With the mercury already nudging 30 degrees Celsius outside, a gigantic ceiling fan is doing its best to disperse air that is being thickened by the presence of the Penrith Panthers — last year’s winners of Australia’s National Rugby League [NRL] competition — as they endure the rigours of preseason.
Their presence is almost emblematic of Whittaker’s own journey. Beaten by the Melbourne Storm in the 2020 Grand Final after embarking on a 19-game winning streak, the Panthers found a way to go one better against the South Sydney Rabbitohs to lift the NRL Premiership trophy a year later.
Whittaker, too, is charting the road back to his own ultimate glory: the UFC middleweight title. Having strung together nine straight wins in his ascent to the title, it took less than two full rounds for Israel Adesanya to bring him unstuck.
Where Whittaker used to look upon media interviews with a level of enthusiasm usually reserved for a trip to the dentist, he is now a far more content and relaxed individual who has well and truly rekindled his love for mixed martial arts.
As he goes about his work in Sydney, he is at ease with himself and his responsibilities.
“I guess that was the hardest thing, I had to take a step left of fighting with the full knowledge that I might never come back it,” he tells ESPN of his decision to take some time off after the loss to Adesanya at UFC 243. “And it’s daunting, because let me tell you I’m not very good at much else! So to leave that avenue of fighting, it was very daunting.
“But if you don’t completely commit to the process, I feel you don’t truly go on that journey, you’re dragging your feet if you will. But I’m not a guru or a psychologist by any means, this is just what I did and worked through. But it turned out alright, fortunately enough.”
While Whittaker may not think he is good for much else, the facility he has built alongside his business partners is incredibly impressive. As well as being the headquarters for his own UFC preparations, Whittaker wants to see the sport of MMA go from strength to strength in what is one of Australia’s fastest growing regions.
A giant portrait of Whittaker adorns the wall. Draped in the Australian flag, the middleweight strap firmly fastened around his waist, it is there to inspire the next generation, but also remind Whittaker of what is possible with the sweat that is flooding from his brow on this scorching Sydney morning.
The story of Whittaker’s decision to walk away from the sport is well known. But it’s worth recalling as we approach one of the most anticipated rematches in UFC history, at least in the small corner of the world where the Tasman Sea separates two great sporting rivals: Australia and New Zealand.
Whittaker freely admits he was in the wrong head space at UFC 243 in Melbourne, Australia, in October 2019. He says he let Adesanya get to him, let the crowd get to him, let the occasion get to him — and was dispatched by a second-round knockout as a result.
Months of soul-searching followed, until finally the Australian realized that change was necessary. A change of coach, change of approach — a complete change of mentality that would not only create a better fighter, but a better person, too.
“The emotions of that fight, post-fight, were a bit of a roller coaster,” he explains. “To strip it all back, I had to step away from fighting, which I did, I stepped away from fighting, I stepped away from training. I just stripped it all back, I took away everything until there was nothing, all I would do was not set an alarm in the morning and wake up whenever that happened and then do whatever I wanted during the day. It was a weird space to live in for a while.
“But then I started adding things that I wanted to do, that I felt like I wanted to do, and in doing that I just ended up adding a little bit, little bit… showing up at the gym, ending up back at the gym, training because I wanted to do, having that hunger, wanting to fight, wanting to diet, wanting to [weight] cut, wanting to get fit.
“And before long, I found myself back in the gym preparing for another fight. And I think that organic way I found myself back in the Octagon, back in the gym, is what helped me define who I was and find who I was.
Training partner Jacob Malkoun, who is also on the card in Houston, has seen the changes in Whittaker.
“He won the title at a young age, and he got the pressure that goes with that,” Malkoun tells ESPN. “I just think the main thing after the break that he had is that he is more comfortable in himself, he’s happier to be at training; so obviously if you’re not happy at work you’re not going to perform at your best.
“Now when you see him, he’s happy, he’s comfortable, he’s ready to train and working hard… he’s enjoying the grind, enjoying learning, getting better. I just think he’s much more comfortable with himself and ready to go — he’s ready to fire now.”
Those closest with Whittaker speak of how he came back from the layoff a changed man. That he returned from his self-imposed exile as a less intense, far less volatile individual who now has a more rounded and complete approach to life — in and outside the Octagon.
Life’s good, as they say, and that is reflected on the day of ESPN’s visit by Whittaker’s wife, Sofia, who is proudly parading the couple’s fourth child around the gym.
At one point, Whittaker picks his boy up and wanders across to the other side of his workspace. The smile beams from the middleweight’s face, even if parenting his young family has more than just a few challenges.
“Four kids at home, let me tell you four kids is kind of gnarly, there should be like a user agreement before you have more than two kids,” he says with a laugh. “I feel like I should have signed a contract somewhere. My wife tricked me, there was just mumbled words, no fine print, it was terrible.
“But I love to them to death and honestly they put everything in perspective, they give me purpose and give me something worth fighting for, which I feel is one of my greatest strengths.”
While there have been far longer UFC layoffs than Whittaker’s own break, there is always an element of the unknown once the return to the Octagon is eventually made.
