When Robert Whittaker returns to action, it will be on his own terms.
The good news for fans of “The Reaper” is that his recent withdrawal from UFC 248 was apparently not due to a major injury or familial health crisis; what is unfortunate is that what Whittaker is dealing with leaves him with no clear timetable for a return.
In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, the former UFC middleweight champion revealed that his current hiatus is due to him coming to the realization that he was “completely burnt out” after competing at the highest level of MMA for the better part of the last decade. According to Whittaker, reality hit him hard as he was working out at the Wanda dunes in Sydney, Australia, on Christmas Day last year.
“I just stopped,” Whittaker said. “Then stood there, asking ‘what the f… am I doing?’ It was Christmas Day. My family was somewhere else.
“That moment, it’s when everything crashed.”
Whittaker has been one to watch since winning The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes in 2012, first competing as a welterweight and then moving up to 185 pounds where he began a dominant run that culminated in becoming an interim middleweight champion (later elevated to undisputed status) with a unanimous decision win over Yoel Romero at UFC 213.
With nine straight wins and an unbeaten run from 2014 to 2018, it certainly didn’t look like anything was wrong with Whittaker. However, the 29-year-old has openly spoken about dealing with depression in the past and he explained that the stress of missing out on birthdays, weddings, and even funerals began to take a heavy toll on him.
“It was crazy,” Whittaker said. “And every time I missed an event, or had to leave early, whenever I trained through Easter, or ran Wanda dunes on another Christmas Day, each one became like suffering a knock.
Every time it was another knock, another knock, another knock… I was completely burnt out.”
“And walking back to the car afterwards, I told myself that what I was doing, it wasn’t normal,” Whittaker continued, referring to his fateful day on the dunes. “That I couldn’t keep going like that. So after arriving home, I got straight on the phone to my team, who had been at Wanda with me, and said ‘everything is paused until I work out how to stop feeling this way.’”
Whittaker said his move to middleweight in 2014 coincided with an intensified training schedule that yielded incredible results in exchange for personal sacrifice. Along with his wife Sofia, Whittaker is responsible for raising three children and looking after a younger brother and sister.
Finding a way to balance both proved to be increasingly difficult for the UFC champion.
“I sacrificed everything,” Whittaker said. “My team suggested several plans which I took to. And because it worked, I just kept at it. But you can’t keep doing that forever. You just can’t.”
“I just wasn’t home,” he added.
Whittaker points to his second fight with Romero, a split decision win for Whittaker that saw him badly rocked on multiple occasions, as a moment that put things in perspective. He suffered a broken right hand in that fight, one of several injuries that have limited Whittaker’s in-cage appearances over the past few years.
March 7 was supposed to see Whittaker face rising contender Jared Cannonier on March 7, but that bout was canceled for undisclosed reasons due to Whittaker withdrawing and he later released a statement apologizing for the decision. At the time, he did not provide any details as to why he had chosen to bow out.
Revealing his issues was not an option at the time given his schedule.
“You can’t say ‘hey, maybe I’m burnt out,’” Whittaker said. “As soon as one fight is over, you have another title fight on the way. So the negative thoughts, you block them out. You bite down on your mouth guard and work through. And physically, we were training at an intellectual level, with loads and spreadsheets, lighter sessions that involved stretching.
“But again, mentally I was burnt out. And you can only do that so long before you wind up in a fight below your mental best.”
Whittaker’s last fight saw him drop the middleweight title to Israel Adesanya at UFC 243 last October, a bout that ended with Whittaker being finished via strikes in the second round. He feels he could have performed better, noting “I just wasn’t myself.”
As for the rumor that his absence had anything to do with him donating bone marrow to one of his daughters, Whittaker doesn’t know where that came from.
Shortly after Whittaker’s withdrawal from UFC 248, UFC President Dana White defended the decision citing Whittaker being “completely selfless and down to the core a good human being.” Addressing those comments, Whittaker reiterated that he and the UFC were on the same page and that the bone marrow donation rumor is false.
“I didn’t speak with Dana directly but the UFC knew why I had withdrawn,” Whittaker said. “I love fighting, and it is something I’m good at. But you can’t keep fighting like I was trying to.”
“All my kids were fine,” Whittaker added. “They are fine.”
Now it’s just a matter of Whittaker righting the ship and finding time to do the things that are normal for most family men who don’t have to worry about winning cage fights. That means scaling back his training for now and giving his kids more attention on the weekends.
“And not having those sessions, it means I can do things Saturday night too,” Whittaker said. “Same as I’m now playing with the kids late into Sunday afternoon rather than being completely spent.
“The changes I’ve made, it really will change my life. Not training to exhaustion every day, I guess you can say I’m living.”