From the outside, fighters often appear to be unbreakable. Their willingness to go to battle until a referee steps between them is a testament to the toughness the athletes carry with them on a daily basis.
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But what remains unseen to the public eye is the inner fight — the one that takes place before the fighters even step foot into the cage.
In an interview with Submission Radio, UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker provided a glimpse of the hidden side. He detailed his struggle with depression leading up to his scheduled title defense against Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 234.
“Depression is real,” Whittaker said, “and it doesn’t matter who you are, you can get depressed and you can feel like you’re falling down a pit of despair.”
The feelings of self-doubt crept in as he got into training camp.
“That camp was very hard for me,” Whittaker said. “Coming back from the injury, being behind in terms of like the goal-setting that I wanted, my markers. I was very behind. Seeing my training partners performing much better than I, and it was a hard time for myself to motivate myself, to keep going, to motivate myself to feel good.”
With his mental health becoming more and more of an issue, Whittaker’s training was affected. He no longer anticipated sharpening his skills in training and viewed it more as a burden.
The champion went as far as contemplating what would happen if he couldn’t push forward any longer.
“Honestly, I just reached a point where I felt that it was either do or die for me,” Whittaker said. “So it was either I had to just start hitting the sessions, I had to get through it, I had to bite down on the mouthguard and just plod along – or not. And the alternative would have been to hang up the gloves, call it in. And I wasn’t ready to do that.”
Whittaker clarified that the thoughts of retirement didn’t stem from anything other than the lack of motivation to do anything at all, a common symptom of depression.
“It’s not like I suddenly felt like picking up a new hobby, it’s not like I suddenly felt like doing a new job, it was more of like I didn’t want to do anything,” Whittaker said. “I just wanted to have naps, not leave the house and just do nothing. It’s hard. I was demotivated to do anything. And it wasn’t specifically a sport-related thing, it was more everything. I was just tired, mate. I was just tired of it all.”
Depression is a mental health disorder that, while common, is difficult to rid oneself of. It is manageable, however, and while one solution cannot solve every case in the world, Whittaker was able to bounce back thanks to his support system.
“What really helped me is obviously the people that surrounded me,” Whittaker said. “Being supported by my wife, my kids, the support system I had around myself, you know, my coaching staff, my training partners, they all cared for me. And just knowing that they’re there and you can talk to them is very important.”
Ultimately, Whittaker’s fight with Gastelum was called off after the champion was forced out by a hernia and collapsed bowel.
To pull out on the day of the fight in front of a home Melbourne crowd was devastating, but it turned out to be “a blessing in disguise for multiple reasons.”
“The first reason is like, I got the surgery done when I needed it to get done,” Whittaker said. “It was definitely a blessing because I didn’t die. That’s always a good thing. And yeah, to be able to come back to Melbourne, put on a show they deserve, on a bigger scale, with more anticipation for it, with a training camp that’s honestly a hundred times better for myself personally, yeah, it’s unreal, it’s unreal.”
With his mental health and physical injuries rehabilitated, “The Reaper” moves onto his next challenge.
Whittaker will face the brash star Israel Adesanya in a title unification bout at UFC 243, and it didn’t take long to figure out who the Australian fans would be rooting for.
While promoting the fight in Melbourne, the New Zealander Adesanya was forced to play the villain by the crowd. Whittaker, never one for too much trash talking, got to revel in the moment while on the stage.
“Honestly, it was my favorite press conference to date,” Whittaker said. “It was one of the few press conferences I actually enjoyed because I didn’t need to say anything. The crowd … they had things to say themselves, they had a huge involvement in the press conference. And Izzy just kind of fueled it and it was just fun to watch.”
Whittaker said that he believed Adesanya was “flustered” by the hostile crowd, but he doesn’t think that will factor into their fight by any means. The champion, however, hopes to feed off of that same energy once it’s time to step into the Octagon and defend his belt.
“I would never say I’m excited for a press conference because it’s still a pain in the ass to do, but mate, I know I’m the crowd favorite if we fight in Australia,” Whittaker said. “I know this. And I’m coming to the fight in Melbourne in October knowing this, and I’m gonna draw on their strength and I’m gonna go in there and give it my absolute everything.”
In order to unify his belt with Adesanya’s interim title, “The Reaper” must hand the flashy kickboxer his first loss in professional MMA.
Adesanya has had a quick rise since debuting in the UFC in February of 2018. Most recently, he won the interim middleweight belt in a hard-fought bout with Gastelum that went all five rounds.
Both fighters landed their fair share of big shots in the “Fight of the Year” contender, but it’s the damage the smaller Gastelum was able to do that showed Whittaker how to put Adesanya away.
“If Kelvin can get in and hit him, I can,” Whittaker said. “Kelvin could get in there – I think he was winning the striking exchanges early on. And I’m a better striker than Kelvin. Plus, I don’t drop off.
“I’m going in there with the goal of making sure it’s short. You know, I really am.”
Shane Connelly is a journalism student at Penn State with a passion for sharing the stories of MMA fighters.