Australian MMA pioneers Chris Haseman and George Sotiropoulos assess the latest star and UFC title hope to hail from down under…
Seven years ago the UFC went down under for the very first time and 17,000 fans packed Sydney’s Acer Arena to experience the welcome party. Entertainment at UFC 110 was geared towards the audience and provided by the likes of George Sotiropoulos, Anthony Perosh and James Te Huna, who enjoyed varying degrees of success on the night but, more importantly, represented some kind of connection to Australia; Perosh played late-notice sacrificial lamb for superstar Mirko Cro Cop, Te Huna, a transplanted New Zealander, padded his record with a stoppage of Igor Pokrajac, while Sotiropoulos, a lightweight in a rich vein of form, dazzled on the main card in a three-rounder with Joe ‘Daddy’ Stevenson.
The night served its purpose. It put Australia on the MMA map. Indeed, there have since been UFC shows in other parts of the country, including ones in Adelaide and Brisbane, and nearly 60,000 fans in Melbourne were on hand to see Holly Holm kick Ronda Rousey’s championship reign and air of invincibility into touch in 2015.
One sight yet to materialise, though, is an Australian fighter competing for a UFC title, much less holding one. Sotiropoulos, for a time the best bet, looked brilliant defeating the likes of Stevenson, Joe Lauzon and Kurt Pellegrino but ultimately fizzled out to the tune of four straight UFC defeats. Close, not close enough. Te Huna, likewise, showed plenty of promise, albeit at a certain level, but he too suffered four straight defeats and retired last year. Perosh also retired in 2016. Before that he defied the odds and the ageing process with a number of upset wins, the most notable of which was a first-round knockout of Vinny Magalhães in Brazil. Yet, ultimately, Perosh, like Elvis Sinosic, Kyle Noke, Brian Ebersole and Soa Palelei, other sturdy campaigners who have represented Australia in the UFC, plugged mid-card holes and never more than that.
It’s for this reason, perhaps, Australia has open arms for the likes of Mark Hunt, a Samoan, and Hector Lombard, a Cuban. It’s also why so much hope and expectation is being placed on the shoulders of Auckland’s Robert Whittaker, a hard-hitting middleweight contender, who faces the biggest test of his career to date this Saturday (April 15) against Brazilian jiu-jitsu whiz Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza.
Whittaker, unlike the aforementioned Aussies, is young and fresh, just 26, and has grown up in tandem with his sport. He was a fledgling professional mixed martial artist when the UFC first rolled into Sydney. He was also still a teenager. This is, therefore, no journeyman drafted into the organisation to help shift tickets or rouse local interest. Instead, Whittaker is a genuine contender, particularly since moving from welterweight to middleweight, and, though an underdog this Saturday, could be a win or two away from challenging for a UFC title.
“Whittaker has had a good run,” says Chris Haseman, a pioneer of Australian MMA who was slated to face Sinosic at UFC 110, in what would have been the first all-Aussie MMA match in UFC history, only for Sinosic to pull out at the eleventh hour. “Whittaker, for me, is the one most likely to make the step up and fight for a title. Every time he steps up, he really steps up. He seems to handle tests and pressure pretty easy.
“Our problem right now is no one can really cut it at the top level. We haven’t had that superstar. Mark Hunt, who the Aussies claim as their own, is the closest we’ve come to that. But Mark is just a tough old Kiwi. He’s not world championship material. He puts on exciting fights, sure, but he won’t ever compete and beat the best in the world. Whittaker, though, could be our guy. He could be the first Aussie to fight for a title. I think he has that kind of potential.”
A former Cityrail electrician, Whittaker rose to attention, internationally, when he won The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes in 2012. Now, four years on, he’s ranked as the number six middleweight in the world.
There’s a lot to like about him, too. His striking is crisp, his punches hard, and he performs every move, especially on his feet, with a confidence and composure that belies his age. His last win, a first-round knockout of Derek Brunson, owed everything to this relaxed approach. Where Brunson was amped up and twitchy, Whittaker was settled and full of conviction, which is why it didn’t take long for the difference in striking to become clear.
The Whittaker vs. Brunson fight, a five-round headliner in Melbourne, may come to represent something of a seminal moment for both Whittaker and Aussie MMA. The stage was grand, the performance was dominant and Whittaker, in the immediate aftermath, was greeted by the 13,000 countrymen in attendance like a hero about to achieve bigger and better things.
“Robert’s a bit like Kyle Noke in that he’s very tough and durable,” says George Sotiropoulos. “He’s got a big heart, he’s got balls, he’s willing to throw. That’s what I like about him. He uses footwork to his advantage and his hands are very good; he throws looping, accurate punches that hurt people.
“Where we haven’t seen much of Robert is in his clinch game and his grappling. But he has showcased his abilities on the ground. He has great ground-and-pound and I know there are submissions on his record. He’s proven. He’s done very well.”
So far. He’s done very well so far. The next step, however, is undoubtedly the toughest one. You see, before even contemplating a title shot, Whittaker must somehow manoeuvre his way around the daunting test presented by Jacare Souza on Saturday night, and to do so he may have to survive and thrive in the guard of arguably the greatest jiu-jitsu exponent to ever grace the UFC’s Octagon. Or, alternatively, just knock him out.
“Mr. Jacare is someone I’ve been watching for years because I have this infinite love for jiu-jitsu,” says Sotiropoulos. “Mr. Jacare is not only a talented grappler, he is extremely elusive, explosive and technical. He’s going to give anybody problems. He’s going to give the best wrestlers and grapplers a problem, as you’ve already seen, not just in MMA but in submission grappling and jiu-jitsu. He’s a force to be reckoned with and is proven. He has come out of one of the best countries on the planet when it comes to producing exceptionally talented practitioners of jiu-jitsu and mixed martial arts.
“But Mr. Whittaker has also proven himself. He has a tremendous heart, he has tremendous skill and he has also got a bit of magic of his own. I don’t have a crystal ball, so I don’t know who is going to win, but, because we know where their strengths lie, we know it will be a great fight.
“Young or old, I don’t really think age is a factor because I think they’re both in their primes. Their mindsets are so focused right now. They’re both on point and fuelled by win streaks, so they’re in a very, very positive frame of mind.”
The great thing about Robert Whittaker, from an Australian point of view, is that it doesn’t really matter if he comes unstuck on Saturday night. After all, he’s 26. In MMA terms – nay, in life terms – still a baby. He’s also growing and improving year on year and, in contrast to his predecessors, seems positioned and equipped to make a run at a title whether it’s now, in six months or in a few years’ time. So a loss, although in an ideal world best avoided, won’t damage him the way it would others. It will put a momentary stop to his ascent, sure, but won’t come close to stopping his potential; it will further bend his learning curve rather than snap it completely.
“Of course he’s good enough to fight for the title,” says Sotiropoulos. “Look at Michael Bisping from England. Look at BJ Penn from Hawaii. Look at Georges St-Pierre from Canada. They were all title hopes who came out of regions which weren’t primary markets for MMA. Look what they all went on to do. There’s no reason why Robert Whittaker can’t do something similar for Australia. No reason at all.”