Robert Whittaker is the world’s best middleweight

Justin Faux Columnist

By , Justin Faux is a Roar Expert

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    “Just forget about the knee,” Robert Whittaker’s cornerman shouted at his charge as he entered the third round of Sunday’s interim middleweight UFC championship bout as a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest.

    “That’s easier said than done,” UFC commentator Brian Stann quipped.

    In his own words, Whittaker’s leg was “stuffed” after an inside kick from Yoel Romero all but blew out his knee. Making matters worse, he was down two rounds on the judges’ scorecards and couldn’t afford to drop another.

    The typically fleet-footed boxer was rigid and restricted but you wouldn’t have known that if the three-man commentary booth didn’t tell you. He kicked and moved around on the bum knee, all while masking his displeasure with a stone-cold poker face.

    “I sustained an injury early in camp,” Whittaker later explained in the cage after securing his eighth-straight victory. “I thought it would be 100 per cent by now, but the bastard kicked it and set it back weeks.”

    Romero, an Olympic silver medal-winning wrestler from Cuba, bullied the Sydneysider around the cage during the first ten minutes.

    It was a different story during the final three frames, though. In his exhausted state, the 40-year-old muscle-bound grappler was unable to pin Whittaker to the mat, landing just one of eight takedowns attempted.

    Whittaker fended off takedowns left and right and turned up the heat with every minute that ticked by, eventually knocking Romero down to the mat with a picture-perfect uppercut to cement the victory.

    And just like that, 16 years after Elvis Sinosic became the first Australian to challenge for UFC gold, Whittaker became the nation’s first king. Or interim king, for now.

    Robert Whittaker UFC 2017

    (AP Photo/John Locher)

    The newly-minted interim champ’s party was soon spoiled by Michael Bisping, the official 185-pound titleholder. “The fact that you’re standing right there with that f***ing belt on like you’re a champion makes me sick,” he said before tossing the title to the floor.

    “You should be ashamed of yourself. Here, take that. Fight me for it. I’ll see you soon, motherf***er.”

    Unwilling to fall into the trap set by Bisping, the respectful Aussie smiled, before pointing to the belt on the ground. “Can I keep that?” he laughed.

    Bisping, a career journeyman who shocked the world by levelling Luke Rockhold with a knockout blow to become UFC champ last June, is technically the king of the 185-pound castle. But plain and simply, Whittaker is the number one middleweight in the world after Sunday’s gutsy triumph.

    Bisping’s year-long reign as UFC champ has basically consisted of him avoiding any real contender like the plague.

    The 38-year-old Brit barely beat 46-year-old Dan Henderson in his retirement fight, then relentlessly angled to defend the crown against Georges St-Pierre, an ageing welterweight who all but hung up his gloves in 2013.

    Conversely, in less than a three-month window, Whittaker has taken on Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza and Romero – the best uncrowned fighters in the division – and beat them both.

    While the champ has sat on the sidelines, Whittaker has been his personal sniper, knocking two of the biggest threats to his position on the throne off the perch.

    “I am the best in the world,” Whittaker confidently said at the post-fight press conference. “I’ve said that every fight. I truly mean it.”

    If you believe UFC president Dana White, Whittaker will have his chance to prove that he’s the cream of the crop, as the promoter confirmed at the post-fight press conference that a championship unification bout is on the agenda next.

    “The GSP ship has sailed,” he promised.

    The Bisping-Whittaker bout was initially pencilled in to be one of the featured bouts on the UFC 193 pay-per-view event at Etihad Stadium in 2015, but it fell apart weeks before the two were set to enter the Octagon after Bisping suffered an injury.

    Almost two years later, the rival champions are likely to fight for all the marbles, and my money will be on Sydney’s favourite cage fighter.

    Justin Faux
    Justin Faux

    Justin Faux is a seasoned combat sports scribe. Covering mixed martial arts and boxing since 2007, Justin has been published on NineMSN Australia, Fox Sports, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and dozens of other outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @justinfauxmma.