Robert Whittaker open to Khamzat Chimaev rebooking, thinks Ikram Aliskerov ‘could be harder’ fight

Robert Whittaker has taken Khamzat Chimaev’s withdrawal from UFC on ABC 6 and the switch to new main event opponent Ikram Aliskerov all in stride.

Whittaker (25-7 MMA, 16-5 UFC) was scheduled to fight Chimaev (13-0 MMA, 7-0 UFC) in the headliner of the octagon’s debut in Saudi Arabia on Saturday at Kingdom Arena in Riyadh (ABC, ESPN, ESPN+). Chimaev became “violently ill,” according to UFC CEO Dana White, and was replaced by Aliskerov (15-1 MMA, 2-0 UFC) on nine days’ notice for the five-round middleweight bout.

“The changeover was really quick,” Whittaker told MMA Junkie on Monday. “My coach pulled me aside and told me the news about Khamzat and within a few hours my team and the UFC had worked something out and a new opponent was up to the plate. It’s not disappointing as such. I consider myself lucky to a degree because the fight’s still happening.

“It would’ve been much worse if I did all this work, got all this way, only for the fight not to happen. That would’ve been a nightmare. For the fight to still happen – very thankful for the blessings and everybody involved to make the fight happen.”

Whittaker had already arrived in Dubai from Australia to conclude the final week of his camp when he got the call. He’s already admitted he’d “never head” of Aliskerov when the switch was made, but he didn’t hesitate to accept whomever the UFC decided was the best alternative.

The former UFC middleweight champ has now done some research on Aliskerov, and said he’s impressed with his skillset.

“I watched a couple fights, I watched some footage and some tape – he’s a dangerous guy,” Whittaker said. “He’s got a really strong skill set. He knows what he’s good at and he uses that to great effect. I think the mentality behind him stepping up to the plate last minute – with everything to gain jumping up and fighting someone in the top five, nothing to lose kind of effect – I expect him to come out really hard and aggressive and bring that level of threat.”

The matchup between Whittaker, No. 4 in the latest USA TODAY Sports/MMA Junkie middleweight rankings, and No. 9-ranked Chimaev would’ve had massive implications on the division. Chimaev has consistently struggled to make it to the cage in recent years, though, and has become something of an unreliable opponent.

Whittaker, 33, said he empathized with Chimaev’s situation, and after his manager quashed rumors of a potential retirement, said he would be open to rescheduling the matchup in the future.

“There’s no sour taste,” Whittaker said. “Honestly, I feel for him and I wish him a speedy recovery and I wish him all the best. At the end of the day, we’re in an entertainment sport. I understand we fight and we’re opponents and we see each other in that light, but outside of the octagon, outside those 15, 25 minutes, we’re just people and I wish him a speedy recovery to good health.”

With the change in circumstance, Whittaker set he’s focused on the fight and not what his potential path to the title would look like with a win. He is taking Aliskerov very seriously, and his status as only a minor betting favorite proved that’s the mentality he needs to retain going into fight night.

“(The title is) not something I really focus on too much – I don’t look past the fight,” Whittaker said. “I understand the threat and the gravity that Ikram’s going to bring to the fight. I can’t afford to entertain thoughts past him. I’m only focused and locked in on trying to take his head off in the 25 minutes I’m given.

“He’s a dangerous guy and he’s got a really good skill set. The odds display that. I understand the type of fight it’s going to be. It could be harder than Chimaev. I’m ready and loaded to get this done.”

For more on the card, visit MMA Junkie’s event hub for UFC on ABC 6.

Story originally appeared on MMA Junkie