«Not really,» says Whittaker ahead of his fight against American Kelvin Gastelum, the main event of UFC 234 in Melbourne on Sunday. «It’s one of those things. What I do is a sport. It’s a sport, it’s not life or death, it’s not thuggery on the street.»
The challenge is not just a personal one for Whittaker. It has business dimensions, because his image in the UFC is that of a family man.
With the amount of adrenaline that’s going through my body, the pain is not outrageous.
Rob Whittaker, on fighting with a broken hand.
Unlike rugby players and cricketers, who can rely on their team to burnish their image, UFC fighters have to build a reputation on their own.
And their success or otherwise has consequences. «Every fighter has to negotiate his own contract with the UFC,» Whittaker says. «The more popular you are, the more leverage you have with them.»
Where, for example, every tennis player is paid the same amount if they reach round three of the Australian Open, fighters of roughly equivalent ability earn disparate amounts based on their popularity.
«We’re underpaid. We’re sorely underpaid for what we do,» says Whittaker. «It’s just one of those things when UFC has monopolised the whole sport and if you want to make it in the field you have to fight with the UFC. When they’re the only ones that own the sport, they can pay you what they like.»
The UFC declined to comment on Whittaker’s claims, but opposed an anti-trust lawsuit filed last year in the United States claiming it had monopolised the fighting market.
Whittaker, 28, is the breadwinner for his family. He has been with his wife Sofia for almost 14 years, an unusually enduring relationship for a man his age. Sofia is a stay-at-home mother but is deeply involved in her husband’s career.
As a UFC world champion, Whittaker earns very good money, tens of thousands of dollars a fight in addition to a cut of lucrative pay-per-view royalties and many thousands more in bonuses.
For a fighter who recognises his body has an expiring date in the ring, it must be powerful motivation to finish a fight with a broken fist though Whittaker says character and adrenaline are more powerful forces.
«With the amount of adrenaline that’s going through my body, the pain is not outrageous,» Whittaker says of his last fight. «It’s not debilitating.»
It would have been for almost anyone else. In his fight against Romero, Whittaker broke his hand in the first round and kept going for 25 minutes.
On Sunday he takes on Gastelum, who has been talking up his chances.
The two men, who coached alongside one another on the reality show The Ultimate Fighter, will meet at a sold-out event at Rod Laver Arena. It will be perhaps the sport’s biggest show in Australia since Ronda Rousey fought here in 2015.
Where Whittaker’s manner is studiously reserved, Gastelum’s braggadocio is more typical of a UFC fighter.
But Whittaker is not averse to some macho branding.
In the ring, he goes by ‘Reaper’. He says he likes what it symbolises: the end. More familiar fans call him Bobby Knuckles.
For some fans, Whittaker is an appealing fighter to follow because of his determination, skill and no-nonsense personality. Others enjoy the crunch and contact of a fight.
Sofia Whittaker see both sides of that duality. She watches her husband in the ring but has grown up with her partner and witnessed his transition from teenager to fighter to father.
«He’s just Rob for me,» Sofia says, though she admits there is some bleed-through of his fighting persona. The family has arranged ‘little Reaper’ and ‘junior Reaper’ clothing for the kids.
«It’s just really cute,» she says.
Nick is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald.