Visibly refreshed and patently raring to go, Robert Whittaker represents a clear and obvious danger to Darren Till in Abu Dhabi come Sunday.
The New Zealand-born Australian has not competed since losing his UFC middleweight title to Israel Adesanya last October, a knockout defeat that seemingly knocked the stuffing out of him.
A first loss in more than five years prompted Whittaker to take a step back from the sport. Label it burnout or simply falling out of love for the game, one of the promotion’s top talents needed time away, at age 29.
However, he cut a calm and confident figure at the W Abu Dhabi – Yas Island on Tuesday, not long before he runs into the menacing Till at the headline bout at UFC Fight Night 3. Hugely anticipated, it brings down the curtain on the inaugural, four-event Fight Island.
Looking to begin his own new chapter, Whittaker laughed and joked his way through the pre-fight media briefing, yet there was a focus there, too. The intervening period between UFC outings could just have made an already gifted combatant even more of threat.
“I’d like to think I was always dangerous,” Whittaker said. “I’m just happy. I’m alive again; the fire for the sport has been lit. I’m enjoying all the different angles: media week, the weight cut, my time in isolation. That’s a massive change.
“Feeling this way means I’m going to go in that octagon happy as Larry, and I’m just going to get to work, have fun. Because that’s what drew me to the sport, was what I enjoyed about the sport – the combat aspect of the game. Can’t wait until Sunday.”
Whittaker was supposed to return in March, against Jared Cannonier at UFC 248, but withdrew two months out for undisclosed reasons. Of course, it later transpired that it wasn’t through injury, but a different kind of fatigue.
Thankfully, that mental wariness has melted away.
“It feels good; it feels really good,” Whittaker said. “I’ve been hungry. That break I had was exactly what I needed. It brought the adrenaline and the happiness back in what I do.
“A lot of people don’t realise, the fight itself is 15-25 minutes. It’s every other day. It’s the training, every hour you spend in the gym, that’s the rest of your life. And that’s what I had to come to grips with, that’s what I had to enjoy again. And having that break, being away from the game and the training and the gyms, it reinvigorated me.”
The downtime has no doubt been good. Whittaker (20-5 in mixed martial arts) has made “significant progress” in his online gaming and bench-pressed a new personal best. As a father of three, much joy has been found as well in spending the time with family, doing "the little things” like taking the kids to daycare, or making them peanut-butter sandwiches. He calls it the “silver lining of this whole pandemic”.
The pandemic means no fans will attend the Flash Forum on Sunday. After the clash against Adesanya, and the hype that contest generated – it played out in front of 57,000-plus at Marvel Stadium in Melbourne – Whittaker says he won’t mind at all.
Mounir Lazzez makes UFC take notice
“That doesn’t bother me too much,” he said. “I’m just happy to be fighting overseas. I’ve fought a lot in Australia, and I love fighting there, all my fans and friends are there.
“But I’ve done it a lot and there’s a lot of things that surround it, a lot of media obligations, a lot of hype building, and nothing gets bigger than my last fight. Then the weight came crashing down.
“A huge draw for me with this career is I got to travel the world. For work, I got to visit exciting places, I got to fight in front of so many different crowds, I got to experience a side of life people can’t.
“And granted it’s a little restricted right now, but it’s really good. This is why I signed up; I wanted to come to places like Abu Dhabi.”
Get past Till, then the title talk, and a rematch with Adesanya, will surely amp up once more. Whittaker goes into Sunday's comeback as the division’s No 1-ranked challenger.
'Should be a cracker'
“People view me as a top contender because I am a top contender,” he said. “I’m one of the best in the world. I’m still only 29; I think a lot of people forget that as well. So I have enough time to walk away from the game and just train skill sets and come back at a later time.
“Honestly, where I’m sitting, the world is my oyster. And the biggest thing is I just want to enjoy it and earn a living. And as a team and a family we’re doing it together. So got to be happy with that.”
Although, Till is sure to thrive on the challenge. The No 5 middleweight (18-2-1 in MMA) appears on the rise, prevailing on his move up in class last November, when he took a split-decision win against Kelvin Gastelum. And, in typical fight bravado, he’s apparently hitting harder than ever.
“Should be a cracker,” Whittaker said. “We’re both going to go out there, going to headhunt – should be fun. He goes out there headhunting, he’s got good striking; I go out there headhunting, I got good striking. It just looks a fun fight.
“The biggest threat is his left hand. My biggest threat is I’ve so many angles he’s got to be aware of. I’m so creative. He’s got his left hand, that’s all he’s got.”
Even so, the build-up has been largely cordial, with the pair trading friendly jibes in public ever since the fight, initially slated for Dublin next month, was booked.
Till, 27, has become something of a social-media sensation, which Whittaker has evidently enjoyed. In April, he called on his English rival to join him in gorging simply on “chips and dips” until they met on fight night.
That said, the playful back-and-forth stops now.
“I was in the gym when I wrote that,” Whittaker said. “I don’t trust him and he doesn’t trust me. As cordial as it’s been – and it’s good to be like that, because you should be; we should set role models for other people – I don’t trust him as far as I can throw him.
“After he said ‘chips and dips’ I trained twice as hard. And I hope he didn’t train, because I trained my absolute arse off. I’m coming to come in there very, very good.”