MMA: UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker talks reconnecting with Māori roots, 'sleeping' Israel Adesanya

UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker was less than a week old when his parents chose to move their whanau back to Australia.

Whittaker's Māori mother had made the trip home to ensure her son was born on New Zealand soil and just a few days after his birth at South Auckland's Middlemore Hospital, they were winging their way back to Sydney, where he would spend the remainder of his years to date.

Raised on limited means, opportunities to return and connect with his heritage were rare, but there was one area where its impact was indelible.

"I was always a fighter, especially with my Māori side," Whittaker told Newshub. "They were warriors, and I felt a deep connection with my culture and my affinity for combat.

"I identified as fighter, I built my identity around that. I am a fighter and this is now what I do for a living."

His parents' split saw a rift develop between both sides of the family that created a "disconnect" with his culture that Whittaker now hopes to repair.

After fighting at the UFC's first-ever foray into New Zealand in 2014, quality time spent with uncles, aunties and cousins laid the foundation for a journey of self-discovery that remains a work in progress.

Last week, the 28-year-old was back in his native Aotearoa, taking another step on that journey, before he prepares to go to war with Israel Adesanya to unify the UFC's middleweight titles.

"One of the more important reasons for me coming over is to try to explore my culture, explore my background and my history.

"It's just finding time to take out of my life, training and work to come over was hard… so I'm truly blessed and happy to be here now."

With Nigerian-born, NZ-raised Adesanya awaiting him, the irony of fielding questions about his allegiance isn’t lost on Whittaker.

"At the bones of it, I am more Kiwi than he is. I have Māori blood running through my veins, mate."

Whittaker has won two straight against Cuba's Yoel Romero.
Whittaker has won two straight against Cuba's Yoel Romero. Photo credit: Getty

The bout promises to be a landmark moment for Australasian MMA - two of its own duelling for gold in an open-air venue, rumoured to be either Brisbane's Suncorp Stadium or Sydney's new Bankwest Stadium, sometime around October.

"The amount of spotlight it will bring on the sport itself in New Zealand and Australia is hard to quantify really - it's going to be massive.

"MMA has shifted into the mainstream and it's great to see, not only from a sports perspective, but for the athlete themselves. It's going to move combat sports in this area to new heights."

But the man known as 'Bobby Knuckles' is quick to dismiss any suggestion of trans-Tasman rivalry. For him, it's more of a continuation of the 'us against the world' mentality that prevails through the sport in this part of the world  a close-knit community of professionals at the "arse end of the planet", training to overthrow the North American overlords.

And don’t even think about using the 'A' word.

"It's definitely not an ANZAC clash. How could it be? I was born here."

As far as the bout itself is concerned, the margins seem paper thin.

Named the UFC's Fighter of the year in 2017, his list of victims speaks volumes - a second-round KO of the formidable Jacare Souza and consecutive victories against Cuban Yoel Romero - a man whose athleticism appears the result of a science experiment - the most recent with a broken hand suffered in the first round and later named 2018's Fight of the Year.

But that June 2018 bout was his last, as illness - not injury, as Whittaker is quick to point out - saw his first title defence in Melbourne cancelled at the 11th hour, due to emergency surgery on a hernia that doctors deemed life threatening.

Meanwhile, 'The Last Stylebender' is riding an almost unprecedented wave of momentum in the Octagon. Six straight wins in 14 months included an instant classic against American Kelvin Gastelum, which earned him the interim middleweight title and propelled his star into the sport's stratosphere.

While Whittaker admits he's impressed with what he's seen from Adesanya, he's also identified areas he believes he can exploit.

Despite his mammoth disadvantage in both reach and height, Gastelum was able to inflict plenty of damage with his striking - the evidence was written all over Adesanya's face.

"The biggest thing is he doesn’t like getting hit - and I'm very good at hitting people," assessed Whittaker.

"Kelvin was landing big shots… [Adesanya] took a lot of damage that fight, from a dude with significant, significant reach and height disadvantage."

Whittaker's reach shortfall won't be as pronounced, but the American may have forged a blueprint for overcoming the length that Adesanya has over most - if not all - of the division.

"If Gastelum can lay his hands on him, I can lay my hands on him. I'm better at fighting and closing that gap.

"I'm better at striking, I have more reach. I have more height and I think I even hit harder."

"He's a very technical and very sharp striker, very good at what he does, but so am I. I'm dangerous."

In trademark fashion, Adesanya has already begun his war of words, aiming at Whittaker's lack of activity and inability to "show up to work".

"He says a lot of stuff," Whittaker said with a laugh. "But I don’t really pay attention to it.

"If I were to start picking up apart everything he says, I'd be here all day.

"I've never been that sort of guy that talks up a fight - that mouths off, and acts the way he does.

"Honestly, I don’t mind it. He's doing a good thing for MMA in NZ, regardless of if he's trying to put shit on me at the same time."

As well as spending more quality time with family in the time he had left here, Whittaker also hoped to give back to the community by establishing the programme he ran for indigenous kids in Australia on this side of the ditch.

Using grappling and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu as a conduit for learning, it's a means of teaching kids - and adults - in isolated rural communities alternative skillsets, as well as identifying untapped talent.

"We've had a lot of success in the last couple of years, and would like to bring it out here and try to get it launched to help Māori kids in particular, especially ones who live out in the sticks and rural communities where the infrastructure for education isn’t great. Hopefully, we can get that set up here."

MMA: UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker talks reconnecting with Māori roots, 'sleeping' Israel Adesanya

Talk aside, when it comes time for the Octagon door to shut - wherever and whenever that may be - Whittaker has plenty of pent-up aggression awaiting release, as he tries to shake off the Octagon rust in style.

"I'm going to do everything in my power to sleep him - everything. I'm training every single day from now until I see him to ice him."

"I'll be the best Rob Whittaker ever come fight day. That is my only guarantee."

The tattoos say it all - the Southern Cross stamped on his chest, a Māori Ta Moko etched across his shoulder - a juxtaposition that speaks a thousand words.

"I live in Australia and I want to defend my belt in Australia. That's what I'm going to do, then the next thing I'll do is defend my belt here in New Zealand."