn that around so you never, ever let it happen again. From this point on, we work harder.”
Whittaker gave his coach a hug.
“And that,” says Perez, “is how we turned that loss into a win. That’s the one time in Rob’s career that things could’ve gone either way. But we managed to keep him on the road.”
Whittaker went back to the gym, honing his skills, gathering his tools. A month later he stepped back into the cage and notched a second-round TKO of Ian Bone in Sydney. That win proved the start of a special run that culminated with his recruitment for the second installment of the reality TV show, The Ultimate Fighter.
In his first fight on the show, he dropped Luke Newman with a vicious right cross 19 seconds into the opening round, before following up with a sickening ground and pound on the unconscious Englishman. Whittaker went on to win the welterweight title, with a unanimous points decision over Brad Scott in the brutal three-round final. It was after that victory, Whittaker says, that the notion of a career in the UFC took root in his mind. “But you can never, ever forget what a loss feels like,” he says with emphasis. “I go into every fight as uncertain as the last.”
Perez now believes that Whittaker’s ability to view defeat as opportunity is his greatest asset as a fighter. It’s a mindset, the coach argues, that allows constant growth, constant progression. “For Rob, there’s no such thing as a loss. In defeat, you learn. That’s how you win.”
FOCUS ON THE IMMEDIATE
And winning’s something Whittaker’s been doing a lot of in recent years. After a first-round loss to US striker Stephen Thompson at UFC 170 in 2014, Whittaker’s embarked on another streak, winning seven straight to become the No.1 contender in the UFC’s ultra-competitive middleweight division. Even boxer Danny Green has christened Whittaker “the number-one fighter” in Australia right now.
Yes, Whittaker’s confident. His victories have ranged from a swift second-round KO of Brazilian hard-man "Jacare" Souza, to grinding three-round wars with Jamaican Uriah Hall and Brazilian Rafael Natal. He’s proven he can triumph in any conditions. But he still admits to suffering crippling nerves in the minutes before stepping into the octagon. “Walking into the cage . . .” he shakes his head. “I’m getting nervous just thinking about it. And I don’t think I’ll ever get rid of those nerves.”
And once the bell rings?
He smiles: “Then it’s go time. There’s no room for thought. What happens, happens. I can barely remember most of my fights. It’s pure reaction, pure instinct.”
Push him for standout memories in the cage and he shrugs: “There was one time when I was taken down and my opponent was on top of me and all that was going through my head was: I must look like an absolute bitch lying on my back right now. In front of my family, my friends – I must look like an absolute bitch.” Whittaker can’t remember who his opponent was that night. “I just have that singular memory of lying on my back on the canvas.”
But if his mind blanks when it comes to the fights themselves, his attention has sharpened when it comes to preparation. For his past six fights, he’s brought a high-performance coach, Fabricio Itte, into his fold. “And he’s changed my perspective in terms of professionalism. He’s shown me how to treat training and fighting as a job. He’s introduced me to the science behind being an elite athlete. He’s taught me that my body is a property.”
Itte preaches a holistic approach to performance. He has Whittaker thinking of his career as a line on a graph. Every sparring session, every sand-dune sprint, every strength workout inches the line upwards. “But when you do stupid things – getting drunk, ignoring your diet, skipping training sessions – this is when you your graph starts going down,” says Whittaker. “And the steeper the climb, the steeper the drop. This image hit me hard.”
Yes, the insecure young kid throwing punches on the streets of Sydney’s gritty south-west is long gone. In his place is a confident man who aspires to be a role model, both to his own children (his son, Jack, is nearing his second birthday and his wife, Sofia, is pregnant with their second) and to other youngsters who dream of fighting in the UFC.
“I want to be what people expect me to be,” he explains – then smiles. “But once I’m in the fight, the same old guy’s there.”
Carve Out Cage-Ready Muscle
Whittaker follows a special training program drawn up by exercise physiologist Justin Lang at Live Athletic in Sydney. According to Lang, the progressive program combines flexibility, gymnastic and barbell strength training, and aims to build unrestricted movement while inoculating against injury.
“Any system is limited by its weakest point,” says Lang, “so whatever the weakest capacity in Rob’s body, we’re trying to find it and strengthen it.” Below are six movements Whittaker will typically tackle in a session – use them to build an unbreakable body
In a squat rack, place a barbell across your traps. Push your hips back and lower until your thighs are at least parallel to the floor. Pause, then push back up. Whittaker will typically do 5 “build-up” sets before completing 3 “work” sets of 5 reps.
Lang says: “Power through the legs is massively important for every athlete, so this move is a staple in Rob’s program.”
2/ Pistol squat
Balance on your right foot, your left leg extended in front of you. Drop into a deep squat, then drive back up to a standing position. Whittaker will typically do 4 sets of 3-5 reps on each leg.
Lang says: “Pistol squats aren’t a hard strength exercise, but they require a high level of mobility through the hips, knees and ankles.”
3/ Nordic hamstring curl
Kneel on the floor and anchor your feet under a loaded barbell or have a partner pin your feet to the floor. Keeping your torso straight, slowly lower your body as close to the ground as possible. Whittaker will do 4 sets of 5 reps.
Lang says: “In wrestling you often use your legs as hooks, so this exercise is really effective at building that strength through the back of the legs.”
4/ Weighted dips
Grab a pair of parallel dip bars, elbows slightly bent. Keeping your head up, lower until your upper arms are at least parallel to the ground. Pause, then drive back up. Whittaker will typically do 4 sets of 5 reps with 30kg strapped to his weight belt.
Lang says: “I want Rob’s shoulders to be able to handle high amounts of stress and high-range extension. That’s why I like weighted dips – they put a lot of pressure through the shoulder.”
5/ Back extensions
Place your legs on a bench or box and anchor your feet. Lower your upper body as far as you can then raise your torso until your body is straight. Pause, then slowly lower. Whittaker will do 4 sets of 10 reps holding a 20kg plate to his chest.
Lang says: “I like Rob to extend beyond the neutral spine position because his back needs to be strong in high-stress positions.”
6/ Hollow rocks
Lie face-up on the floor, your arms extended above your head. Engage your core and raise your arms and legs so your body describes a bow shape. Keeping your core switched on, rock back and forth. Whittaker will do 4 sets of one-minute rocks.
Lang says: “The rocking motion challenges your trunk strength while keeping your spine in a neutral position.”