Fighter On Fighter: Breaking Down ‘Bobby Knuckles!’

UFC 213: Romero v Whittaker
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Middleweight kingpin, Robert Whittaker, will attempt to retake the throne opposite professional kickboxer, Israel Adesanya, this Saturday (Feb. 12, 2022) at UFC 271 inside Toyota Center in Houston, Texas.

Whittaker responded to a really bad loss about as well as anyone could ask. “Stylebender” smoked him the first time around (watch highlights), the type of defeat that can really derail an otherwise great career. Fortunately, the Aussie bounced back in style, refining his overall mixed martial arts (MMA) strategy a bit and picking up three huge wins as a result. Since his title loss, Whittaker has spent 65 minutes inside the cage showing his improvement versus world-class opponents. He’s earned a second dance with Adesanya, an opportunity to prove that he’s more than the second best Middleweight in the world.

Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:

Striking

A black belt in Karate and Hapkido, Whittaker is an exceptionally quick athlete. He’s able to spring forward and cover distance suddenly, but he’s also more than capable of hanging back and doing damage from the outside.

In terms of movement, Whittaker remains light on his feet and bounces like a Karateka. Whittaker uses that speed to blitz forward, looking to catch opponents off-guard (GIF). 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.

Opposite Adesanya, Whittaker’s speed and range offense generally served him well. However, his gameplan was built on the idea that he would have an advantage in the pocket, which proved incorrect. As such, Whittaker fought tooth-and-nail to spring forward and punch his way into the boxing range … only for Adesanya to out-angle him once there and land brutal counter punches.

It was a painful miscalculation.

UFC 243: Whittaker v Adesanya
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Regardless, Whittaker most often does damage during and after his spring forward. Often, he leads 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 second 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. He sprung forward with stabbing jabs, lunging hooks, stomping side kicks, and quick step up left kicks.

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.

UFC 225: Whittaker v Romero 2
Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

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 hidden by the cross (GIF). Whittaker does an excellent job of varying the timing on his right kick, sometimes mixing in a bit of a pause that allows him to take a better angle before firing. It’s a small detail, but one that gives him a better chance at landing the strike.

In a recent bout opposite Jared Cannonier, Whittaker’s right kick proved the deciding factor. Early in the bout, he managed to break his opponent’s arm during a blocked kick, a testament to both the power in Whittaker’s kick and his ability to kick from the correct distance. Later in the fight, that same right high kick clipped the temple of Cannonier, nearly finishing him (GIF).

This trend continued opposite Kelvin Gastelum, whom Whittaker kicked in the head several times. The really interesting new wrinkle in Whittaker’s offense in that match was his habit of angling off with the left hook. After sticking a front kick or side kick to the thigh, Whittaker would angle off and duck his head while also throwing a left hook, looking to catch Gastelum as he tried to counter.

UFC 254: Whittaker v Cannonier
Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

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).

Wrestling

In 2017, Whittaker won a gold medal at the Australian National Wrestling Championships and qualified himself to represent Australia in international competition, which is quite an accomplishment. There’s a reason Whittaker rose to prominence by laying waste to a series of fighters who rely on the takedown: the man can wrestle.

Whittaker’s offensive takedowns are undoubtedly his biggest improvement since losing the title. Previously, Whittaker had used the left hook to raise his foe’s guard to set up the double-leg, usually along the fence. In his three wins since losing the strap, however, Whittaker has instead made use of the Frankie Edgar-style running single leg pick up. Since he’s already tremendously quick and very active with his lead hand, it’s proven a very smart adjustment. Blitzing forward, Whittaker still blinds his foe with a high left hand, but his right hand reaches out and grabs the leg.

UFC Fight Night: Whittaker v Gastelum
Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

From that position, Whittaker looks to run his foe to the mat. Often, they instead turn their backs, allowing Whittaker to continue chaining takedowns and mat returns.

Whittaker also pretty soundly out-wrestled Gastelum, which is no easy accomplishment, and he showed off different aspects of his wrestling game. Early in the fight, Whittaker slipped inside a punch to secure double underhooks, won the knee position battle, and tipped Gastelum to the mat (GIF). Later, Whittaker changed levels and ran the pipe from a high-crotch position as if he were in a wrestling match (GIF)!

Whittaker’s defensive wrestling is amazing. He 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.

UFC 225: Whittaker v Romero 2
Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

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.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Though he holds a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, Whittaker isn’t often showing off his submission skills. In his recent wins that relied more upon takedowns, Whittaker did pass well, but he focused more on control and damage than strangles.

Still, his grappling defense has been tested in several fights. For example, Romero will destroy people with elbows if given the opportunity. Whittaker did not allow him to do so, immediately wrapping up double under hooks to control his opponent. From there, Whittaker grapevine’d the legs — again, preventing posture and significant strikes — before transitioning into a butterfly guard. He was unable to fully sweep or escape from there, but elevating Romero did allow Whittaker to scramble to his knees and fight hands.

UFC Fight Night: Souza v Whittaker
Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Whittaker also 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’s arm, ducking underneath it. Without the ability to use that arm to latch onto Whittaker, Souza was unable to advance further toward the back mount, making a very dangerous position worthless.

Conclusion

Whittaker remains just 31 years of age. He’s in the prime of his career, and he’s clearly improved since the first meeting with “Stylebender.” Even given the first fight, Whittaker still appears to have a far better chance than any of the other top contenders, and it will be quite fascinating to see his adjustments.


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.

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Author: Andrew Richardson

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