Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Middleweight kingpin, Robert Whittaker, will square off a second time with Cuban knockout artist, Yoel Romero, this Saturday (June 9, 2018) at UFC 225 inside United Center in Chicago, Illinois.
Whittaker is the best example of a fighter moving up in weight class and immediately finding great success. That’s not to say he was a bad Welterweight — the New Zealand-born athlete did win The Ultimate Fighter (TUF): “The Smashes” and compile a 3-2 record at 170 pounds — but his success up a weight class has been incredible. Taking advantage of a newfound speed advantage and the improved conditioning that comes with an easier weight cut, Whittaker blitzed his way into title contention. These advantages combined with his rapidly producing skill set to result in a champion on an eight fight win streak, seeking to defend his title for the first time.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
A black belt in both Hapkido and Karate, Whittaker very often moves and strikes from the outside like one would expect. However, Whittaker also has a lot of boxing experience, which results in a great combination of kickboxing.
In terms of movement, Whittaker remains light on his feet and bounces like a Karateka. He likes to bounce in with quick punches, another trait that reveals his traditional martial arts background. However, once he bursts into the pocket, Whittaker’s combinations are that of a skilled boxer. There is none of that ugly alternating straight lefts and rights from the Aussie.
Whittaker is dangerous from within the pocket, but much of his work begins outside of that range. Bouncing in place, Whittaker is able to spring forward and close a surprising amount of distance. Often, he does so with the jab, a mark of his boxing experience. Whittaker’s jab and subsequent jab feints make him a very difficult man to deal with at range, as he builds from the strike wonderfully.
For example, Whittaker kicks after the jab often. Opposite Uriah Hall, Whittaker would score with the jab then punt the lead leg when his foe went to pivot around. More often, Whittaker follows the jab with a high kick. He can land the kick in various ways, like ducking off immediately following the jab and flinging up his leg (GIF). In his bout with Derek Brunson, Whittaker closed the distance and snapped his foe’s head back with the jab before briefly pausing, setting his stance, and allowed him to really power through the kick (GIF).
Whittaker’s money punch is his left hook, another strike he sets up in a variety of ways. Whittaker will often hook off the jab, a great way to mix up an opponent’s defense and slip around the guard. Alternatively, Whittaker can spring forward directly from his stance into the left hook.
Another common set up for Whittaker’s hook is to roll following his cross. After Whittaker commits to his cross — again, moving forward with sudden speed — he’ll immediately roll to avoid the counter hook. As he ducks down and moves towards his right, Whittaker can fling out a hard left hand.
The straight kick is another very important range weapon for Whittaker, particularly in his last fight. However, it can also be used as a set up for the left hook as he showed Brad Tavares. After flicking out a front kick to the mid-section, Whittaker returned into his stance balled up and ready to explode. He immediately sprung into the left hook, which caught his opponent still standing tall after the kick (GIF).
In the first Romero fight, the Olympian made sure he would not be stuck on the end of Whittaker’s jab by stomping on his lead leg whenever Whittaker tried to advance behind his lead hand. It was very effective, damaging Whittaker’s leg and forcing him to adjust. Fascinatingly, Whittaker’s adjustment involved starting a majority of exchanges with the right front kick (GIF).
Whittaker didn’t just seek to “THIS IS SPARTA” Romero in the chest though. Instead, he’d follow up the kick by springing into his left hook like in the Tavares knockout. Additionally, Whittaker could use the kick as a long step forward into the Southpaw stance, where Whittaker could then fire off combinations.
Since Whittaker is often striking from outside the usual boxing range, his opponents are forced to close that extra bit of distance as well. Most fighters do not set up their blitz as well as Whittaker, and it’s generally slower too. That’s where Whittaker’s check hook comes into play.
When facing wrestlers especially, Whittaker will carry his lead hand low to help secure an underhook. It’s a bit defensively riskier, but it also allows the check hook to land from a blind angle (GIF). Perhaps the best example of Whittaker’s counter left hook came opposite Derek Brunson, who insisted on pressuring Whittaker face-first. He was able to get away with it for a couple minutes, but eventually Whittaker was able to gain a solid stance while moving backward and crack him (GIF).
Whittaker’s defensive wrestling was solid at 170 pounds, but most expected him to struggle when facing the larger grapplers at Middleweight. Instead, Whittaker proved himself one of the best defensive wrestlers in the sport by consecutively taking out Brunson, “Jacare” Souza and Romero.
In 2017, Whittaker won a gold medal at the Australian National Wrestling Championships and qualified himself to represent Australia in international competition. Not bad for a man who had never wrestled previous to his mixed martial arts (MMA) career!
Whittaker’s offensive takedowns are few and far between, but they normally come in the form of a double along the fence. Whittaker’s left hook is a great punch to raise his opponent’s hands, and it’s not difficult to transition into a shot off that punch. Alternatively, a reactive takedown is an option if his opponent pursues him recklessly.
Against Uriah Hall, Whittaker capitalized on his opponent’s spinning techniques by pressuring into him. When Hall attempted his wheel kick, Whittaker was too close, allowing him to catch Hall off-balance and force him to the mat.
The improvements to Whittaker’s defensive wrestling are amazing. Whittaker has both great hips and a great whizzer. For example, which Whittaker defend a pair of Romero’s shots here (GIF). Despite a solid entry from the Olympic silver medalist, Whittaker flings his hips backward and punishes the attempt with a knee to the midsection. Romero continues to drive into a hybrid body lock/double leg, but Whittaker backs into the fence and cranks on the overhook to break Romero’s posture. The result is Romero loses control of the Aussie, allowing him to escape back to the center.
Whittaker’s range control makes it difficult for fighters to set up shots on him, which goes a long way in denying the takedown. However, Romero did show that Whittaker’s leaps forward can be timed for a takedown, but even then Whittaker is nearly impossible to hold down. In this week’s technique highlight, we analyzed how Whittaker was able to shake off such a decorated wrestler repeatedly.
Whittaker is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, but his takedown defense has largely kept him from displaying those skills. However, his last two fights have shown a bit of Whittaker’s defensive jiu-jitsu.
It’s mentioned in the video above, but Whittaker did a great job to hand-fight and prevent Souza from fulling taking his back. Because he denied “Jacare” control of his upper body, Whittaker was eventually able to escape the jiu-jitsu ace’s grasp.
In addition, Whittaker did show smart guard work opposite Romero, who will destroy people with elbows if given the opportunity. Whittaker smartly did not, immediately wrapping up double underhooks to control his opponent. From there, Whittaker grapevined the legs — again, preventing posture and significant strikes — before transitioning into a butterfly guard. He wasn’t able to fully sweep or stand from there, but elevating Romero did allow Whittaker to scramble to his knees and fight hands.
Whittaker has evolved in a few short years from another TUF champion to one of the sport’s all-around best. “Bobby Knuckles” is a special athlete who’s going to terrorize the elite of the Middleweight division for years regardless of whether he defends his title on Saturday or not. He’s the only man to successfully engage Romero enough to fatigue “Soldier of God” without being knocked out in the process … a dangerous task he’ll attempt to replicate this weekend.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.