Robert Whittaker’s withdrawal from UFC 221 was a major blow to a pay-per-view event intended to be a celebration of Oceania’s first UFC champion.
And it wasn’t a decision Whittaker made lightly.
Several weeks after news of Whittaker’s withdrawal went public, the reigning UFC middleweight titleholder broke his silence about the nightmarish series of injuries and illnesses that left him with little choice but to pull out of his Feb. 10 title defense against Luke Rockhold. With Rockhold instead readying himself to challenge Yoel Romero for the interim middleweight title at UFC 221, Whittaker detailed his own harrowing past few months on Monday’s episode of The MMA Hour.
“I think a lot of my fans and a lot of the general populace know that I have no qualms with going into a fight injured,” Whittaker told The MMA Hour host Ariel Helwani. “I’ve gone into many fights injured. I went into the Yoel Romero fight with a torn MCL, I went into multiple fights with broken hands, and that’s never deterred me. And during my prep and my camp, I did my hamstring — I did blow my hamstring out — but I was willing to work around it. So we just worked around it, threw it on the wall, no explosive sort of stuff, and then I got an abscess infection.
“That absolutely knocked me out of the park. I was on antibiotics for that for weeks and it was just really getting out of hand, and we were still — we were still very much, ‘Oh, we can make this work. If we cut out the three weeks we’ve lost now, we can turn it around so that we can just focus on fitness and skill sets and just get it done.’ And at the end of that, when I was thinking maybe we’re not able to fight, I got chickenpox as well. It was the sickest I’ve been in my entire life.
“My coaching staff came to me, my family came to me,” Whittaker continued. “They all went to me and sat me down, almost like an intervention, and said, ‘Rob, there is zero chance you’re going to be able to fight. Even if you did get in there, it is so unsafe for you to go out there with no prep and your body as weak as it is.’ And I have to listen to them. I have to listen to my coaching staff, that’s what they do, and that was the call. I was talking to the UFC and they completely understood. They were actually very courteous towards my illnesses, and yeah, it was absolutely gut-wrenching. This is the Perth headline, this is a pay-per-view event, this is the country that I’m representing. And for me not to defend my title here, it’s just gutting.”
Whittaker, 27, said the abscess infection was ultimately the beginning of the end.
While he was previously able to train around his hamstring injury, the infection ended up leaving “The Reaper” bedridden for several weeks, and Whittaker believes the weakening of his immune system may have led to his ensuing battle with chickenpox as well.
“I had an abscess on my bum, and it was infected, like a big puss buildup,” Whittaker explained. “And the antibiotics, when you take long courses of that antibiotic, you can develop a colon bug. So after about two weeks, two-and-a-half weeks on this — the only reason I was on this antibiotic for so long was because the infection was just knocking me out of the park, like I just could not recover from it — then I had to get a whole bunch of colon tests and stomach tests to make sure that there’s no hole in my stomach.
“Some of the symptoms from the infection could’ve been the onset of chickenpox. And I find it hard to tell people, ‘Yeah, I’ve got chickenpox,’ and they laugh at me, but, like, it was the worst thing I have ever gotten.”
While cases of chickenpox affecting children are commonplace and generally innocuous, adult onset chickenpox can often be serious and occasionally even fatal.
And Whittaker now knows all too well how serious the illness can be.
“When I thought of chickenpox before what I’ve just been through, I thought of, you know, little red dots all over your body and they’re itchy,” Whittaker said. “No, these were like blisters from head to toe all over my scalp, and because I had so many, some of them were popping and getting infected, and then there were fevers and headaches and nausea. It was just the worst thing, not to mention the itch.
“I was even on the phone with my mom and I was like, ‘Why didn’t you get me vaccinated as a kid?’” Whittaker added, laughing. “She was like, ‘I’m sure I did!’ And my face is covered and my skin is red, I’m like, ‘I’m pretty sure you didn’t.’”
Altogether, the combination of issues led to the worst series of hurdles Whittaker has been forced to overcome in the lead-up to a UFC fight, and he admitted that he dealt with some depression over his decision to throw in the towel rather than perform for his countrymen — even if it ended up being the right decision.
“I think it is a responsibility of mine to get in there and to fight and defend the title, especially in Australia, but it took a lot out of me to come to the conclusion that there is zero chance I’m going to be able to do this,” Whittaker said. “Because like I said before, and a lot of people have seen me do it before, I fought injured, I fought on short notice. I take up these fights because I’m a fighter at heart and I stay ready.
“But this wasn’t an injury I was just trying to work around. Even in the Octagon, I couldn’t work around chickenpox. With my torn MCL, I can be heavy on the back foot and I can move and let him come to me. With a broken hand, I can focus heavy on the other hand and kick a lot. This isn’t something that I can just formulate a gameplan to get around. It was an absolute nightmare.
“I’m good now. I’m a little weak,” Whittaker continued. “I feel a little weak coming back from all of the illnesses, because I was actually bedridden. And you know if you’ve taken two weeks off completely, it’s a nightmare. I was six weeks out in bed and fevers and everything. And then I come back, and a week out from the fight, I think to myself there’s zero chance I could’ve gone in there and confidently said that I could’ve gone.”
Moving forward, Whittaker said he didn’t mind the fact that Rockhold and Romero are competing for the interim title at UFC 221. He is simply focused on his own recovery and is targeting an Octagon return sometime in mid-2018.
And as it turns out, there’s another serendipitous result of Whittaker’s absence from this week’s event.
“This is funny, because you have to take the good with the bad, all things happen for a reason and all of that — my wife is actually getting induced (into labor) today,” Whittaker said, “because we found out on the weekend that the baby is not growing at the right rate and all of that, so they wanted to speed it up a week. So if I was fighting in Perth, I would’ve missed the birth of my daughter.”