A brush with death has put life into perspective for UFC champion Robert Whittaker

Kevin IoleCombat columnist

Robert Whittaker views the world, and his place in it, a lot differently than he did eight months ago. That can happen to a man in the prime of his life, at his physical, mental and emotional peak, when death suddenly leaps from the shadows and threatens to steal all one holds dear.

One moment, the UFC middleweight champion was among the fittest people on the planet, preparing to defend his title. The next, an agonizing pain in his midsection had him desperate for relief and only hours, perhaps, away from death.

He had a fight in a few hours, but he didn’t care. He wanted the pain to stop.

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Fighters push their bodies like few others, and cutting weight can do strange things to them. But this pain, Whittaker quickly realized, wasn’t the same.

He’d just made weight for a fight scheduled on Feb. 10 in the main event of UFC 234, a title defense against Kelvin Gastelum. As he began the process of replenishing his body, something went very wrong.

“Almost immediately after I started rehydrating and refueling [following the weigh-in], almost immediately, I started to get these sharp pains in my stomach,” Whittaker said of the events on Feb. 9. “That’s the scenario, and it progressively got worse.”

Robert Whittaker speaks during a UFC 243 press conference at Federation Square on Aug. 15, 2019, in Melbourne, Australia. (Getty Images)
Robert Whittaker speaks during a UFC 243 press conference at Federation Square on Aug. 15, 2019, in Melbourne, Australia. (Getty Images)

His initial thought was that perhaps he was suffering from food poisoning, and his mind at first occupied itself with the pending fight. The pain never subsided and only increased in intensity.

He quickly ceased worrying about a way to save the fight.

“When I was in that amount of pain, I didn’t care about anything except making the pain go away,” Whittaker said. “Initially, there were worries about the fight. I was worried, I wanted to rehydrate and I was hoping it would pass and I’d be able to fight, blah, blah, blah, blah. But the pain reached a level where I didn’t care about anything except making the pain go away.”

Whittaker was soon out of one fight, the one against Gastelum, and into another. This was a fight for his life. He had both an abdominal hernia and a twisted and collapsed bowel. If his bowels and intestines had burst, which they easily could have, he probably would not have survived it.

Today, nearly eight full months after that harrowing night that included emergency surgery, Whittaker is once again preparing for a championship fight in Melbourne, Australia.

This time, it is regarded as the biggest combat sports event ever in the South Pacific, and a record crowd in excess of 50,000 is expected to see him fight interim middleweight champion Israel Adesanya for the undisputed title in the main event of UFC 243.

He has prepared himself brilliantly for the battle with Adesanya, who is poised to become the UFC’s next iconic star. There is pressure to promote, pressure to perform, pressure to be what so many people want him to be. This time around, though, his brush with death has given Whittaker a new outlook and a simpler way of dealing with things.

“It put things more so into perspective,” Whittaker said. “I feel like there were two shifts. There was a major perspective shift in my life from having kids, and then there was a second one, which was almost dying. I realized that there is so much more to living and to life, and to my journey, than just fighting.”

Whittaker and his wife, Sofia, have two sons, John and Jack, and a daughter, Lilliana. He has long been a classy, charitable man who has sought to be a role model. He’s worked tirelessly on charitable affairs long before his emergency surgery.

But he isn’t one of the UFC’s highest-profile champions, in part, because he’s been injured so often and hasn’t fought regularly. Since joining the UFC in 2018, Adesanya has had six fights. In that same timeframe, Whittaker has fought just once, and not at all in 16 months.

Robert Whittaker (L) and Israel Adesanya (R) pose during a UFC 243 press conference at Federation Square on Aug. 15, 2019, in Melbourne, Australia. (Getty Images)
Robert Whittaker (L) and Israel Adesanya (R) pose during a UFC 243 press conference at Federation Square on Aug. 15, 2019, in Melbourne, Australia. (Getty Images)

A win over Adesanya would go a long way toward vaulting him to prominence, to a place where stars like Georges St-PierreConor McGregor and Ronda Rousey have risen. While Whittaker has that kind of talent, he has had neither the visibility nor the backstory to capture the public’s imagination.

He isn’t, though, all that worried about it. He’s not about to talk trash or be something he’s not just to try to sell a few extra pay-per-views.

He doesn’t feel he needs to validate himself in any way. His record and entertaining style more than speaks for itself, he believes. He’s 20-4 overall, 11-2 in the UFC and is riding a nine-fight win streak. His last three fights were victories over Yoel Romero twice and Jacare Souza.

“All of those names, Conor and Ronda, whoever, they all have a list of selling fights,” he said. “That’s what they’re good at, but I am good at being me. I’m going to keep running that story and keep running my own journey, my own ship, if you would. My biggest thing is, I want to be me. I’m doing my own thing. I’m creating my own legacy and I’m creating my own path.

“There have been a lot of people who have put their two cents in about how I should go about things, how I should be, how I should sell the fights. I appreciate the interest, but it doesn’t bother me or impact me. I’m steering the ship and I am taking it in the direction I’m comfortable with and in a way that is me and uniquely me.”

If his tale of survival and perseverance doesn’t grab you, nothing will. That’s fine with Whittaker, though.

He’s a guy who loves his job — “I’m going out there to break his will,” Whittaker said — and loves his family. He’s not looking to be praised for that, though his ordeal taught him how tenuous life can be.

“Anyone who has kids, they’ll tell you how that’s a life-changing event for them and how much it impacts them,” Whittaker said. “And then going through something like I went through and how much differently things could have played out, you just appreciate them and the things in your life that are important a lot more.”

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