With just over a week until his UFC 243 showdown with Israel Adesanya, UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker says he is in better shape now than he has ever been.
“I feel absolutely amazing,” Whittaker told reporters during a UFC 243 press call early Thursday morning.
“The last couple of years have been a bit up and down, but I feel amazing.”
Whittaker (20-4) will defend his 185-pound belt against interim titleholder Israel Adesanya (17-0) on Sunday, 6 October at Melbourne’s Marvel Stadium.
It will be more than a year since he last stepped inside the Octagon, a year that has not been kind to the defending champ.
He was set to headline a blockbuster UFC 234 at Rod Laver Arena in February, but a freak abdominal injury and collapsed bowel forced him off the card on the day of the event.
It followed a similar situation at UFC 221 in Perth last February, where injury forced his out of his fight with Luke Rockhold.
Those injuries, he says, have seen him double down on his health and he’s come out the other side all the better for it.
“On the back of that emergency surgery I had to undergo, I just doubled down on my health, paid close attention to how I’m feeling, how I’m performing and just my overall health. I’ve become stronger and bigger for it.”
Now, with injury woes behind him, “The Reaper” says he is back in business and ready to stay busy. But first things first.
With just over a week until they unify the welterweight title, UFC is already predicting an audience in excess of 50,000 people.
This attendance is made even more significant given that UFC 243 clashes with one of the biggest sporting events on the Australian calendar, the NRL Grand Final.
“What a lot of people don’t understand is that this event is being held on the same weekend as the Grand Final. If you can compare it with that and still sell tickets and sell out… I really am stoked. I am so happy to see the sport is in such a healthy spot,” he says.
A tough challenge
Strategically, this fight poses a few big challenges for Whittaker – none more so than Adesanya’s height and reach advantage.
But Whittaker says the fact that a shorter opponent in Kelvin Gastelum was able to get inside and do damage shows there are holes in his arsenal.
“Adesanya is definitely my biggest threat right now and definitely my biggest challenge, because my next challenge is always the hardest.
“He’s the guy in my sights and he’s the guy who can stop me and take everything away from me. I want to deal with it like I have dealt with other guys I’ve fought. I’m going to stay on the outside and use my speed to get inside. Gastelum was able get in and he’s shorter than me.”
Whatever the outcome on 6 October, Whittaker says he is proud to have played his part in accelerating the UFC in Australia, a brand he says is fast becoming a household name.
“There are more opportunities than ever before for mixed martial artists in this part of the world to compete and make careers out of doing what they love,” he says.
“One of my biggest goals has been to put a positive spotlight on the sport here in Australia and New Zealand and get the recognition that it deserves. It can hit the mainstream sports market and I feel like I’ve had a bit of a hand in that.
“People know what the UFC is, people know UFC athletes now, it’s been on a roll and I don’t think it’s going to stop.”
UFC 243 will kick off at 1pm local time on Sunday 6 October. The co-main event sees Adesanya’s City Kickboxing teammate Dan Hooker (18-8) take on Al Iaquinta (14-5-1) in a lightweight showdown.