Robert Whittaker: Karate is the foundation of my striking

Written by Boon Mark Souphanh

A year is a long time in the sport of MMA — just ask Sydney-based fighter Robert Whittaker. A little-known prospect scrapping away on the local circuit a year ago, Whittaker will now ply his trade on MMA’s grandest stage: the UFC Octagon. Having secured a six-figure contract from the UFC after winning The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes television series, the 22-year-old is looking to make himself a household name. Blitz managed to catch up with the hard-hitter to chat about life after TUF, training and why he feels traditional martial arts have a secure place in modern MMA.

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Rob Whittaker throws a mae geri at the TUF finale. 

Rob, how and why did you first get into martial arts?

My parents decided to get me involved in martial arts when I was seven years old. They wanted me to learn some kind of self-defence.

My mother had come from a martial arts background, having done boxing and other self-defence stuff, and my father had always been very passionate about it. They ended up enrolling me in a Goju-ryu karate school.

Tell us about training at PMA Mixed Martial Arts. What is your coach, Henrry Perez, like as a head trainer?

Training at PMA is awesome and Henrry is absolutely an excellent coach. He is a very considerate guy, not just in terms of the fighter’s training regime, but also of what the fighter needs emotionally and mentally.

He covers all the bases and pushes you really hard. I remember this one time we were pushing pretty hard for a particular fight and he thought I hadn’t trained hard enough in one of the sessions, so he made me go for a 2.5-kilometre farmer’s carry. I think I got 200 metres before I headed back (laughs).  

Coming from a traditional martial arts background, do you think your transition to MMA was made easier?

Definitely. I believe all the martial arts training I’ve done after karate was made easier. I feel I pick up things faster because I had that solid platform from training karate, especially in my striking.

What aspect from your traditional martial arts training has helped you most in the cage?

In the Goju-ryu karate I was doing, we focused a lot on ‘blitzing’ the opponent, using a lot of in-and-out type attacks, and skirmish-style tactics. I’ve managed to incorporate this into Mixed Martial Arts and I think I do it pretty well.

Karate has made me really light on my feet; my kicks are a lot more powerful and accurate as well. However, I think the biggest thing I took out of karate was discipline. They really drilled that into us. I think it’s made me more disciplined in terms of my training, and outside of the cage as well.

Tell us a bit about being in the Ultimate Fighter house. What was George Sotiropoulos like as your head coach?

Being in the house was absolutely horrible! There was nothing to do and I think that’s what they use to take you out of your element. It can really break you before your fights. I think it actually got to a few of the boys on the show, to be honest, because I feel a lot of them probably didn’t fight to their true potential. As far as George goes, he’s pretty uptight and has his own ways (laughs). Let’s put it this way… it’s better to be mates with him than not!  

What did you miss most while in the TUF house?

It would definitely be my family. I think you need your family there to offer that constant support. They provide an escape from everything in the gym. The fact that I couldn’t even contact them while in the house really impacted me.

Describe to us your weekly training schedule. How does this change as you get closer to fight night?

I try to fit in at least two training sessions a day, six days a week. I try to work on areas that I think I need at the time, whether it’s strength and conditioning, striking, grappling or wrestling. Sometimes I’ll do extra sessions if I feel that I need it for an upcoming fight. As we get closer to a fight, this definitely intensifies.

I’m really critical of my performances in the cage, so I always try to work on things that I didn’t do well in my previous fight and incorporate those into my next training camp. I like to think my training regime is quite flexible, that works for me. If I need to do more jiu-jitsu, I’ll do more jiu-jitsu. I’ve got to say that striking takes up most of my training, that’s for sure.   

How would you describe you own fighting style and how has it evolved since you made your MMA debut?

My style has changed a lot since my debut. When you first start MMA there are a lot of fears and worries. You always have a lot of nerves and have doubts going through your head. I feel that you tend to work those doubts away as you continue to train and fight. You also realise what works and what doesn’t in the cage.

As far as my style goes, I like to think of it as a dirty hybrid of karate, boxing and kickboxing. I think 90 per cent of the fight is mental, and I think in the fights I’ve won I’ve been better in that aspect. My striking is really unorthodox; it’s defensive as well as offensive. It also helps that I hit heavy as well. I would have to say that karate is definitely the foundation of all aspects of my striking game.    

What are you short and long term goals in MMA?

In terms of short-term goals, I saw a lot of holes in my game after my last fight at the TUF finale. I just want to work at correcting those. Last year was a good year, but I want this year to be a great year. I just want to keep setting the bar higher and keep fighting for it. Long term, I just want to get everyone to recognise me. I want to be the best.

Read more interviews with martial arts masters.