Many fighters work for years, even decades, to win a championship, to be able to say — even if only for a short period — there is no one better in the world at this weight class.
Robert Whittaker just shrugs at the thought, though. The middleweight champion, who defends his belt Saturday at the United Center in a rematch with Yoel Romero in the main event of UFC 225, is in it for the love of the competition.
“I don’t think of myself as the champion too often, honestly,” Whittaker said. “It doesn’t really change anything.”
Well, nothing but bigger purses, more notoriety and a seemingly unending list of demands on his time, but Whittaker isn’t about preening with his belt and boasting about his accomplishments.
He’ll be fighting Saturday for the first time in 11 months, since he defeated Romero last July in Las Vegas by the narrowest of margins. He had to pull out of a February title defense in Perth, Australia, because of illness.
He first had a staph infection that was followed in short order by a case of chickenpox. And while many have laughed when he’s mentioned the chickenpox, it’s no joking matter to him.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would back him up on that. Complications from chickenpox include sepsis, dehydration, pneumonia, bacterial infections of the skin, encephalitis and bleeding problems.
According to the CDC’s website, “Some people with serious complications from chickenpox can become so sick that they need to be hospitalized. Chickenpox can also cause death. Some deaths from chickenpox continue to occur in healthy, unvaccinated children and adults. Many of the healthy adults who died from chickenpox contracted the disease from their unvaccinated children.”
Whittaker desperately wanted to fight in Perth, but there was no way he could have done so given his health.
“I had fevers for about a week from the chickenpox,” Whittaker said. “The main thing is that my skin and my body broke out in these little blisters and welts all over my body. When you get chickenpox as an adult, it’s not a laughing matter. You don’t just get these red dots on your skin; they become full-on blisters. And they also have the potential to form into shingles.”
But Whittaker was spared that and is now fully healthy. He scored a quality win over Romero in Las Vegas that was all the more impressive because he injured his knee in the fight, but Whittaker is expecting a difficult bout Saturday.
Romero earned the spot with a stunning knockout of ex-champion Luke Rockhold, which was an indication of the issues he’ll present. Whittaker felt that punching power and said it’s only one of many areas in Romero’s game to be concerned about.
“He definitely surprised me with his explosiveness and how fluidly it all came together for him,” Whittaker said. “His level drops, mixed in with his unorthodox striking, it’s very hard to deal with and it’s hard to get an idea [of] how to deal with it until after you’ve been in there with him.
“He can punch, too. I’ve never been in there with someone where I thought their power was ridiculous. I don’t know, maybe that’s the adrenaline in me, but I can’t say it was like this crazy power. But make no mistake, he’s a big, strong guy who hits very hard.”
Romero missed weight for his fight with Rockhold in February, which he blamed on taking the fight on short notice. But on Friday, Romero came in heavy on his first attempt, weighing 186 pounds while nude. He came in at 185.2 on his second attempt, just above the limit.
Missing weight means this will not be a title fight for Romero.
Whittaker, who hit the divisional limit at 185 on the dot, said before that while Romero’s weight issues “are his business,” he believes that something must be done to fix the problem of fighters repeatedly missing weight.
It’s been a particularly big issue in 2018, as numerous fighters have missed weight (and then gone on to win). UFC president Dana White said the promotion is working to go back from the early-morning weigh-ins to the late-afternoon weigh-ins the company used to have.
Whittaker said he thinks those who miss weight should be handled harshly. He also said he wouldn’t rule out that some fighters are intentionally missing weight, willing to pay a fine to their opponents to gain an advantage in winning the bout.
“I think suspensions are in order, I really do,” Whittaker said. “Look, if you don’t make weight, you’re breaching a contract, straight up. I think the punishment should be more severe and they should force people to move up in weight if they can’t make it.”
Whittaker, as professionals do, did his job and made weight. He’s eager to get back into action because he’s been improving rapidly and adding to his game.
He’s been making the transition from average to slightly above average fighter for the last couple of years, adding and refining his game along the way.
“Obviously, that’s the thing any athlete wants to be able to do, to take weaknesses and turn them into strengths,” he said. “This sport is so competitive that you have to do this, because everyone is so careful and it’s the little things that make the difference. I’m just doing what I can to give myself as much of an edge as I can.”
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