During a year in which UFC has been short on stars capable of making must-see pay-per-view fights, it may have stumbled into a rising one in Robert Whittaker. Three months after knocking out Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza to cut the line and announce himself as a viable middleweight contender, Whittaker stamped his ticket to a championship opportunity on Saturday at UFC 213 in Las Vegas.
Whittaker (19-4) outworked top contender Yoel Romero over five tense rounds to capture the UFC interim middleweight title via unanimous decision (48-47, 48-47, 48-47) at T-Mobile Arena. CBS Sports also scored the fight for Whittaker, 48-47.
A native of New Zealand who fights out of Australia, the 26-year-old Whittaker is only getting better by the day. With the victory, he secured a future unification bout against division champion Michael Bisping, who is currently idle with a knee injury.
“We were destined to fight mate. I think it’s fate, it really is,” Whittaker said to Bisping, who entered the cage after the fight. “I’m happy to keep the seat warm. Give me a breather and we’ll give it a crack.”
Bisping, 38, borrowed from the book of pro wrestling in order to hype the fight when he approached Whittaker inside the cage on Saturday.
“First of all Robert, that was an awesome fight. Romero, well done,” Bisping said. “I wanted to come here and talk a lot of s— but it was an awesome fight. But the fact that you’re standing there with that f—– belt [and that] you’re a champion makes me sick. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
Bisping took his own middleweight championship and threw it on the ground in front of Whittaker before saying, “Take that, fight me for it. I’ll see you soon m—–f—–.”
Whittaker, who remained unbeaten since moving up to middleweight, recorded his eighth straight victory inside the Octagon. He quickly laughed off the theatrics of Bisping.
“I think he’s the champ for a reason,” Whittaker said. “He has been in this sport for a hell of a long time and he’s a tough opponent. I’m absolutely honored to fight him. He got disgusted with me holding the belt. If it came with a necklace I’d wear it. Here I am, this is the belt for the No. 1 contender and he and I are destined to fight.”
The victory largely showcased Whittaker’s growing poise, especially in the face of such an explosive striker in Romero. Not only did Whittaker’s takedown defense prove to be a decider in his victory, he overcame a leg injury in the opening round that could’ve cost him the fight.
“I was bothered pretty good,” Whittaker said. “I sustained an injury early in the camp. I thought I would be 100 percent by now but the bastard kicks it and set it back weeks.”
Romero (13-2) landed a side kick above the left knee of Whittaker, slightly robbing him of his mobility the rest of the way. But Romero never quite capitalized on the injury in a move that cost him.
“With a guy like Yoel Romero, if he senses weakness, he will capitalize on it every time he can,” Whittaker said. “I’m surprised he didn’t kick it more. It was definitely impacting my game. I tried to establish a solid jab and it was hard when your lead leg is bum.
“It was unstable. I think if he would have landed a good one I would have dropped. But champions are made of this stuff.”
Romero, 40, a native of Cuba, admitted he was aware of the injury.
“Yes, I knew I hurt his knee and I was waiting for my moment,” Romero said. “But if I lost the fight, God knows what he loses.”
After a close opening frame, Romero largely dominated Round 2 by taking Whittaker down and controlling from the clinch along the cage. But he expended a ton of energy in doing so and appeared to give away Round 3 by circling outside and catching his breath.
Whittaker took advantage of the opening and regularly connected from the outside with jabs, right hands and front kicks. He did the same in Round 4, flooring a fading Romero with a right hand.
The final round saw both fighters exhausted and coming forward. In the end, Whittaker proved to be the younger and hungrier fighter over the full five-round distance.
“This is a very close fight. I am honest, this is very, very close,” Romero said. “If the judges say that he got it, he got it. But it was a close fight.”
Romero suffered his first UFC defeat, snapping an eight-fight win streak since joining the promotion in 2013. Despite missing out on a title shot, Romero vowed he would return.
“I’m here in the struggle, I’m here,” Romero said. “Never, never give up.”
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