LOS ANGELES — Last month, Kelvin Gastelum turned heads by claiming that UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker has been through too many wars over the years, and that his recent pair of fights with the always tough Yoel Romero may have marked the turning point in their careers.
Whittaker, as you might expect, disagrees. The UFC’s first-ever Australian titleholder admits the matchups with Romero weren’t easy. But he also can’t figure out where Gastelum is coming from.
With the duo’s season as opposing coaches on The Ultimate Fighter 28 currently airing on FS1, and a title fight expected go down early next year on deck, Whittaker believes that his soon-to-be opponent is simply trying to convince himself that Whittaker isn’t the fighter he once was.
“I’d like to think that I’m one of the few guys who hasn’t been in a lot of wars, Whittaker told reporters at a media day last Monday. “I haven’t been hit that much. My last couple fights have been pretty hard, but look at the opponents and the caliber I’m going up against.
“I think he’s telling himself that to make himself feel better,” Whittaker continued. “Because there are some bad guys out there that couldn’t put me away, that couldn’t touch me, and I walked through them.”
That said, Whittaker, who will carry a nine-fight winning streak into the Octagon when he and Gastelum square off, didn’t let those words create any artificial tension on the the TUF set.
“What am I going to do, walk up to him and say ‘what are you saying about me?’” Whittaker mused. “To be honest, on the show, in regards to that, me and him, we stayed on each other, we were very civil, he was very respectful to me, and after that I showed that back to him. You show respect to me and I give respect to you. It wasn’t fun being around an opponent that whole amount of time, especially when you’re going to fight him eventually, but it is what it is.”
The upcoming TUF season has an interesting wrinkle in that it’s being coached by a pair of fighters who got into the UFC by winning versions the longtime reality series. Whittaker, for his part, won the 2012 TUF: The Smashes series between fighters from the U.K. and Australia; while Gastelum won TUF 17, defeating Uriah Hall in the finals in what at the time was considered a major upset.
For his part, Whittaker said that while he enjoyed the change of role from competitor to coach, he didn’t actually see himself as a coach so much as a motivator.
“It was a much more pleasant experience,” Whittaker said. “I didn’t see myself as a coach as much as a supporter, because, they came into the house as fighters, their skills have already been to a certain point. I can’t create them, I can’t change them, I can’t make them better fighters in four weeks. All I can do is try to make them as comfortable as possible to get to their fight to the best of their ability. That’s kind of my approach to things.”
There’s another similarity between the two coaches: They’ve both found their greatest success after moving up to middleweight from welterweight. But Whittaker says he’s not concerning himself with his opponent’s path, only his own.
“I haven’t really given too much thought to his transition to middleweight,” Whittaker said. “It doesn’t really bother me. What does it really matter? My transition into middleweight was great for me, it allowed me to manage my weight to cut less and just train and perform at a much better standard.”