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Work-life harmony making Robert Whittaker more dangerous in the cage

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist
·4 min read
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LAS VEGAS — Everyone strives to find the perfect work-life balance. Not everyone, though, is judged so publicly on job performance as is Robert Whittaker.

The former UFC middleweight champion, who fights Kelvin Gastelum on Saturday at Apex in the main event of UFC Vegas 23 on ESPN, had been so committed to his training and his fight career that it overwhelmed everything in his life.

It could have cost him everything that meant anything to him.

But Whittaker reassessed the situation and is a different man now both at home and on the job, as he heads into the bout against the eighth-ranked Gastelum as a -250 favorite at BetMGM.

The results will, as always, be available for the world to judge and Whittaker is confident that they’ll be positive.

“I certainly feel I’m much more balanced with my approach in combat, which is having a direct effect on my home and family life, as well,” Whittaker told Yahoo Sports. “I guess the biggest change is just that I’m enjoying it a lot more. It’s not a struggle to do certain aspects of the game.”

The results have shown in impressive wins over Darren Till and Jared Cannonier last year following a stunning second-round TKO loss to Israel Adesanya in a middleweight title fight on Oct. 6, 2019, at UFC 243. He busted up two of the UFC’s best strikers and looked impressive in doing it. 

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - OCTOBER 25:  (L-R) Robert Whittaker of Australia punches Jared Cannonier in their middleweight bout during the UFC 254 event on October 25, 2020 on UFC Fight Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - OCTOBER 25: (L-R) Robert Whittaker of Australia punches Jared Cannonier in their middleweight bout during the UFC 254 event on October 25, 2020 on UFC Fight Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Gastelum has shown he loves to strike, and his agonizingly close loss to Adesanya in 2019 remains one of the most entertaining bouts in UFC history. But after a three-fight losing streak, Gastelum got back to his winning ways against Ian Heinisch last month, and he did it with a wrestling-heavy approach.

Gastelum stepped in to take the Whittaker fight when Paolo Costa fell ill, couldn’t train and was forced to pull out. That gave Whittaker the issue of preparing for a left-hander after having started camp working to fight a right-hander.

Beyond that, though, Whittaker said the challenge for him in the fight is Gastelum’s versatility.

“What makes him so dangerous is that he can take the fight to grappling, striking and wrestling,” Whittaker said. “He has knockout power. He is a very dangerous opponent, one of the more dangerous I could see in the division. We’ll have to wait and see who shows up on that night and who he’ll evolve into.”

The change wasn’t as dramatic as it might have been, because Whittaker prepared in 2019 to fight Gastelum. Whittaker was the champion then and, after weighing in successfully, had a medical issue overnight that forced him to pull out of the fight on the morning of the show.

So he already has been a long time working on his plan against Gastelum. He just needed to be sure everyone else was in agreement before he moved forward.

“I said yes because timing-wise, it was almost perfect for me,” Whittaker said. “I wanted to fight because the camp was done, more or less. After speaking about it with my staff and my family, it made sense to go ahead with the fight.”

If he wins, he’s all but certain to fight Adesanya in a rematch of their 2019 bout. It was a heavily hyped bout that was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, in the South Pacific region’s combat sports history.

Whittaker said he made some mistakes and gave Adesanya credit for a great performance. But he grinned broadly when he spoke of a potential rematch.

“I have a few things up my sleeve for that one,” he said.

Gastelum is next, and that’s all that concerns Whittaker. He’s succeeding because he’s no longer trying to be all things to all people and because he understands that a comfortable and happy Robert Whittaker is a dangerous and effective Robert Whittaker.

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