The Australian was completely at ease with his time away, so too the changes that had helped him return to it, but he still didn’t know whether they would hold up in a middleweight division that was starting to swell with fighters who wanted their own shot at Adesanya.
But he needn’t have worried.
“The fights since the loss to Izzy, they were all an experience. They were all learning curves and [stepping] stones,” Whittaker says. “The first fight with Till, the pressure was there because it was after a loss and I didn’t want to be that champion who loses the belt and then goes on a massive losing skid. I didn’t want to be that guy.
“And as well, that was me coming back with a lot of changes. So in your head, while it was the best thing for me, there is always that little [voice] that’s saying ‘well maybe it’s not, maybe you did it wrong, maybe you should have kept things the way they were’, which is why I was so reluctant to change in the first place.
“But I took the leap and it was a hard fight [against Till]; he’s a very good striker, he’s a very good fighter, and I had a hard-fought win. And that propelled my growth and my confidence in what I was doing into the Cannonier fight, which went very very well. I felt like I was a much more complete fighter, I controlled that fight from start to finish, I utilized much more of my skill set which I don’t think people were accustomed to.”
His confidence completely restored, Whittaker’s victory over Gastelum was the best of the bunch.
“I just feel like that last fight boosted my confidence in my skill set, my abilities, what I could do inside the Octagon, and I showed more of my arsenal. And you’ve got to be happy with it. I’m not complacent, there’s still a lot of things that I’m working on today, but you’ve got to be happy with a three-fight win streak to get back to that rematch.”
Whittaker won all three fights by unanimous decision, dominating his opponents across the key significant strikes, takedowns and control statistics, in the process.
UFC analyst and former middleweight champion Michael Bisping described the victory over Gastelum as a “masterclass.”
Whittaker’s claims to another shot at the title were now undeniable.
While Whittaker was working his way back to the top, Adesanya was, over the same period, taking care of his own business. The champ rattled off middleweight title defenses over Yoel Romero, Costa and Marvin Vettori, but it was the jump up to light heavyweight that Whittaker says showed the previously unbeaten Adesanya could be vulnerable.
“I’ve watched all his fights and you try and pick up as many little things as you can,” Whittaker says. “And there were certainly some things that I might be able to replicate, that Jan [Blachowicz] did, that I can do better perhaps, or similar to. And the coaches definitely saw things that we can work on, but I’ll leave that for a surprise.”
Whittaker has also spoken of the improvement in his boxing, which he says has come from sparring top Australian boxer Tim Tszyu, under the watchful eye of the country’s legendary trainer, Johnny Lewis.
“I’ve been boxing with Johnny Lewis of late, and he’s definitely sharpened up a couple things, he’s definitely increased my ability to box,” Whittaker says. “He’s got a good head for it and I’ve enjoyed the process. I may have a little secret [weapon] or two for Izzy in the next one.”
There are, of course, various other MMA disciplines that could decide the rematch, but such were the striking exchanges and the eventual fight-sealing punch in their first fight, Whittaker’s focus on boxing is notable.
Lewis, who took the likes of Kostya Tszyu and Jeff Fenech to boxing world titles, has been impressed by Whittaker’s work ethic and willingness to learn.
“We can go back to the last fight that Rob had with [Adesanya] and we can see where Rob let him in a little bit; I think they worked that out themselves, but it was more on the fighting side of things than anything else,” Lewis says. “I think they’ve done a pretty good job, I don’t think they’ll leave the door open like they did last time.
“I like what they’ve been doing and I like the way Rob has really absorbed it. They’ve worked hard to solve the little problem from before… letting the bloke in too easily with his punches. And in defense, he’s been working on stopping that from happening and then trying to counteract it as well.
“What he’s got to do he’s been working on and that should hold him in fine stead.”
Lewis, too, speaks of the enthusiasm Whittaker has had for the grind.
“It’s really been a blessing for me. Rob’s a very humble guy and there’s no doubt he’s a superstar in [MMA],” Lewis says. “He’s a great guy and the sparring partners that he has, they’ve got a great little gang there. His defense has certainly been tightened up and as far boxing is concerned, Rob’s a much better boxer than he was six months ago. He’s done everything right.”
With the Panthers having wrapped up their wrestling session, Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Smeaton Grange is now a far more pleasant place to be. The air, minus 40-odd burly rugby league players, is slightly less dense.
The gym will officially open to the public a week later, marking a significant milestone in Whittaker’s journey since he was flat on his back three minutes and 33 seconds into Round 2 of the main event at UFC 243.
A bigger moment than the gym’s ribbon-cutting is to come on Feb. 12 when the Australian steps inside the Octagon and gets his shot at redemption. But you get the feeling that even if UFC president Dana White wraps the middleweight strap around Adesanya’s waist for a second time, a loss won’t hit Whittaker anywhere near as hard as it did in Melbourne.
There is an old saying in rugby league, the sport Whittaker played before his switch to MMA, originally coined by five-time premiership winning coach: Jack Gibson.
“Played good, done fine,” it reads.
It may be a tad simplistic, but content in himself, his life and his preparation for the rematch, Gibson’s words seem particularly apt when summing up Whittaker right now.
And that might just make him a far more dangerous opponent this time around.