Home Sports Why Robert Whittaker accepted a likely ‘harder fight’ vs. Ikram Aliskerov after Chimaev withdrawal

Why Robert Whittaker accepted a likely ‘harder fight’ vs. Ikram Aliskerov after Chimaev withdrawal

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ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 17: Robert Whittaker of New Zealand prepares to face Paulo Costa of Brazil in a middleweight bout during the UFC 298 event at the Honda Center on February 17, 2024 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Let’s say you’re Robert Whittaker. Let’s say you have a big fight booked against the undefeated Khamzat Chimaev as the headliner of Saturday’s UFC Saudi Arabia (3 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN+). It’s a fight that, if you win, almost guarantees you another shot at the middleweight title you once had, so that’s a pretty big deal.

You spend months training for this fight. You study Chimaev’s strengths and weaknesses. You hop on a plane to Saudi Arabia confident that you’ve done everything necessary to beat him and chart a path back to UFC gold. Then, just over a week before the fight, Chimaev pulls out due to illness. Disaster, right? But don’t worry, the UFC has a backup option for you, and it’s… Ikram Aliskerov.

This is where even the most dedicated observer of the sport could be forgiven for asking: WHO?? Aliskerov has only had two fights in the UFC. He is not ranked at middleweight and never has been. He was recently scheduled to face the equally unranked Andre Muniz on a largely forgettable UFC Fight Night card, and even in that low-wattage event he was far from main event status.

So when did Whittaker first hear his name called as a replacement opponent?

“I didn’t know anything about him,” Whittaker told Yahoo Sports. “And that’s not disrespectful. Some people have taken my words a little out of context and… thrown that quote in a slightly disrespectful way. But no disrespect, I didn’t know much about him. Then I did some research and watched some tapes, obviously, because I’m about to fight him. I understand, realistically, that this guy could be a tougher fight than Chimaev.”

That’s another part of what makes Saturday’s network television main event an especially tough situation for the 33-year-old former champion. Despite not being well known, Aliskerov seems to be pretty good. Even without anything close to Whittaker’s vast wrestling experience, is only a slight underdog +115, according to BetMGM.

Former UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker will face relative unknown Ikram Aliskerov on Saturday in Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Beating a guy like that provides limited boost for someone of Whittaker’s current renown. But losing to a guy like that? It could be a catastrophic setback at this point in his career.

There is no doubt, it is a difficult situation. On the other hand, what options did Whittaker really have beyond accepting the fight and doing everything he could to win? He had already put in the effort in training camp. The UFC had already picked him as one half of the main event. Rejecting Aliskerov would likely have meant there would be no substitute opponent, which in turn would have meant he did all that work for no money.

And then there’s the other part, which comes with the territory for anyone who has already been and hopes to one day be world champion again.

“We’re fighters at the end of the day,” Whittaker said. “There isn’t a single fighter in this game that I don’t think he can beat. And if I thought there was someone I couldn’t beat, he wouldn’t be in this game. That’s the mentality I have. I believe I can beat everyone, with all my heart. But secondly, I try to make my opponents care about my game. I play to my strengths. I like to lead the fight in the ways that give me the greatest advantage, because I can control that no matter what my opponent does. No matter who my opponent is, I can control him.”

When talking to Whittaker at this stage in his career, control is a topic that comes up a lot. Fighters don’t have much, so they must be careful to focus on the few areas where they do. The opponent who shows up on fight night, or the value that fans and media might assign to wins or losses over that person, these things are out of a fighter’s control. Even the shifting sands of rankings and title shots are largely out of reach for a fighter.

All you can really do, Whittaker noted, is win the fights you get.

“This is the hard truth of this sport,” he said. “Winning fights will open doors for you, no matter what.”

Whittaker should know every big fight he’s won. But in the process, he also built a legacy that goes beyond just victories and titles. At a time when some wrestlers are trying to get attention for being the most outrageous or offensive, Whittaker is the rare fan favorite who just seems like a genuinely good guy who is exactly as he appears to be, without posturing or pretense.

That’s the part of his career he’s most proud of, he said. He may not have won them all nor may he have taken the quickest path to the top, but he also didn’t have to sacrifice who he was to get something he hadn’t really earned.

“I’m proud of it because it’s something that I can show my kids my story and be proud of every moment and every stage that I have in it,” Whittaker said. “And I think where I am today is the best part. I feel like I’m checking boxes that weren’t open to me before. I feel like I’m reaching milestones I’ve never reached before. I feel like I’m reaching levels of fitness, strength, and fighting IQ that I couldn’t reach before. And I’m excited, man. I’m excited. “I think… I’m at my best.”

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