April 18, 2017

UFC on FOX 24: With Latest Win, Robert Whittaker Proves He's For Real

By Adam Martin

I'm done doubting Robert Whittaker at middleweight, and you should be too. Whittaker, who is only 26, won "TUF Smashes" in 2012 and then put up a decent 3-2 record in the welterweight division before surprisingly moving up to middleweight in late 2014. At the time, I and many others were puzzled as to why a fighter with a winning record at 170 who stands only 6' with the frame he has would move up a weight class to take on bigger, stronger opponents, and I didn't think the move up in weight would go well for him.

But I wasn't the only one who felt this way. This opinion was reflected in the betting lines for Whittaker since the move up.

Whittaker's first middleweight fight was Clint Hester at UFC Fight Night 55, and Whittaker closed as a +170 underdog in that bout. He proceeded to knock out Hester, a much bigger fighter, in the second round with knees and punches, and he won a share of Fight of the Night bonus in the process.

Next was Brad Tavares at UFC Fight Night 65, again a bigger fighter. And again, Whittaker was the underdog, closing at +115. And once again, despite the odds being against him, Whittaker won, destroying Tavares in the first round with lightning-fast punches, and winning himself a Performance of the Night award.

A matchup against Uriah Hall was next at UFC 193. Again, Whittaker was the underdog, this time at +135. It wasn't a great fight, but Whittaker was able to outstrike Hall and win a clear-cut unanimous decision.

Whittaker then fought Rafael Natal at UFC 197, and this time he was finally the favorite as a middleweight, closing as a -325 favorite. Let's face it, though, that was an easy fight for Whittaker, and he easily took care of Natal with a clear decision win.

The UFC then booked Whittaker in the toughest fight of his middleweight career against Derek Brunson, a strong wrestler who was coming off of four straight knockout wins. Again, Whittaker was the underdog at +100. I figured Brunson would be able to keep his win streak going by utilizing his explosive wrestling game to ground Whittaker. But Whittaker showed amazing takedown defense in the fight and then was able to outstrike Brunson and knock him out with a head kick and punches, winning awards for both Fight of the Night and Performance of the Night.

Even after the win over Brunson, though, I wasn't completely buying Whittaker, and when the UFC matched him up against a top contender in Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza at UFC on FOX 24, I
figured this would be the time Whittaker finally lost at middleweight. This was what bettors thought as well, as Whittaker closed as a +225 underdog. But he then proceeded to have the best performance of his career, stuffing Jacare's takedowns and then brutally knocking him out with a headkick and punches on the feet. He also won another Performance of the Night award. It was an eye-opening performance, and I won't ever doubt Whittaker again after it.

Despite being doubted by everyone and closing as the underdog in five of his six middleweight fights, Whittaker is now 6-0 at 185 lbs with four knockout wins, including a signature victory over Souza that arguably makes Whittaker a top-three fighter in the division. He's proven beyond a doubt he's a top middleweight title contender, and if it wasn't for the logjam created by Michael Bisping, he could be fighting for a title in his next fight.

In 2014 it wasn't clear why Whittaker moved up in weight coming off a decision win over Mike Rhodes, but now, in 2017, we know exactly why, as Whittaker has joined the likes of Donald Cerrone and Jorge Masvidal in being fighters who have moved up a weight class in recent years and become better.

At 185, Whittaker is faster than the majority of his opponents. This is allowing him to land his strikes and not get hit as much as he was at welterweight, where his chin was compromised due to what were tough weight cuts. At 185 he's healthy, fast, and surprisingly strong. No longer focused on cutting weight in camp, Whittaker has improved all of his skills. His striking, which has always been good, is now elite, and his takedown defense is quickly becoming elite as well. He's quickly becoming one of the most well-rounded middleweights in the sport, and at 26, he's continuing to get better and better.

It definitely makes me feel better knowing I'm not the only one who has been skeptical of the middleweight version of Robert Whittaker, but after what he did at UFC on FOX 24 against Jacare, I'm done doubting him. He's absolutely amazing, and I can't wait to see where his career goes from here.

UFC on FOX 24: Johnson vs. Reis took place April 15, 2017 at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri.

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