In some ways Justin Gaethje and Robert Whittaker gave similar performances this weekend—both showcasing that heart and desire that differentiates a great fighter from a decent one. But while Gaethje is the perfect example of banging a square peg into a round hole, Robert Whittaker recognized what he needed to do when thrown a curveball by Yoel Romero, and he adapted perfectly.
Straight Kicks Everywhere
Coming into this bout, it seemed that Whittaker could make use of his crisp jab and bewitching feints to make a difference. Yoel Romero is as explosive and creative as anyone in the mixed martial arts game, but it is his over-reactions when under fire that belie Romero's limited time in the striking game. The jab is the perfect weapon to take advantage of that, being so quick and non-committal, and being believable when feinted. Whittaker's bout with 'Jacare' Souza demonstrated that beautifully.
Except Romero did something Jacare didn't: when he saw Whittaker stepping in, he slammed in the low-line side kick. Jamming kicks can prove a nuisance to a man who needs to get his feet close to the opponent in order to punch, and when timed well they can also be a cause for real concern with a chance of damaging the recipient's knee. Apparently nursing a pre-existing injury, Whittaker returned to his corner after the first round and announced that his knee was trashed. What followed was not MMA's most spectacular performance, but faced with the loss of major weapons that he needed in order to execute his gameplan Whittaker performed one of the finest on-the-fly adaptations to ever grace the cage.
In the aftermath, Whittaker announced that if Romero had hit him with another good side kick to the lead knee it might have been curtains for the Kiwi head kicker. To save his lead leg, whenever the side kick came Whittaker threw his lead leg out behind him and broke stance to evade the kick at all costs. Stepping in with the lead hand was going to be dangerous with Whittaker looking to stamp on his lead leg so Whittaker had to change it up. In a rather unusual move, particularly against a wrestler of Romero's ability, he went to the right front kick.
It's not something you see all that often in mixed martial arts, and you will scarcely ever seen it thrown this frequently, but for Whittaker it was a savvy move. For one thing, it was the longest weapon available to him (remembering that the anchoring / pivoting foot on a rear leg kick is closer to the opponent than on a lead leg kick). By raising the knee high and stomping forward, Whittaker also ensured that if Romero drove in on him with another low line side kick, or with his famous jumping counter knee, Romero would be pushed away.
Whittaker threw dozens of these right leg front kicks, leading with them on most occasions. Often the right kick pushed Romero away, but Whittaker also looked to step in with southpaw overhand lefts, or to put his right foot down behind him so that he could spring into his money punch, the left hook.
After learning that Whittaker considers himself a karate guy, the influence of traditional points style competition is apparent in his game. Any time you see Whittaker's feet come closer together and he begins bouncing, watch for him to spring out into that Felix Trinidad style sprinter's stance and burst in with a strike. It is a simple classic and a great way to deceive and opponent.
Scraping Off an Olympian
We cannot fawn over Whittaker's striking too much though because that would miss the important point of this bout. Whittaker's skill on the feet would have been completely moot were he not able to repeatedly stuff and rise from the takedowns of the strongest wrestler in the middleweight division. Add this to Whittaker's performance against Jacare and he might be close to overtaking Jose Aldo as the best example of anti-wrestling in the game. Each time Whittaker was taken down he would scramble to the fence and begin to build up. With one hip pressed to the fence, and the inside knee raised, Whittaker could prevent Romero from throwing in the hooks as he built up in base. With the same side arm Whittaker would begin drive his elbow backward between his body and Romero's arm. When he rose to his feet he could turn into Romero and this would turn into an underhook.
Time and time again Whittaker went to this sequence, building up against the fence, denying the hooks, sliding in the underhook and turning to face, and Romero had no answers to it except knees to the thigh and buttocks.
When he was taken down Whittaker did a good job of using grapevines and underhooks to keep Romero from posturing up and striking as soon as they hit the ground—as he so famously did to stop Lyoto Machida, then inserted butterfly hooks and looked to sweep before getting to his knees and building up in exactly the same way. When Romero attempted to stall Whittaker out along the fence, Whittaker pummelled, caught Romero's wrist as he repummelled, and circled out gracefully. All of Romero's habits seemed to have been accounted for by Whittaker's team, and Whittaker was having none of it.
It was marvellous to watch Whittaker repeatedly go through the same sequence and completely mitigate much of Romero's incredible ability. As Romero began to tire, Whittaker was able to walk him to the fence and attack him in more sustained sequences, dropping his hips on Romero's naked shots.
The vast majority of Whittaker's striking work in this bout was done with the front kick to the body, but he had a couple of other nice looks on the feet. He searched for a counter left uppercut (a favourite of Alexis Arguello) a few times and found a good connection with it in the middle of an exchange along the fence.
Whittaker also looked for his usual right high kick to punish Romero's slips and leans, but Romero ducked deep enough to slip under it—garnering a gleeful squeal from Joe Rogan. Whittaker immediately stepped in again and kneed Romero's face as he ducked forward.
As we discussed in The Tactical Guide to Romero vs Whittaker, Romero is a fighter who likes to take breaks. He was never going to tire against opponents who sat back and allowed him to take breathers. Whittaker succeeded in pushing Romero to work through every minute of the fight and though Whittaker was never able to open up as freely as against many of his opponents, he did more than enough through the last three rounds to cinch the decision. Now the interim middleweight champion, Whittaker's improvement has been remarkable and through his last few performances he has begun to stand out as one of the most technically brilliant and disciplined fighters in the game. He cannot fight again soon enough for this writer's liking.
Pick up Jack Slack's hit dissection of the Conor McGregor phenomenon, Notorious from Amazon.