After building up some niggle between he and Yoel Romero, Michael Bisping didn't hestitate in agitating the Cuban around Romero vs Robert Whittaker. A Romero win would have given the UFC a fight between Romero and Bisping that sold itself, it would have given Bisping exactly the sort of contest he thrives in as he's as niggly as they get and the emotional baggage was already there.
Whittaker's different. Whittaker doesn't bite back, he lets his fighting do the talking and after defeating Romero via a decision, Whittaker's fighting speaks loud and clear. After claiming the interim middleweight title, Whittaker paid respect to the champ and gave us as much verbal niggle as we're going to get:
That's barely niggle though, that's just facts and Whittaker just dispatched arguably the most ruthless middleweight in the UFC. This gives Whittaker eight-straight wins and anyone who has back-to-back wins over Jacare Souza and Yoel Romero deserves a belt; whether it's the interim belt, the Champion's belt or just a belt for beating those two. Three fights ago, Whittaker torched Derek Brunson with precision striking to get a first round TKO, then he showcased his takedown/grappling defence and precision striking against Souza to get a second round TKO. Against Romero - who owns Olympic wrestling medals - Whittaker snuffed takedowns and went deep into a five-round war against the most feared man in the division.
That's two 'Performance of the Night' and two 'Fight of the Night' honours in three fights, three fights that have seen the quality of Whittaker's opponents steadily increase. Now you'd struggle argue against Whittaker being the most feared man in the division and Whittaker being among the top-three fighters in the UFC.
Top-three isn't crazy when you consider the skills Whittaker showed against Romero and the development he's shown throughout his career.
Early in the first round Romero clipped Whittaker's knee with a kick and it clearly damaged Whittaker's left knee, his lead knee. Thus making his left leg redundant and Whittaker said that this is why he had to put the left jab away as he simply couldn't extend or get power behind it. Then we came to learn after the fight that Whittaker had already injured his left knee in camp; glory to Whittaker's coaches who told him "fuck your knee, punch him in his fucking face".
That's what Whittaker did: 74 significant strikes to Romero's 48
Whittaker kept Romero at a reasonable distance with front kicks and even though Whittaker was limited to high kicks with his right leg, he still did damage. Whittaker is an excessively talented striker and he kept Romero backing up to the fence, controlling the centre of the octagon. This allows Whittaker to throw or faint punches and kicks that pushed Romero sideways, into another strike. Whittaker doesn't just throw a right hand, he follows it up with a high kick.
And then he's out, back out to distance. Whittaker stayed at a distance and pounced in for a flurry of strikes that came from all angles, yet he never stayed in the pocket, getting greedy with strikes. He dipped back out to patiently wait for his next opportunity.
Much of Whittaker's strikes came in the last three rounds though. After throwing 25 and 22 strikes in the first two rounds, Whittaker threw 53, 42 and 79 strikes in the last three rounds. That's because Romero was all over Whittaker in the first two rounds and many believe that Romero won the first two rounds, meaning Whittaker had to bounce back to finish the fight strongly with a bung knee.
What got Whittaker into a position where he could win this fight - trading blows with a fatigued Romero - was his takedown defence and defence with Romero wrapped around him.
This is Romero's strength and Whittaker found himself in some very tricky positions in the first two rounds.
Takedown defence is one thing and Whittaker avoided 14 of Romero's 18 takedown attempts thanks to a clinic in takedown defence; hips back and short footwork to get the feet back. No one does this better than Whittaker, but the real joy came early when Romero did manage to take Whittaker down and Whittaker found himself in a position that no UFC wants to be in.
First thing to note is how calm Whittaker remains despite those tricky spots. Whittaker knows that he'll find himself in such a position and he knows exactly what he's gotta do to get out of it, so he never panics, he just goes through his motions. Whittaker had absolutely no dramas in letting Romero spend time grappling Whittaker and much of the first round saw Romero maintaining that position, although Whittaker barely sustained damage in those first two rounds when Romero's grappling was dominating.
That's thanks to Whittaker bustin' his ass to get to the cage when Romero locked in with a takedown. This reduced the angles Romero could work with and once Whittaker was there, he could fight for minor positions, hold Romero's hands, drop his elbows back and get leverage. Not only did Whittaker not really suffer too much in those positions, he got out of them and got back to the centre of the octagon.
A slip from Romero late in the fifth round didn't help him and Whittaker jumped at the opportunity to get top position. While Romero was unable to do too much damage when he took Whittaker down, Whittaker made it rain with elbows (Whittaker called in 'Australian wrestling'). Whittaker finished this fight on top of Romero, dropping bombs and was made the interim champ.
We've got to wait for Bisping before Bisping vs Whittaker goes down, Whittaker needs some time to heal himself up as well. Bisping vs Whittaker will happen though and based on what Whittaker did against Romero, we can expect a whole lot of talking to come out of Bisping to try throw Whittaker off.
My pride in Whittaker isn't just based on him being Maori, representing Aotearoa and Australia, it's that Whittaker does so as a pure martial artist. Whittaker combines immense skill with a humility, respect and work ethic that I view as defining martial arts. Just as Mark Hunt is fighting the good fight and standing up for what's right, Whittaker conducts himself in a fashion that can only fill kiwis and Australians with pride. This is our guy and he's not only the most exciting fighter in the UFC, there's no bullshit, just martial arts.
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