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Not yet two years removed from his run as undisputed Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight titleholder, Robert Whittaker would like nothing more than a chance to return to those familiar haunts.
“The Reaper” will confront “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 17 winner Kelvin Gastelum in the UFC on ESPN 22 main event this Saturday at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas, where a victory could clear the way for a rematch with current 185-pound champion Israel Adesanya. Whittaker, 30, has won 11 of his past 12 bouts, a 2019 knockout loss to Adesanya his only misstep. He last competed at UFC 254, where he laid claim to a unanimous decision over Jared Cannonier on Oct. 24.
As Whittaker prepares for his high-stakes showdown with Gastelum, a look at five of the moments that have helped shape his career:
1. Smashing Success
Whittaker captured a unanimous verdict from Bradley Scott in “The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes” welterweight final at UFC on FX 6 on Dec. 15, 2012 at the Gold Coast Convention Centre in Gold Coast, Australia. All three judges scored it 29-28 for Whittaker, who went the distance in victory for the first time as a professional. His game plan marked by short bursts of straight punches, Whittaker drove his counterpart to the ground with blows with roughly 90 seconds to go in the first round and swarmed for the finish. Scott defended well and bounced back in Round 2. There, he struck for a takedown and moved to Whittaker’s back, hooks in. A choke never materialized, and Whittaker eventually returned to his feet. In the decisive third round, Whittaker again unleashed multi-punch combinations while moving forward. He mixed in standing elbows for good measure—one of them opened a cut near Scott’s hairline—and announced his arrival in the world’s premier MMA organization.
2. Signs of Wonder
Stephen Thompson put away Whittaker with first-round punches in a UFC 170 welterweight showcase on Feb. 22, 2014 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. Thompson drew the curtain on “The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes” winner 3:43 into Round 1. Whittaker was on his heels from the start. Thompson floored him with a straight right, swarmed with punches as he stood and dropped him again before finishing the kneeling Aussie with a series of unanswered blows. Whittaker had never before been stopped by strikes, and soon after, he began to chart a new course for himself.
3. Relocation Plan
Whittaker moved to 185 pounds and took care of Clint Hester with a knee strike and follow-up punches in the second round of their UFC Fight Night 55 middleweight feature on Nov. 7, 2014 at Allphones Arena in Sydney. “The Reaper” closed the deal 2:43 into Round 2. Hester, who entered the cage on a seven-fight winning streak, had no answer for the New Zealand-born Aussie’s diverse attack. Whittaker leaned on a sturdy chin—he ate a vicious spinning elbow in the first round—and gradually wore down the Atlanta native with leg kicks, jabs and uppercuts. He also struck for a takedown and briefly advanced to full mount. The two middleweights engaged in a wild exchange at the outset of Round 2. It did not benefit Hester, who spent his reserves in search of the home run. Once fatigue took hold, Whittaker moved in, dropped “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 17 graduate to a seated position with a knee to the face and finished it with rapid-fire punches.
4. Gold Rush
Nothing—not fatigue, not a knee injury, not the physical specimen standing across from him—was going to stop Robert Whittaker, as he laid claim to the interim Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight crown with a five-round unanimous decision over Yoel Romero in the UFC 213 headliner on July 8, 2017 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. All three cageside judges saw it the same: 48-47 for “The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes” winner. Romero stormed out to a two-rounds-to-none lead, as he appeared to injure Whittaker’s knee with a series of devastating side kicks in the first round before incorporating a takedown and top control in the second. “The Reaper” did not blink, the adversity only serving to fan his flames. Romero tired to the point of exhaustion over the final 15 minutes, allowing his counterpart to slowly but surely leave his imprint on the match. Whittaker outstruck the American Top Team export in each of the last three frames: 13-5 in the third, 19-8 in the fourth and 45-38 in the fifth.
5. Style Points
Israel Adesanya completed his meteoric rise to the top of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s 185-pound division, as “The Last Stylebender” disposed of Whittaker with second-round punches to claim the undisputed middleweight championship in the UFC 243 main event on Oct. 5, 2019 at Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, Australia. Whittaker became the City Kickboxing superstar’s latest victim 3:33 into Round 2, as he suffered his first defeat since Feb. 22, 2014. Adesanya probed for openings from the start, bided his time and waited for a misstep from “The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes” winner. Whittaker was the busier and more aggressive fighter in the first round, but a right hook floored him just before the horn and altered the direction of the bout. Adesanya wobbled “Bobby Knuckles” with another right hand early in Round 2, attacked the body and countered beautifully during a wild exchange in the center of the cage. A devastating left hook caught Whittaker on the chin, sent him to the canvas and left him in no condition to defend himself. After a few more punches from Adesanya, referee Marc Goddard called for the stoppage.