Heavy is the head that wears the crown, admits Robert Whittaker, as former champ returns against Darren Till
‘The Reaper’ confessed to struggling with the pressure of ruling the 185lb division but after a lengthy hiatus, Whittaker makes his comeback on Fight Island aiming to enjoy the freedom of his contender status live on BT Sport.
Fans of Robert Whittaker have become used to the waiting game.
Since April 2017, a combination of bad luck and injury have restricted ‘The Reaper’ to just four appearances inside the Octagon.
Barring last-minute disaster, his latest hiatus, stretching more than nine months, will come to an end on 25 July when he strides to the cage to meet Britain’s Darren Till in a mouth-watering main event that will serve as Fight Island’s closing ceremony - as ever exclusively live on BT Sport.
The Aussie star had originally been set to return to action to face Jared Cannonier in March, but in January, Whittaker pulled out of the fight admitting: “There are a few other things going on in my life that I need to give priority to and sort out.”
He later confessed to being “completely burnt out”, vowing to take some time away from training in order to spend time with his family.
For Whittaker then, a global lockdown arrived at precisely the right time to allow him to realign his focus after losing his 185lb belt to Israel Adesanya in emphatic style at UFC 243.
Speaking about his comeback to Submission Radio earlier this month, the 29-year-old said: “I’m just going to go in there and have fun with it to be honest.
“It’s one of those things where the pressure has been on so heavily over the last few years and everything has been ramping up and ramping up and ramping up. I just want to take a step back, take all the skillsets I’ve been working on and go in there and just be relaxed and let them out.
The theme for this fight is 'fresh'
- Robert Whittaker
“I want to go in there and have fun with it, be creative with it, I want to fight like me. I want to enjoy the ride, I want to enjoy the experience.”
It might be reasonable to assume Whittaker would want his first fight since losing the title to be on home soil but the 20-5 fighter admitted he had found the spotlight difficult to escape while competing among familiar surroundings.
“There is definitely pressure, especially fighting at home a lot,” he continued.
“I found that hard with the title up in the air. There is just so much more around it. So much surrounding the fights. It got a bit much. But it comes with the territory.
“I’m looking forward for a change, to fighting in a different country, no crowd, just a ranking fight. It’s going to be fresh. I feel the theme for this fight is ‘fresh’.”
Since making his middleweight debut in 2014, Whittaker has slowly assembled one of the division’s most accomplished resumes, becoming a cult favourite in the process.
Six performance bonuses since moving north of 170lb have done much of the talking for him during that time – but building up to this fight, Whittaker warned Till to expect a rough night inside the cage.
“I think he’s got a good skillset but I think that honestly, I’m better across the board,” he said.
“I hope I can get him out of there very quickly. It’s not going to be through lack of trying, trust me. But I’m prepared to make it a slugfest, I’m prepared to make it hell. I’m going to get in there and I’m going to do my thing.”
More than 17,000 kilometres away, in the Team Kaobon lair outside Wavertree in Liverpool, Till has been steeling himself to headline yet another main event – his fifth in 10 UFC outings.
Now campaigning at middleweight after giving up the struggle of cutting down to 170lb, Till will hope he can emulate the success of his opponent Whittaker, who made the same move some six years ago.
This camp, Till revealed, has been focused on helping him “get comfortable” at the weight following his victory on middleweight debut for the promotion against Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 244.
“[I’ve been working on] feeling strong, trying to stay with the same speed that I had at welterweight but getting a little bit stronger,” he told ESPN last month.
“I’m not trying to bulk up and be as tough or strong as these guys, just trying to stay agile and more speed. I’m just trying to get comfortable but I feel okay.
I'm not worried what he's doing. I couldn't care less
- Darren Till
“Robert is a little bit shorter than me but this is not his first rodeo so we’re going to see. I don’t know how he’s been preparing. I know we’ve had some back and forths, that he was not prepared and he was eating junk food and that, but he was the champion for a reason and I’m sure he’s going to come very well prepared.”
Despite Whittaker’s middleweight reign coming to an end with a relative whimper against Adesanya, Till added: “I’m expecting what I would expect from a champion, from one of the great middleweights that he has been and will go down as being.
“I have to do my work and prepare myself to do whatever it takes and make sure that I’m prepared for five rounds.
“A lot of people say the real Whittaker didn’t turn up against Adesanya, not to take anything away [from Adesanya] but that’s what a lot of people are saying.
“I said recently ‘if the worst Robert turns up, it’s better for me’. That’s what I would like. A lot of guys say ‘I want the best version of that fighter’ but I don’t understand why you would want that. Why would you not want the worst version? It’s an easier win!
“I don’t know, maybe he turns up and his head’s not right. He said he was dealing with a few problems. Maybe he turns up and he’s just unbelievable on the night.
“Either or for me, I’m prepared for both. I’m not worried what he’s doing. I couldn’t care less, I’m worried about what me and my team are doing.”
With a potential middleweight title shot not beyond the realm of possibility once Adesanya and Paulo Costa conclude their business, there is no small incentive awaiting the winner on Fight Island.
Will it be ‘The Reaper’, refreshed and rejuvenated, or ‘The Gorilla’, hungry for his first UFC gold?
Watch UFC Fight Night: Whittaker v Till from Fight Island exclusively live on BT Sport 1HD this Saturday from 11pm.