Robert Whittaker’s approach to fighting and the fight game is, at least publicly, pretty workmanlike. He keeps things simple. He shows up, makes weight, puts his technical and hellacious skills on display in exciting fashion, and then goes home to spend time with his family and play lots of video games. To some, it’s maybe not the most headline-stealing way to approach things, but when you can fight the way “The Reaper” fights (and there are few who can), you can afford to keep to yourself and not engage in much of the brouhaha associated with prizefighting.
Feeling burnt out on the game after losing the middleweight title to Israel Adesanya at UFC 243, Whittaker took some time to recharge himself. Since then, he’s been on a tear, relatively dominating Darren Till and Jared Cannonier to put himself within shouting distance of a rematch with Adesanya. Of course, first up is the business at hand, one that’s a bit of a full circle moment for the Australian. After Paulo Costa pulled out of the initial UFC Fight Night main event slated for this Saturday, Kelvin Gastelum stepped in to make good on a fight that was supposed to happen two years ago.
“He’s a super dangerous guy,” Whittaker told UFC.com. “I’m giving his skill set the respect it deserves. I’m not underestimating him in any way, and I guess the rest will just have to be seen on the night.”
Top Finishes: Robert Whittaker
Top Finishes: Robert Whittaker
The two were originally booked at UFC 234 after coaching The Ultimate Fighter against each other, but medical issues forced Whittaker out of the fight the morning of competition. The unfortunate circumstance put Gastelum into an interim middleweight title fight against Adesanya, an instant classic which set up Adesanya’s eventual win over Whittaker.
Since then, the two have had different paths. While Whittaker took that time away, Gastelum stumbled. First, he lost a close split decision to Till in the Brit’s middleweight debut, and then he suffered a first-round submission loss to Jack Hermansson in July 2020. He ended his three-fight losing skid in February at UFC 258, out hustling and out grinding Ian Heinisch for a decision win, his first victory in nearly three years. And so, with Whittaker streaking and Gastelum back with his feet underneath him, the two are finally set for a long-awaited battle.
“I’m preparing for the best Kelvin Gastelum,” Whittaker said. “I’m preparing for his knockout power. I’m preparing for his resilience and toughness. I’m preparing for his wrestling. I think I’ve covered my bases, and I’m pretty confident.”
In terms of where each man is at in their careers, Whittaker doesn’t pay too much mind to Gastelum’s hard run of form, especially considering Gastelum’s strength of schedule. He holds the same mindset for himself. Despite picking up two wins in ways that could very well have already earned him another title shot, he’s locked in on the task at hand and taking care of business on April 17.
MORE UFC VEGAS 24: Watch On ESPN+ | In-Depth: Whittaker vs Gastelum | Fight By Fight Preview | Free Fight: Kelvin Gastelum vs Ian Heinisch | Free Fight: Robert Whittaker vs Jared Cannonier | Bonus Résumé: Kelvin Gastelum | Bonus Résumé: Jeremy Stephens
“I don’t really believe in momentum too much,” Whittaker said. “I know, for some fighters, it works for them, but for me, I take every fight as it comes. He’s a dangerous fighter, and I’m going to go in there expecting the best.”
It’s a matchup that should have any real fight fan drooling. Both are well-rounded fighters who prefer to take care of their business on the feet, and they each have their ways of finding success both at distance as well as in the pocket. Neither shy away from the more heated moments of a fight, and they’ve each built reputations for that action-packed style.
As far as where a win over Gastelum puts Whittaker, he classically says he doesn’t think about it too much. As he puts it, his calendar “only goes until Saturday.” Once the fight is over, then he looks to what could be next, although highest on that docket is getting back home, going through quarantine and getting back with his wife and kids.
He does hope to fight at least one more time given the fact that this fight is happening closer to the middle of the year. Maybe that fight ends up being another shot at gold and at “The Last Stylebender,” maybe not.
Whittaker says in a perfect world, he shows his class on Saturday night, picking Gastelum apart from distance before eventually imposing his will on the way to a finish and can start looking toward the belt once more. Of course, he knows Gastelum has all the tools to make achieving that goal hard, so if Whittaker needs to go beyond Plan A, he’s more than confident as well. Either way, Whittaker is going to show up to work - a job at which he is one of the best in the world.
“This is what I do for a living,” Whittaker said. “I get paid to fight. I’m here to fight. I’m going to make weight, eat some good food, get to work, go home to my family.”