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Whittaker's goal isn't to be champ, it’s to be the best

Being a bit delusional isn’t a bad thing for a fighter.

Just ask UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker, who fights Yoel Romero this Saturday in the main event of UFC 225.

While he points to his father as a role model in his personal life, “The Reaper” says there is nobody he looks up to as a fighter. At least, nobody who really exists.

“In my adult years I’ve definitely drawn a lot of inspiration from my father; I think he was a great figure for me and my brother growing up and he has a lot of traits and morals and values that I really took to heart. I think has developed me into a good man,” said Whittaker ahead of his fight at the United Center in Chicago. “But in terms of sporting athletes and role models in that regard, I’ve never been a huge sports guy. I like living in a little bit of a fantasy world. I love my fantasy sci-fi fiction books, I like anime, I like Lord of the Rings, so I like those sort of role models, things that I can’t achieve, that make me want to be above the normal, some people might say I’m a bit delusional.”

From his time as a contestant and eventual winner of 2012’s The Ultimate Fighter: Australia vs. UK – The Smashes, Whittaker has never been afraid to share his grand aspirations. Even before his first fight in the house, Whittaker was talking about making history.

It may have been that confidence, or delusion to some, that allowed him to bounce back from a two-fight UFC losing streak across August 2013 and February 2014.

Since then, eight consecutive wins have bridged the gap between Whittaker’s reality and fantasy worlds.

Come Saturday, Whittaker has a rematch with the closest thing to a superhero on the UFC roster.

Slated to fight Luke Rockhold in February at UFC 221, Whittaker was forced to withdraw after a battle with a staph infection and severe chickenpox. Romero stepped up on short notice and delivered a third-round KO victory over Rockhold, earning the Cuban born fighter another shot at the champ.

As he reflects on winning the interim title via a unanimous decision against Yoel Romero in July 2017 at UFC 213, it’s clear Whittaker’s goals remain larger than life. Only now, it’s much easier to believe he’s likely to achieve them.

“My goal wasn’t to be champion, it’s to be the best in the world; if that comes with medals and medallions and prizes and titles, I’m happy for it,” said Whittaker, who was elevated to undisputed champion in December 2017 after Georges St-Pierre vacated the title. “But my goal is to be the best fighter in the world that has ever lived, and me striving for that legacy is what is driving me more than anything else.”

While his fighting goals remain lofty, outside of the UFC’s Octagon, he’s more grounded than most 27-year-olds.

Married and a father of three children aged under three, Whittaker has recently welcomed his younger brother, younger sister, and parents-in-law into his home.

So just as Whittaker draws on the experience of his team to mold him into the best fighter possible, he has united his family for instruction in the art of fatherhood.

“I like having everyone together; there’s a lot of wisdom and experience to pass down and a lot of love, that’s the most important thing. I see the way my kids act around their grandparents and the way their grandparents support them, and it’s priceless, it really is.”

The stability of family life is another key to Whittaker’s success. If his social media pages are accurate, there is zero room for excess in the life of Whittaker. There is only a year-round cycle of training, family, and an occasional video game session.

So while his training may peak around fight time, there is no real off season for “The Reaper.” That discipline may make Whittaker’s return to action after an almost one-year layoff a little easier.

And as usual, Whittaker isn’t working on anything specific to beat Romero, as he is a firm believer in letting your opponent prepare for your skill set, not the other way around. In Whittaker’s mind, changing things up for a specific opponent is a sign of weakness.

“I’m doing my thing and I’m just increasing my skill sets across the board so that when I fight Romero a second time I’m just a better man, and I was a handful for him the first time.”

By his own admission, though, Romero was a handful for Whittaker too. That was especially true in the early stages of the fight, after Romero injured Whittaker’s left knee in the opening stages of the first round.

Somehow, Whittaker found the strength to fight through the pain in his knee and he turned the tables in the final three rounds, shutting down Romero’s takedown game and landing with punches, kicks and knees.

“In the second round I was on my back, and I was wondering to myself how can I get through this, how am I gonna win this fight with my knee the way it is, and I’m on my back now,” said Whittaker. “I think that was the lowest I was in that fight, and there’s just a point you reach where you either stand up and fight your heart out or you quit. And I’m anything but a quitter.”

When Whittaker talks about Romero, it’s clear their first fight inspired something close to awe in him.

“The first fight was an absolute war. That’s exactly what I said it would be, and it was that. He definitely surprised me with his explosiveness. I understood that he was explosive, but it’s different being in there with him,” said Whittaker. “I can’t even explain what it’s like being in the Octagon with Yoel Romero. It was just a long, drawn-out fight, it was tiring, and it went 25 minutes, which is a long time to fight for anyone. And yeah, I’m looking forward to it again.”

While Romero fading in the later rounds may have been the story of the first fight, Whittaker doesn’t buy into the idea that the “Soldier of God” has poor endurance.

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“People discount Romero’s cardio, but most of his finishes have been in the third round, and I don’t think it’s so much that he’s got cardio problems, I think he just slows down to normal human speed. Cause when he’s explosive and fresh, it’s not like anything you’ve seen before.”

The most recent of those third-round finishes came against Luke Rockhold, after a thudding left hand to the side of Rockhold’s head sent him crashing into the canvas. In Whittaker’s mind, that leaves no room for debate about who deserves to be standing across from him come Saturday.

“I think Romero has proven to everyone else that there is no one in the division that is above him that deserves a shot more than him. He fought Rockhold on late notice and won in dominant fashion, abd he’s beaten everyone else. I don’t think there is any question of who gets the title shot.”

Making history is the long game for Whittaker, but for now, his mind is fixed on beating Romero, and while beating the Cuban is impressive enough, stopping him this time around will take Whittaker further beyond the normal.

“I’ve got 25 minutes to look for a finish, and that’s what I’m going there to do.”

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