Robert Whittaker is one of those rare individuals who managed to turn his sporting passion of mortal combat into a lucrative living.
The downside is pursuit of that passion involves getting into a cage to face some of the meanest sons of guns on this planet, men such as the human brick, Cuba’s Yoel Romero, who Whittaker, 27, has somehow found a way to defeat in his past two UFC fights in the US.
“The Reaper”, as Whittaker is known, grew up in Sydney playing the big video games of 20 years ago such as Mortal Kombat and Tekken, at the same time as he was honing his karate skills, which led to a black belt at age 14.
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“Karate is what inspired me, what helped me get my foot in the door,’’ Whittaker said this week during a quick trip to Melbourne to promote his middleweight title defence against American Kelvin Gastelum at Rod Laver Arena on February 10.
“There is so much culture in the sport, history and discipline. Looking back I was always drawn to combat, even if I’m afraid of spiders, heights, but I wasn’t a kid who went looking for fights.
“I grew up in housing commission, which led to some insecurities and a low self-esteem. If a fight came, I definitely did have natural ability for combat. I have natural instincts and talent.”
Those “natural instincts” have taken him to a world title and respect as one of the most dedicated practitioners in his sport.
Whittaker is obsessive in his attention to detail, something that relates to when he began karate.
Karate taught him about history, respect and the discipline required if he was going to make a living from his feet and fists.
At 14, his father gave him the option to change to another sport or drop karate, and while his brother walked away, Whittaker followed a path that eventually led to jujitsu and mixed martial arts.
And a world championship won over five gruelling rounds against Romero.
If you are unaware of the work of Romero, take a peak at him on YouTube and then envisage climbing into a cage with him.
Whittaker has done that twice in the past two years.
“Yoel Romero actually looked bigger the second time,’’ he said.
“But as my dad says, they’re only human, Robert, the same amount of bones, and every man falls after a certain amount of hits.
“Early on I hit him so much and he wasn’t taking any damage. It was like punching concrete.
“It was crazy, but it comes down to sticking to the plan and chipping away.
“My ultimate goal is to bring the best fighter out of me, to reach my full potential as an athlete. I never look past my next opponent because I respect everyone I fight.”
While Whittaker has reached the top of his particular tree in becoming world champion in a highly competitive weight division in a growing sport, the rewards don’t match what Jeff Horn got for smashing a broken-down Anthony Mundine last Friday night.
For just over 90 seconds, Horn pocketed well over $2 million. Whittaker goes in against the likes of Romero for roughly a quarter of that.
“We have to fight and complain and scrap for every cent we are given,’’ he said.
“That’s why it’s so important fighters realise it’s important to work on avenues outside their fighting career because in this sport your body doesn’t last forever.
“The prizemoney is nothing like boxing. And I don’t go around throwing trolleys at buses. So it’s about the product and making sure it’s a very good one.”