Newly-crowned UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker had hoped that his first defense would come on home soil against Luke Rockhold in the UFC 221 main event in Australia. That was until he came down with an illness which he refers to as “the sickest I’ve ever been”.
Whittaker, winner of eight straight fights in the UFC, was awarded the UFC’s 185-pound title following Georges St-Pierre’s relinquishing of the title in the weeks following UFC 217 in New York last November. Since then, it appears that not a lot has gone his way.
Announced as the UFC 221 headliner, where he would face the challenge of former titleholder Luke Rockhold, Whittaker was forced to withdraw from the bout after what what Dana White referred to as a “serious condition” related to a staph infection which eventually spread to internal organs.
Yoel Romero has stepped in to face Rockhold at this weekend’s event in Perth. The winner will be awarded the division’s interim title, ostensibly a number one contender belt to face the champion when he’s fit to compete once again, but as for when that will be Whittaker appears unsure.
Speaking on Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour with Ariel Helwani, Whittaker detailed the grotesque sequence of illnesses which he has been facing in recent weeks.
“I think a lot of my fans and a lot of the general populace know that I have no qualms with going into a fight injured,” Whittaker said. “I’ve gone into many fights injured. I went into the Yoel Romero fight with a torn MCL, I went into multiple fights with broken hands, and that’s never deterred me. And during my prep and my camp, I did my hamstring — I did blow my hamstring out — but I was willing to work around it. So we just worked around it, threw it on the wall, no explosive sort of stuff, and then I got an abscess infection.
“That absolutely knocked me out of the park. I was on antibiotics for that for weeks and it was just really getting out of hand, and we were still — we were still very much, ‘Oh, we can make this work. If we cut out the three weeks we’ve lost now, we can turn it around so that we can just focus on fitness and skill sets and just get it done.’ And at the end of that, when I was thinking maybe we’re not able to fight, I got chickenpox as well. It was the sickest I’ve been in my entire life.
“My coaching staff came to me, my family came to me,” Whittaker elaborated. “They all went to me and sat me down, almost like an intervention, and said, ‘Rob, there is zero chance you’re going to be able to fight. Even if you did get in there, it is so unsafe for you to go out there with no prep and your body as weak as it is.’ And I have to listen to them. I have to listen to my coaching staff, that’s what they do, and that was the call. I was talking to the UFC and they completely understood. They were actually very courteous towards my illnesses, and yeah, it was absolutely gut-wrenching. This is the Perth headline, this is a pay-per-view event, this is the country that I’m representing. And for me not to defend my title here, it’s just gutting.”
The infection, Whittaker says, left him c0nfined to his bed for a number of weeks and the subsequent weakening of his immune system led to him developing chickenpox.
“So after about two weeks, two-and-a-half weeks on this — the only reason I was on this antibiotic for so long was because the infection was just knocking me out of the park, like I just could not recover from it — then I had to get a whole bunch of colon tests and stomach tests to make sure that there’s no hole in my stomach.
“Some of the symptoms from the infection could’ve been the onset of chickenpox. And I find it hard to tell people, ‘Yeah, I’ve got chickenpox,’ and they laugh at me, but, like, it was the worst thing I have ever gotten.”
Being unable to compete on the Perth card was a tough pill to swallow for Whittaker but he says that the factors surrounding him this time meant that competing on the card was an impossibility.
“I think it is a responsibility of mine to get in there and to fight and defend the title, especially in Australia, but it took a lot out of me to come to the conclusion that there is zero chance I’m going to be able to do this,” Whittaker said. “Because like I said before, and a lot of people have seen me do it before, I fought injured, I fought on short notice. I take up these fights because I’m a fighter at heart and I stay ready.
“But this wasn’t an injury I was just trying to work around. Even in the Octagon, I couldn’t work around chickenpox. With my torn MCL, I can be heavy on the back foot and I can move and let him come to me. With a broken hand, I can focus heavy on the other hand and kick a lot. This isn’t something that I can just formulate a gameplan to get around. It was an absolute nightmare.”
UFC 221 takes place this Saturday from the Perth Arena in Perth, Australia.