Robert Whittaker has grown accustomed to underestimation.
“The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes” winner at UFC on Fox 24 shined as an underdog -- he closed at +225, according to BetDSI.com -- and made a career-defining move in the Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight division, as he disposed of Ronaldo Souza with a second-round head kick and follow-up punches on Saturday at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri. Souza (-278) succumbed to blows 3:28 into Round 2.
Whittaker withstood a ground exchange with the two-time Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships gold medalist in the first round, turned it into a standup-only affair and chipped away with precise punches. He decked Souza with a right hand to the temple in the middle stanza but remained patient, allowing the rattled “Jacare” to return to his feet on unsteady legs. Whittaker later smashed the onetime Strikeforce champion with a head kick and flurried with punches and elbows until referee Mario Yamasaki had seen enough (online sportsbooks) .
“I think a lot of people let the hype get in their heads, given he’s a legend of jiu-jitsu and MMA,” said Whittaker, who finds himself on a seven-fight winning streak. “I have great coaches and I train to fight. I know it’s a fight at the end of the day. It’s not a grappling match; it’s not a jiu-jitsu match. All I have to do is get back up and punch him.”
Souza was not the only favorite to fall. Andrew Sanchez (-346) shared a similar fate on the undercard, as “The Ultimate Fighter 23” winner was victimized by a third-round knee strike and follow-up punches from Anthony Smith. The end came 3:52 into Round 3, as Smith (+282) erased a two-rounds-to-none deficit on all three scorecards.
“This has been a rollercoaster, just being in there [and] dealing with problems the whole time,” said Smith, a Cage Fury Fighting Championships and Victory Fighting Championship titleholder who has rattled off 10 wins across his last 11 appearances. “I tell everyone all the time that I’m unshakable, and once I get in there, I think it’s pretty obvious I’m not going anywhere.”
Meanwhile, undefeated Constrictor Team export Renato Carneiro authored an upset of his own, albeit a mild one, as he eked out a split decision against Jeremy Stephens in a three-round featherweight showcase. Punishing leg kicks, a probing jab and a commitment to lateral movement provided Carneiro (+145) with a path to success. Stephens (-170) left the cage with a battered lead leg and a bloodied nose, having suffered a second consecutive defeat.
“I feel so good. He’s a great opponent,” Carneiro said. “I need to improve my wrestling, improve my standup game. My jiu-jitsu is at a world-class level because I train with the best jiu-jitsu athletes in the world, but I must improve my wrestling to compete at this level. I don’t know what level I am at now, but whatever the UFC decides for me is OK. I am their employee and I come to fight, and I can’t wait for the next fight with a big opponent.”
Two other underdogs prevailed at UFC on Fox 24: Rose Namajunas (+112) submitted Michelle Waterson (-133) with a rear-naked choke 2:47 into the second round of their co-main event, and Ketlen Vieira (+140) improved to 8-0 with a unanimous decision over Ashlee Evans-Smith (-165) in a three-round undercard clash at 135 pounds. Namajunas with the decisive victory likely positioned herself as the No. 1 contender for the women’s strawweight championship.
“I just stopped worrying so much,” she said. “I stopped overanalyzing things, and I’m just having fun with life and appreciating my life because it could always be worse. I think this win puts me right up there in title contention. Whoever wins the belt, I’m fighting.”