Most people gave Robert Whittaker little chance of defeating Jacare Souza when they met on Fox in Kansas City in April.
It wasn’t without reason, either. Whittaker no doubt was hot going into the match – he’d won six in succession as he prepared to face Jacare – but Souza seemed like he was several levels up on the chain. Souza had beaten more accomplished men, and had done it impressively, and seemed on the verge of a title shot.
When asked about that, Whittaker chuckles. He accepted the notion with the confidence and knowledge of a man who knows better.
Whittaker didn’t simply beat Souza that night, he dominated him before finishing him with a head kick and punches, in the process moving himself into the elite of the elite in the UFC’s deep and talented middleweight division.
He’ll fight Yoel Romero on Saturday in the co-main event of UFC 213 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas for the interim middleweight belt, and he knows there aren’t a lot of people giving him a chance again, either.
At one point in his career, that may have been enough to fold him. But now, it’s a vastly different man walking to the cage than the one who debuted in the UFC after winning “TUF Smashes.”
“It’s definitely been a progression, but I always knew I could be a great fighter,” Whittaker said. “I could feel it inside of myself. But I had to make things right around me.”
Whittaker’s near the peak of his profession now, and that came in large part because of his reaction to back-to-back losses he suffered to Court McGee and Stephen Thompson.
Those losses dropped his UFC record to 2-2, and even if the numbers on the screen said so definitively, Whittaker knew he was no .500 fighter. He was capable of more – much more, actually – than winning every other fight. He simply had to assess the way he approached the sport.
“I had to get the people around me on point, and I had to get my training on point and that in and of itself was a difficult journey,” Whittaker said. “Where I am now, I have smart people around me. I have people who care for me around me. I’m blessed with my family and with that, everything is on point and I’m getting great results.”
After the loss to Thompson, he was at his lowest ebb. He recognized mistakes he had made in putting his team together and the way he prioritized things.
The results are undeniable. He’s won seven in a row, including wins over Uriah Hall, Derek Brunson and Souza, and has a chance to have a belt wrapped around his waist on Saturday.
Romero is an Olympic silver-medal winning wrestler whose punching power is fearsome. He’s a nightmare matchup for many, but Whittaker believes his striking gives him the edge.
“I have great striking, really great striking, and I hit very hard,” Whittaker said. “When I put my hands on him, his game plan falls to bit. Wrestling, it’s hard to wrestle someone who hits hard and is hitting you a lot, so there’s that. But on top of that, I have wrestling and good grappling of my own. I have no holes in my game. I have faith in my wrestling, faith in my grappling and faith in my striking. So I like where I am.”
But he’s not where he wants to be. His goals are beyond just being a champion and making a lot of money.
He’s thinking big thoughts and, given his success in the last three years, who could blame him?
“There was a point in my career where I sat down with the people who care for me and we discussed in detail where I was and where I was going,” he said. “I have smart people in my corner now and they told me, ‘We expect you to be the champion. We expect that, but we also are going to expect more out of you.’ And that made an impact on me hearing that. They believed in me and so now, I expect more from myself because of the belief they showed in me.
“I just don’t want to be a champion; I want to be one of the best fighters there ever was. People may think that’s crazy, and that’s their opinion. That’s what I want to live up to, and I feel that’s totally within my reach.”