It’s hard enough fighting Cuban monster Yoel Romero with two working legs, but Robert Whittaker, the new UFC interim middleweight champion, saw his task become all the more difficult tonight (July 8) in Las Vegas when an injury to his left one handicapped his movement and striking.

Not that it mattered. Testament to his determination and quality, Whittaker still somehow prevailed, outlasting and outworking Romero down the stretch, and won their UFC 213 main event and the belt via unanimous decision (48-47 across the board).

It was, as the scorecards suggest, a competitive bout, yet also one easy to score. Romero, the physical and explosive former Olympic freestyle wrestling gold medallist, is as dangerous as anyone in the opening moments of a fight, especially the first three rounds, so it came as no surprise when he used takedowns and various rushes to get the better of Whittaker early. But Whittaker, 14 years Romero’s junior at 26, is a middleweight seemingly built for the long haul. He’s composed, relaxed, economical and well-rounded, and these assets allow him to appear comfortable wherever the fight goes. It was no surprise, therefore, to see Whittaker excel in the final three rounds and take each of them on the judges’ scorecards.

What was a surprise, however, was that Whittaker was able to do all this, effectively engineer the biggest win of his career, all the while debilitated from round one onwards. “My left leg is trashed,” he told his corner following a first round Romero kick that seemed to buckle his knee; meaning he was unable to put much weight on it thereafter, a hindrance to both his takedown defence and his own striking plans.

Yet, so good is Whittaker, the only obvious side effect of his injury was the occasional ugly step forward or to the side. Indeed, once familiar with the injury, and once accepting of his situation, Whittaker remained a threat throughout. He was, for example, able to frequently stop Romero’s takedown attempts, something that undoubtedly tired Romero as the fight progressed, and was also showing his superiority in the striking battle with some razor sharp boxing and well-placed kicks.

Most impressive of all was Whittaker’s fearlessness. After all, here he was standing in range with Romero, one of the most avoided fighters in all of MMA, and doing so while operating at less than 100%. Typically, such is Romero’s mystique and athleticism, opponents become passive with him, almost expect and wait for the inevitable, but Whittaker was different. He placed faith in his better striking and banked on Romero tiring as the fight drifted into the championship rounds. This knowledge, this self-assurance, allowed Whittaker to remain calm even when things started to go wrong for him. Even when his leg failed him. Even when he started getting taken down by a renowned wrestler with incredible physical strength. Just you wait, Whittaker seemed to say. You’ll get yours.

And so it proved. Signs of encouragement first emerged in round three, as Romero’s offence completely jammed up and he offered only unsuccessful takedown attempts. It was then Whittaker knew the slowing down process has begun. Ignoring patchy footwork, he persevered with punches. He made Romero work when he wanted to rest. He made him feel the pace.

This turnaround was further highlighted in round four when Whittaker started to bust up and hurt Romero with solid combinations. Fuelled by momentum, he wouldn’t let up. He came out of scrambles with the upper hand, avoided takedowns like it was no great feat and then rubber-stamped his edge in the fight with a tremendous right uppercut that had Romero unsteady and desperate to hear the klaxon to end the round.

He got it. But, going into round five, Romero now had the look of a man keen for it all to be over. Better yet, keen for the kind of break he received when controversially defeating Tim Kennedy in 2014. He needed time to regenerate. He needed room to breathe.

Whittaker, too, was feeling the pace by this stage. He’d put an awful lot into the previous four rounds and been working hard to avoid being taken down by Romero. He’d also made it his mission to outwork a man who fades late. That, in itself, is demanding. It required Whittaker setting the tempo and taking risks; grafting.

In the fifth, Whittaker, though fatigued, was still able to produce the better stuff with his hands and feet. He even ended the round on top of Romero, 13-2, working him over in guard, and had the Cuban bloodied and distressed. Enough to cement victory, the New Zealander came of age on his breakout night.

Afterwards, UFC middleweight champion Michael Bisping stepped inside the Octagon to first talk some trash with Yoel Romero – far from his favourite fighter – and then lay down the challenge to Whittaker, 19-4, the new breed, the man he will presumably face next. “The fact that you’re standing there with a belt on makes me sick,” said the volatile Englishman, throwing his own belt on the canvas. “Take that belt. Fight for it.”

It had been said Bisping was hoping for a Whittaker victory tonight, not only because of his clear dislike for Romero, but also because the New Zealander would seem to represent, stylistically, a good match-up for him. A natural striker, for Bisping, will always be preferable to a wrestler.

Yet what should be clear now is this middleweight version of Robert Whittaker, having defeated Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza and Yoel Romero in consecutive fights, will no longer be viewed as a straightforward match for anyone. He might not be the UFC middleweight champion. He could, though, very well be the best 185-pound fighter on the planet.


Full UFC 213 results:

Robert Whittaker defeated Yoel Romero via unanimous decision (48-47 x3)

Alistair Overeem defeated Fabricio Werdum via majority decision (29-28 x2, 28-28)

Curtis Blaydes defeated Daniel Omielanczuk via unanimous decision (30-27 x3)

Anthony Pettis defeated Jim Miller via unanimous decision (30-27 x3)

Rob Font defeated Douglas Silva de Andrade via second round submission (4:36)

Oleksiy Oliynyk defeated Travis Browne via second round submission (3:44)

Chad Laprise defeated Brian Camozzi via third-round TKO (1:27)

Thiago Santos defeated Gerald Meerschaert via second-round TKO (2:04)

Belal Muhammad defeated Jordan Mein via unanimous decision (29-28 x2, 30-27)

Cody Stamann defeated Terrion Ware via unanimous decision (30-27 x2, 29-28)

Trevin Giles defeated James Bochnovic via second-round TKO (2:54)