Fighter On Fighter: Breaking Down ‘Bobby Knuckles!’
Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Middleweight roost-ruler, Robert Whittaker, will battle knockout artist, Kevlin Gastelum, this Saturday (Feb. 9, 2019) at UFC 234 from inside Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, Australia.
In four fights, Whittaker moved from dark horse contender to accomplished champion. Undefeated since his move to Middleweight, Whittaker first exposed the defensive holes in Derek Brunson’s game before denying “Jacare” Souza the takedown and kicking him in the head. Whittaker sealed his legend with his last two fights, a pair of absolute wars with Yoel Romero (watch the rematch here). In the first, Whittaker overcame serious adversity in the form of a trashed knee to outlast Romero in the deep rounds. The second fight was no easier for “Bobby Knuckles,” who was forced to survive a pair of bad knockdowns to ultimately win the decision.
In Kelvin Gastelum (read fighter breakdown here), Whittaker faces another man looking to get in his face and slam home power shots. Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
The blend of karate and boxing is becoming more and more common, but Whittaker is perhaps the premier example. A black belt in Karate and Hapkido, Whittaker is a very capable range fighter, but also works well with his hands and from inside the pocket.
In terms of movement, Whittaker remains light on his feet and bounces like a Karateka. He likes to bounce in with quick punches, another trait that reveals his traditional martial arts background. However, once he bursts into the pocket, Whittaker’s combinations are that of a skilled boxer. There is none of that ugly alternating straight lefts and rights from the Aussie.
Whittaker is dangerous from within the pocket, but much of his work begins outside of that range. Bouncing in place, Whittaker is able to spring forward and close a surprising amount of distance. Often, he does so with the jab, a mark of his boxing experience. Whittaker’s jab and subsequent jab feints make him a very difficult man to deal with at range, as he builds from the strike wonderfully.
The opening two rounds of Whittaker’s last bout with Romero were a great display of what the Aussie likes to do on offense. Keeping his hands low despite the dangerous man in front of him, Whittaker kept his feet bouncing, ready to attack or react.
When attacking, most of Whittaker’s offense came from his lead side. Whittaker’s money punch is his left hook, a strike he sets up in a variety of ways. In this particular fight, it was all about the relationship between the hook and the jab. Whittaker stabbed down the center of Romero’s high guard with single and double jabs often, but he also sprung forward directly from his stance into the left hook around the guard. Often, Whittaker would throw his left hook directly after a jab, and hooking off the jab is a wonderful way to disrupt the defenses of opponents.
Whittaker relied heavily on his lead leg as well. Taking a page from Romero’s strategy in their first bout, Whittaker immediately opened the fight with a dozen side kicks to the thigh, hoping to hyper-extend Romero’s knee. Those side kicks came up to the mid-section too, as did more straight, snapping kicks. Taking advantage of Romero’s high guard by targeting his stomach, Whittaker would also flick up left and right round kicks immediately following the jab.
A common set up for Whittaker’s hook is to roll following his cross. After Whittaker commits to his cross by moving forward with sudden speed, he’ll immediately roll to avoid the counter hook. As he ducks down and moves towards his right, Whittaker can fling out a hard left hand. In the second Romero fight, Whittaker was not often able to land this rolling hook on his foe’s wide guard, but his habit of ducking after throwing his right did save his chin a number of times from Romero’s active check hook.
To score a knockout victory of Brad Tavares a few years back, Whittaker showed another crafty left hook set up. After flicking out a front kick to the mid-section, Whittaker returned into his stance balled up and ready to explode. He immediately sprung into the left hook, which caught his opponent still standing tall after the kick (GIF).
Whittaker kicks behind his jab well, often targeting his opponent’s lead leg. However, a signature technique of “Bobby Knuckles” is the right high kick, often set up by the cross (GIF). In this week’s technique highlight, we talk the timing on Whittaker’s right high kick.
Since Whittaker is often striking from outside the usual boxing range, his opponents are forced to close that extra bit of distance as well. Most fighters do not set up their blitz as well as Whittaker, and it’s generally slower too. That’s where Whittaker’s check hook comes into play.
When facing wrestlers especially, Whittaker will carry his lead hand low to help secure an underhook. It’s a bit defensively riskier, but it also allows the check hook to land from a blind angle (GIF). Perhaps the best example of Whittaker’s counter left hook came opposite Derek Brunson, who insisted on pressuring Whittaker face-first. He was able to get away with it for a couple minutes, but eventually Whittaker was able to gain a solid stance while moving backward and crack him (GIF).
In 2017, Whittaker won a gold medal at the Australian National Wrestling Championships and qualified himself to represent Australia in international competition ... until UFC threatened to strip his title. Previous to his mixed martial arts (MMA) career, Whittaker had no wrestling background to speak of, making that achievement even more impressive.
Whittaker’s offensive takedowns are few and far between, but they normally come in the form of a double along the fence. Whittaker’s left hook is a great punch to raise his opponent’s hands, and it’s not difficult to transition into a shot off that punch. Alternatively, a reactive takedown is an option if his opponent pursues him recklessly.
Against Uriah Hall, Whittaker capitalized on his opponent’s spinning techniques by pressuring into him. When Hall attempted his wheel kick, Whittaker was too close, allowing him to catch Hall off-balance and force him to the mat.
The improvements to Whittaker’s defensive wrestling are amazing. Whittaker has both great hips and a great whizzer. For example, watch Whittaker defend a pair of Romero’s shots here (GIF). Despite a solid entry from the Olympic silver medalist, Whittaker flings his hips backward and punishes the attempt with a knee to the midsection. Romero continues to drive into a hybrid body lock/double leg, but Whittaker backs into the fence and cranks on the overhook to break Romero’s posture. The result is Romero losing control of the Aussie, allowing him to escape back to the center.
Whittaker’s range control makes it difficult for fighters to set up shots on him, which goes a long way in denying the takedown. However, Romero did show that Whittaker’s leaps forward can be timed for a takedown, but even then Whittaker is nearly impossible to hold down as a result to his refusal to accept bottom position. Whittaker kicks at the hips and frames away, potentially giving up his back and trusting his excellent hand-fighting to keep him safe in that situation.
A Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, Whittaker is rarely on his back long enough to display his ground skills, nor does he look to grapple offensively too often. However, he has shown some very smart defensive jiu-jitsu.
For example, Romero will destroy people with elbows if given the opportunity. Whittaker did not allow him to do so, immediately wrapping up double underhooks to control his opponent. From there, Whittaker grapevined the legs — again, preventing posture and significant strikes — before transitioning into a butterfly guard. He wasn’t able to fully sweep or escape from there, but elevating Romero did allow Whittaker to scramble to his knees and fight hands.
Whittaker showed very intelligent defense opposite “Jacare,” who at one point nearly took Whittaker’s back standing. To defend, Whittaker remained calm and isolated a two-on-one grip on Souza arm, ducking underneath it. Without the ability to use that arm to latch onto Whittaker, Souza was unable to advance further towards the back mount, making a very dangerous position worthless.
For my money, Whittaker is already one of the very best champions on the planet, as defeating Romero twice is a remarkable accomplishment worth more than a couple title wins. Perhaps because those fights were a year apart and most of Whittaker’s recent activity, the Aussie is not yet given the respect he deserves — No. 12 on the pound-for-pound list? Ridiculous. Hopefully, if Whittaker continues to perform against Gastelum, people will take note of just how talented the Australian is.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.