The 26-year-old New Zealander is on eight-fight winning streak and captured the interim belt by defeating top contender Yoel Romero at UFC 213 in July. Three months earlier he knocked out highly regarded contender Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza. In the fight prior to the Souza knockout, Whittaker finished Derek Brunson. While Whittaker was defeating contenders, then-champion Michael Bisping was either fighting non-contenders or sidelined with injuries.
After a 13-month period of inactivity, Bisping returned at UFC 217 on Nov. 4 and was defeated by former welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre. St-Pierre had been away from the sport for four years and had never fought as a middleweight. On Dec. 7, St-Pierre relinquished the title, and Whittaker was elevated to unified champion, but the Aussie fighter says that he was the real champion all along.
“I don’t think there was a doubt in anyone’s mind who the real champ was. I fought my way up through some hard dudes to get to where I am, and yeah, I am the champ, I was the champ,” Whittaker told Submission Radio.
Facing the former champion in the first defense of the belt will be the biggest fight of Whittaker's career, but a fight against St-Pierre would have been something special to “The Reaper.” Whittaker used to idolize St-Pierre.
“I wanted to fight Georges out of respect more than anything. I idolized him as a child coming up and as a young man coming up in my career. He was always one of my biggest idols. To be able to fight him would’ve been great. To put him on my resume and say I fought Georges St-Pierre, that would have been great,” he said.
While St-Pierre's legacy is set in stone as one of the greatest fighters to ever compete inside the Octagon, Whittaker believes he would have been too much for “Rush.” In fact, he never really thought St-Pierre would actually fight him.
“I don’t think I ever really convinced myself that he would fight me. I think it was a dangerous fight for him, a hard fight for him and it is what it is.”
Now that St-Pierre has vacated, Whittaker and the division can move on, starting with Whittaker's showdown with Rockhold in Perth, Western Australia.