Walking into the cage sporting a Southern Cross tattoo on the left side of his chest and a Ta moko (traditional Maori tattoo) on his right shoulder, Whittaker carries the weight of both nations.
Born in New Zealand, he grew up in Menai in Southern Sydney. Training in traditional martial arts throughout his youth, he credits fighting with helping to shape the person he is today.
“Martial arts taught me discipline and consistency; you need both to get to where you want to be,” says Whittaker.
Watching him spar, it’s easy to see he is the embodiment of a true martial artist, in every sense of the word. A black belt in karate and hapkido, he also recently received his brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
He is a reflection of the values taught in martial arts schools across the globe. Humbleness, discipline, respect, confidence and work ethic: he is a product of the lessons learned and the values instilled in martial arts students for hundreds of years. When combined with Whittaker’s warrior heritage, you have one of the most dangerous fighters in the world.
“I like to think I’m a born fighter. I was born with some instincts and skill-sets that other people weren’t. I carry the ancestry of warriors, and I give thanks to my blood and background.”
Those warrior instincts were on full display recently when he went face-to-face with the sternest test of his career – a fight with Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialist, Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza, a winner of five jiu-jitsu world championships and a former ‘Strikeforce’ middleweight champion. Before the fight, it was commonly believed that Whittaker would merely be another casualty on Jacare’s road to the title.
Instead, he showed why he’s the future of the division. Using lightning speed, pinpoint accuracy, heavy hands and a swift kick to the temple, Whittaker managed to finish Jacare in the second round; blasting himself into the spotlight as a legitimate threat to the UFC middleweight title.
Whittaker didn’t just beat one of the most feared fighters on the entire UFC roster – he made it look easy.
He puts it all down to discipline and consistency.
“I work a 9-5 job like everybody else, but the difference is that I’m training, I’m sweating and I’m working out. I leave early in the morning like a lot of tradesmen do and I train. I go to the gym and don’t get back until night, just like plenty of people. I don’t have a lot of time. I don’t think it’s harder than any other trade or profession; they are both jobs that just have different skill sets.”
The comparison to a tradesman is fitting – Whittaker made his MMA debut as an 18-year-old while working as an apprentice electrician. After three years of tearing through the local Australian scene, he was selected for the UFC’s reality TV show, The Ultimate Fighter, which he went on to win.
It was from here that he was able to drop the apprenticeship and turn his full attention to his MMA career. In doing so, he made a decision that a lot of young Australian fighters do and went to train overseas.
But deciding to pack his bags and head to Montreal, Canada to train at the world famous Tristar Gym ultimately led Whittaker to realise that there is no place like home.
After finding some initial success with his new team, Whittaker would go on to lose two fights in a row. For the first time in his career, he was staring down the barrel of two consecutive losses.
He knew things needed to change.
The soul searching done in the weeks and months after his second consecutive defeat would put the wheels in motion for Whittaker to find the success he has today.
“I had to bring it back to basics,” says Whittaker.
“I went home and I said why am I losing? What matters to me? I also surrounded myself with the coaching staff that I have today; smart people, guys that genuinely care for me and want me to succeed. Now I stay home and do all my training in Australia.”
At least for now, the formula is working.
“I want to show the local talent getting up in the scene that you don’t need to leave. You don’t need to spend thousands upon thousands of dollars to get overseas and train. Not to toot my own horn, but I’m number three in the world, and I achieved that solely by training here in Sydney, Australia.”
His strategy was vindicated on July 9th in Las Vegas where Whittaker fought and won the UFC interim middleweight title, signalling the greatest martial arts achievement by anyone from Australia or New Zealand.
To become Australia’s first official title holder, he had to go through Cuban Powerhouse, Yoel Romero. A silver medalist in wrestling at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, Romero is a well-rounded mixed martial artist with devastating knockout power. With 11 of his 12 fights ending by KO, the match-up was arguably the toughest in the division for Whittaker.
“He’s been competing at the highest level since he was a kid. I have to take that into consideration when going into this fight. He’s an absolute killer. You have to respect your opponents.”
Whittaker’s achievement was a long time coming and has in no way come without the hard work and perseverance on behalf of the 26-year-old fighter.
While he holds the interim title, he still has one final hurdle to overcome before he can officially reign supreme as the world’s number one middleweight: the current champion Michael Bisping, who is out with injury. Whittaker will face Bisping in a title unification bout next. Bisping is 38 and Romero, who Whittaker already dispatched was 40, making Whitaker one of only two fighters in the top 15 under 30 years of age.
Time is on Whittaker’s side, and for Aussie audiences, this homegrown talent is showing no signs of slowing down.