While the middleweight contender walked away with a win, he also had to survive an all-out onslaught from his opponent, Derek Brunson, in the main event of UFC Fight Night in Melbourne last November.
Whittaker, who will fight Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza this Saturday at UFC on FOX: Johnson vs. Reis, looked to be in trouble in the early minutes of the first round. A barrage of punches from Brunson seemed to stun Whittaker, who looked wobbly as he tried to circle away from his opponent’s attack. Brunson smelled blood, charging bull-like after Whittaker with such recklessness that he slipped over.
Eventually, Brunson’s aggression fizzled out, giving Whittaker the opening he needed for a TKO via head kick and punches at 4:07 into the opening round.
But Whittaker says it was no comeback victory, and is slightly amused at the idea he was ever hurt in the fight.
“It’s funny, a lot of people said, ‘Oh, you came back after getting rocked like that,’ and, to be honest, I never felt rocked, ever,” he said ahead of his fight at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri. “I felt quite calm and composed. I was surprised a bit when he came out at me that hard. When I fight someone, I know when I’ve rocked them and when I’ve hurt them. He seemed to have thought he hurt me, I guess.”
The 185-pound standout says he backpedaled because it was the smart play.
“When someone comes at you that hard, it’s very dangerous to enter the storm, to counter fight like that. It’s much better to ride out the wave and just wait for your opportunity, because a lot of people get caught when they try to brave the storm and just put their chin down and beat it out. And sometimes that’s necessary, I’m not saying that’s wrong to do, it’s just not what I felt I needed to do at that point.”
It’s that kind of wisdom that sets Whittaker apart from other fighters his age. Married and a father of two boys, the 26-year-old is an old soul both inside and outside the UFC’s Octagon.
With eight years of experience as a professional fighter, Whittaker has a knack for making smart split-second decisions in the heat of battle, and he will need every point of his fight IQ against Souza.
The No. 5-ranked Souza is the level of opponent Whittaker has been campaigning for. And having won six straight fights, “The Reaper” could no longer be denied.
“When I got the call (to fight Jacare) I was super stoked. I’ve been asking for a top-five opponent for a while and to get a name as renowned as Jacare is a dream come true and I’m really looking forward to this fight.”
Whittaker makes no secret of his game plan against five-time world Brazilian jiu-jitsu champion Jacare, who was once considered the best pound-for-pound grappler on the planet: keep it standing.
While the 37-year-old Brazilian is also a dangerous striker, Whittaker believes his opponent will be taking the path of least resistance.
“I think he’ll come out hard, and I think even he would know to an extent he needs to get this fight to the ground and if he doesn’t, that’s my world. I’m comfortable standing up.”
Get ready for Fight Night Kansas City: Fight card | Cheat Sheet | Fighters on the rise this weekend | Watch Road to the Octagon: Johnson vs Reis, Namajunas vs Waterson, Souza vs Whittaker | Watch free fights: Johnson vs Cejudo | Reis vs Sandoval | Be there! Get your tix here
Some BJJ competitors of Jacare’s caliber have failed to successfully switch to MMA because they lack the skills to get the fight to the ground.
But Jacare, who is also a black belt in judo, can put almost anyone on their back. That’s a possibility Whittaker is ready for.
“I train my jiu-jitsu extensively with some of the best black belts in Australia. Obviously, my game plan is to keep it standing, but I’m very comfortable on my back, I’m very comfortable being in that position. I don’t doubt that I have the ability to get up if I need to; that just means I’ve done a couple of things wrong early on.”
Whittaker is also a BJJ competitor, albeit without Jacare’s pedigree. The New Zealand-born Australian recently took home two gold medals in the purple belt division in the Sydney Cup of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Whittaker is a big believer in focusing on his own game and not his opponent’s, and says he never tailors his training for a particular fighter. That hasn’t changed, and Whittaker says his decision to compete in BJJ wasn’t his way of preparing for Jacare.
“No, I try to stay active in competition, always. It’s just a great way to train, to prepare for that competition.”
So how does Whittaker think he’d fare in a BJJ match against his opponent? Well, he knows his odds are far better in an MMA fight.
“I’m under no illusion about how good he is at BJJ, and thankfully for me we’re not competing in BJJ. It’s a fight.”
Come Saturday, Whittaker is looking to end the fight in a way that’s far outside the BJJ rulebook.
And if he delivers on his promise, a shot at the middleweight title in 2017 will become a real prospect for “The Reaper.”
“I think I’m gonna starch him. We’re going to go out there and touch gloves, but I’m gonna hit him. He’s not gonna be ready for my power or my speed, and I’m gonna make him break.”