Robert Whittaker insisted he does not need the UFC middleweight title to consider himself a champion after coming through a "stressful fight" against a determined and dangerous Darren Till.
The duo went the distance in the main course on the UFC Fight Night menu in Abu Dhabi, the fourth and final event to be staged on 'Fight Island' amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Whittaker was knocked down in the opening round but recovered to get the nod from all three judges (48-47, 48-47, 48-47) in his first outing since losing the belt to Israel Adesanya last October.
Asked about the possibility of reigning again in the middleweight division, the 29-year-old instead revealed his focus is firmly on family matters, rather than future fights.
"My biggest thing right now is going back home to my babies and my wife. That's why I do all this, because of them," Whittaker said in the post-fight news conference.
"I am championship level. I wasn't myself in the last fight, not to take anything away from him [Adesanya] because he's a great striker, but I wasn't myself.
"This was a good win. I'm a champion – with the belt, without the belt, it doesn't matter. I'm looking forward to getting back to work and seeing how the next fight goes."
Pressed again about a potential opponent when he steps in the Octagon next time, he added: "I don't care, never have. That's why UFC loves me so much. They line them up and I knock them down.
"As fighters, we shouldn't be choosing who we fight, we fight who they put in front of us. Eventually, you have to fight them all."
Whittaker and Till both described their clash as a chess match, with neither wanting to cede any advantage to the other.
"I'm just happy that we got the result that we came here for," Whittaker said. "[It was a] Stressful fight. That was the most technical striking fight I've ever had.
"I understood that it was a very close fight. I showed my championship level and mentality, especially in that last round when it was so close. To finish it off by taking it down was a big boon for me."
Till has now lost three of his last four contests, though the Liverpudlian felt his performance should enhance his reputation in UFC after competing throughout a "clinically great match".
"I've never felt like this before after a loss. I feel okay," Till told the media. "He was just tough, one of the toughest fights I've been in. It was so mentally stressful, such a chess match.
"Neither guy wanted to throw, but every time we threw we did so to knock out.
"It was a close fight against a former champion, but I'm up there. I've shown how clinically good I am at striking. "We both won - it was clinically a great match."