When Robert Whittaker pulled out of his UFC 248 bout with Jared Cannonier because of undisclosed reasons, the rumors began to swirl.
Whittaker has a history of injury and illness, but didn’t hint at that being the cause for his withdrawal. Speculation eventually included a rumor that he stepped away to donate bone marrow to his daughter.
“But my kids were all fine. They are fine,” Whittaker said in a recent Daily Telegraph interview, before admitting, “It was me who had the issue.”
The issue was years of hard work catching up to him. Whittaker was finally broken, by himself.
Whittaker had been training seven days a week, pretty much every day of the year, for the better part of his UFC career. All the work led to him defeating some of the best fighters on the planet and eventually to becoming UFC middleweight champion.
But the years of training – frequently four to five times per day – was too much for anyone to maintain… even Whittaker. It all came crashing down on him on Christmas Day.
“I just stopped,” he says. “Then stood there, asking ‘what the f— am I doing?’
“My family was somewhere else,” he recounted, as he stopped mid-run on his typical Sunday workout of running the Wanda sand dunes near Sydney. “That moment, it’s when everything crashed.”
All the years of hard work had paid off in the cage, but it came with an expensive bill outside the cage. That bill finally came due and Whittaker realized that he was no longer willing to pay it.
“I sacrificed everything,” Whittaker explained. “My team suggested several plans which I took to. And because it worked, I just kept at it. But you can’t keep doing that forever. You just can’t.
“Because of my training schedule, I was missing birthdays, weddings, funerals …
“And every time I missed an event, or had to leave early, whenever I trained through Easter, or ran Wanda dunes on another Christmas Day, each one became like suffering a knock.”
That’s when he stopped running up that dune on Christmas Day. The realization sunk in.
“I was completely burnt out… I couldn’t keep going like that.”
In his interview with the Daily Telegraph, Whittaker admits that the burnout has been there for quite some time, he just wasn’t ready or willing to acknowledge it. He was able to push through it to defeat Yoel Romero in back to back bouts, but it eventually cost him his belt. Whittaker admits he wasn’t at his “mental best” when he lost the UFC middleweight championship to Israel Adesanya. That isn’t an excuse, it’s his truth.
“I know I can perform much better, and have performed much better.”
After his realization on the Wanda dunes, Whittaker shut it down. He put everything on pause until he could figure out how to stop feeling burned out. At 29 years of age, he has a lot of good years left as an athlete, but he realized that even if his body held up, his mind wouldn’t if he continued at the same pace. It was already crumbling inside him.
Though he backed out of UFC 248, Whittaker eventually changed up his team and his training program, gearing up for an eventual return to the Octagon. He’s already feeling much better about where he’s at with his life as a whole.
“The changes I’ve made, it really will change my life,” Whittaker declared.
“Not training to exhaustion every day, I guess you can say I’m living.”
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the world, UFC officials had been working on a bout between Whittaker and Darren Till to headline a planned August date for a UFC event in Ireland.
Though it’s still several months away, the Ireland event is in question. Because of COVID-19 concerns, the Irish government recently declared a ban on mass gatherings of more than 5,000 people until at least September.
That’s not surprising, as most experts are setting expectations that such gatherings might not be allowed to return until 2021 because of the pandemic.
The UFC is gearing up to move forward with its schedule in some fashion. UFC 249 is expected to take place on May 9, quite likely in Jacksonville, Fla., as that state is allowed closed-door professional sporting events. The UFC will likely move most of its U.S. based events to its Apex facility in Las Vegas as soon as it is allowed to do so.
For events like the UFC Fight Night planned for Ireland, many are expected to move to Dana White’s planned UFC Fight Island, the location of which is currently undisclosed.