Middleweight champ Robert Whittaker: The UFC has a weight-cutting problem

Robert Whittaker poses on the scale as opponent Yoel Romero of Cuba watches during the UFC 225 weigh-in at the United Center on June 8, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. (Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker helped himself to a couple pieces of fried chicken after his “Ultimate Fighter 28″ media day at a swank Century City restaurant on Monday.

This might seem like a mundane detail to the average person, but if Whittaker was still fighting at welterweight, he probably couldn’t have allowed himself even this small a luxury.

“I like eating,” Whittaker deadpanned. “I like food. Being in camp and being able to go to a birthday party weeks out and they have a cake, I can say ‘yeah, I can have a little slice.’ That’s a big thing, mentally, to me.”

The Sydney resident revealed Monday he nearly quit mixed martial arts entirely following a horrific weight cut before his final fight at 170 pounds back in 2014, a decision which would have robbed the sport of one of its greatest competitors.

“My last fight at welterweight was one of the few times I thought about quitting the sport,” Whittaker said. “Weeks out from the fight, I was so stressed out about the weight cut that I almost called up [former UFC matchmaker] Joe Silva and said I can’t do this, this is terrible. I ended up getting to the fight. The weight cut, I did seven-and-a-half kilos the morning of [weigh-in]. I put on a sweat suit and went in the sauna. The whole process took four hours. It was terrible.“

Whittaker managed to tough out a unanimous decision win over Mike Rhodes the day after his astonishing 16.5-pound, four-hour weight cut, ending a two-fight losing streak and likely saving his UFC career. Then his wife laid down the law and forever altered his career.

“After that fight, for my own health, my wife said ‘you can’t look the way you did,’” Whittaker said. “I was a mess that night. That was the moment of truth that I had to move up or quit the sport.”

Whittaker made the commitment to move up to 185 pounds. And he’s become the sport’s leading example of what a fighter can achieve if they don’t try to force their bodies to the absolute brink: The victory over Rhodes was the start of a nine-fight win streak in which he became the UFC’s first-ever Australian titleholder. He’ll star on TUF 28, which premiers Wednesday on FS1, as a coach opposite another competitor who has found his best success since moving up from welterweight in top contender and next opponent Kelvin Gastelum (date and location of the fight TBD).

Whittaker doesn’t see it as his place to criticize other fighters, but he knows what has worked for him.

“Who am I to tell people what to do with their own careers and how they’re doing?” Whittaker said. “For me, the whole camp was about making weight, losing weight, worrying about the weigh-ins. I used to get so stressed out before the fight, weeks out, because of how much weight I had to cut to get there. The whole process from the start of the camp to the end of the camp was just making the weight cut. I wasn’t even thinking about the fight.”

Of course, while Whittaker can only control his own actions, he’s not immune to the sport’s extreme weight-cutting culture. Whittaker’s last title defense was against Yoel Romero, a tremendous competitor who happened to miss weight for each of his past two fights.

In an interim title fight against Luke Rockhold at UFC 221, Romero was three-and-a-half pounds off the 185-pound championship weight limit. The UFC awarded him the shot against Whittaker anyway at UFC 224 after Romero beat Rockhold, and Romero missed weight again, this time by 0.2 pounds.

Seeming to not learn its lesson, the UFC then went ahead and green-lit Darren Till for a shot at Tyron Woodley’s welterweight belt next month at UFC 228, despite Till missing weight for a win over Stephen Thompson in June by 2.7 pounds.

Robert Whittaker celebrates after defeating Yoel Romero of Cuba by split decision in their middleweight fight during the UFC 225 event at the United Center on June 9, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. (Getty Images)

In overlooking one of the sport’s most pressing issues for the sake of matchmaking expediency, the UFC sends out the signal that breaking the rules does in fact pay.

“It’s like me going down to bantamweight, not making weight, winning because I’m much bigger and then getting a title shot,” Whittaker said. “It’s not fair. It’s not fair. Because on the flip side, the guys that are making weight don’t make it easy. It wasn’t easy to cut weight and make weight and do the job. We still had to struggle, we still had to diet weeks out. We’re just more professional at it. We just did it right.”

Further, rewarding those who don’t do their job right puts undue pressure on those who come correct. In the case of Whittaker vs. Romero at UFC 224, the champion had flown all the way to Chicago from Australia and knew there would be a sellout arena who had made the commitment to see him fight.

“The people who do make weight are also in a hard position,” Whittaker said. “Because they’re in a position where they still need to make money to pay the bills, to earn a wage, to do their job. But they also have the support of hundreds of thousands of people who have come to see them fight or that are watching them on TV to watch a fight. The fans. That’s kind of why you fight — they drive the sport.”

Part of the problem, as Whittaker sees it, is that the penalties for missing weight aren’t strong enough. Fighters who miss weight have to forfeit a percentage of their purse, a percentage of which goes to their opponent and a percentage of which goes to the overseeing athletic commission.

“I think once you sign the contract that you’re going to make this weight and fight on this date, it’s the same if I walked up on Monday to fight,” Whittaker said. “You’re breaking the rules. It’s not how it is. It’s not what you signed on [for]. So, I think it’s highly unprofessional to not make weight. I think the punishments aren’t severe enough. I can see how hard it is to make a decision on weight cutting, but something needs to change. Too many people are missing weight and winning.”

Until then, as the UFC continues to demonstrate that competitors who miss weight will be rewarded, Whittaker can only control his own actions. In his case, had he stayed at welterweight, he was in danger of washing out of the UFC. Instead, he’s a world champion who can occasionally indulge in a piece of fried chicken.

If the others want to starve, that’s their problem.

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