Robert Whittaker dropped more than his belt when Israel Adesanya knocked him out to take the UFC middleweight title and snap his nine-fight winning streak.
Whittaker also lost his passion for mixed martial arts and admitted he was burnt out on the sport.
He believes he has found it ahead of his return to action against Darren Till in the main event of UFC on ESPN 14, which takes place Sunday morning in Abu Dhabi and airs on Saturday night in the U.S.
“I’m just happy,” Whittaker said. “I’m alive again. The fire for the sport has been there. I’m enjoying all angles of it. I’m enjoying media week. I’m enjoying the weight cut. I’m enjoying my time in isolation. That’s a massive change and just feeling that way means I’m gonna go in that octagon happy, and I’m just gonna get to work. I’m just gonna have fun.”
It wasn’t just the competition and the pressure of holding the title weighing Whittaker down. His journey to the belt was paved in the heartbreak of injuries and several brutal battles in the cage that took their toll even in victory, particularly the two five-round affairs against Yoel Romero.
Whittaker and his wife also had three children and moved four times along the way.
Winning proved an effective salve, but it all just got to be a bit too overwhelming when he suffered his first loss since 2014.
It was a process to find the passion again, and Whittaker is making sure he takes steps to not find himself in that dark place again.
The biggest change is how he expresses himself to his teammates and coaches in Australia.
“Honestly, just the open dialogue,” Whittaker said. “The open communication is just massive. Being able to tell them how I’m feeling and get feedback. Like, ‘I’m not feeling this session,’ or why I’m not feeling this session. Just to be able to talk like that is just massive. It’s done wonders for me.”
He hopes that translates to getting back on track when he steps back in the cage against Till. Whittaker had been steamrolling the opposition until he survived the two wars with Romero. They seemed to take a toll by the time he faced Adesanya. He believes his loss was more of a symptom of what was going on with him than anything else.
Now he’s ready to take aim at reclaiming the top spot in the world.
“Honestly, the world is my oyster where I’m sitting, and I guess my biggest thing is I want to enjoy it and earn a living, and that’s it,” he said. “As a team, as a family, we’re doing it together, so (I’ve) got to be happy with that.”
Till returned to middleweight after dropping the first two fights of his career, to Tyron Woodley in a title fight and Jorge Masvidal, and struggling with weight cuts. He won his debut with a split-decision over Kelvin Gastelum in November.
His left hand is a difference-maker and a weapon Whittaker will be keenly aware of as soon as the bell rings.
The main card will air live on ESPN at 5 p..m. on Saturday, with the preliminary card starting at 1 p.m.
Former three-time light heavyweight title challenger Alexander Gustafsson will make his heavyweight debut against former champion Fabricio Werdum in the last of four fight cards on “Fight Island.”