Karate isn’t dead. While fighters with a background in wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or Muay Thai still dominate, athletes with a karate background often make waves at the highest level of MMA.
On February 22 at UFC 170, two karate black belts will collide when Australia’s Robert Whittaker takes on world champion kickboxer Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson.
While Whittaker isn’t as renowned a karate practitioner as his opponent, he believes the Japanese martial art form is an important part of his style. It isn’t just a footnote in his athletic past as irrelevant as swimming or soccer. While his karate roots are important, however, he’s a true mixed martial artist.
“I believe that every style of fighting I've done up to now has molded well into my MMA style,” he said. “It's (karate) no more than any other background I have; it's part of my skill set just as jiu-jitsu and wrestling and everything else is. I think a healthy mix of everything is what makes my style good.”
Whittaker, who was born in New Zealand, credits karate with helping shape his character.
“The karate background definitely imbued a sense of discipline within myself and with my training, and I use that every day of my life; it's who I am. I've definitely taken from that, and it's had a huge impact on my life.”
That discipline, combined with Whittaker’s natural talents, has taken him far. The 23-year-old won the Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes in 2012, earning Knockout of the Season honors along the way.
In May 2013 Whittaker took on Ultimate Fighter 16 winner Colton Smith. Whittaker displayed impressive composure as he defended Smith’s takedowns and played the role of counter-striker, dropping his opponent with a left hook in the third and finishing him on the ground with strikes.
However, in August of 2013 Whittaker suffered his first UFC loss, dropping a split decision to Court McGee. The decision was highly controversial, with many observers scoring the fight for Whittaker.
When asked his opinion on the decision, however, Whittaker doesn’t whine.
“Everyone says you should never leave it in the hands of the judges and I believe that with my heart and soul as well. If I would've done more, then maybe it wouldn't have gone to the judges, but the judges make the decision at the end of the day and I stand by it.”
Thompson is a dangerous opponent for anyone at 170 pounds. He has gone 3-1 in the UFC, his only loss coming to dangerous veteran Matt Brown. Most recently, he scored a knockout over Chris Clements.
Whittaker maintains that he is not intimidated by the unorthodox striking of Thompson, and plans on beating his opponent in a stand-up war.
“Without a doubt his strength is his striking ability and his stand-up game; I think everybody knows that. But I'm really looking forward to having a striking match with him. Stephen Thompson is a great guy and I have a lot of respect for his ability and it should be a really good match.”
In his pursuit of UFC gold, Whittaker now leaves Australian shores in the lead up to his fights to prepare at Canada’s famed Tristar gym. While Whittaker’s original team at PMA in Australia remains indispensable in his preparation, he opts to train at Tristar closer to the fight to benefit from its renowned coaches and sparring partners.
Among Whittaker’s coaches at Tristar is Firas Zahabi, one of the architects of former UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre’s reign of dominance.
“Firas coaches me but I work with a bunch of other coaches like Conrad (Pla) for striking and Matt Miller for wrestling, so I've got a healthy combination of the best coaches in the world.” Tristar boasts a large stable of world-class sparring partners with various martial arts backgrounds. However, Whitaker is not particularly concerned with finding fighters who can mimic Thompson’s style.
“There's such a diverse fight community here at Tristar that I'm sure there's a whole bunch of people that can simulate a karate style. I'm working with whoever wants to work with me, so I've got to look out for his strengths, but I'm not shying away from them.”
Whittaker believes training at Tristar is a necessary measure in furthering his career. His motivation? He wants to be remembered.
“I don't want to go down as one of the people who just was and no one can remember. I want my name to be out there and I want people to shy away from my name because they're worried about what I'm going to do. I'm going to go straight line there and just bull head my way through. “
Robert Whittaker: Remember His Name
"I'm really looking forward to having a striking match with him. Stephen Thompson is a great guy and I have a lot of respect for his ability and it should be a really good match." - Robert Whittaker