Robert Whittaker has spoken about the painful details of his attempt to remain in the UFC 234 main event on Sunday – and how his team may have saved his life.
The UFC middleweight champion was forced out of his title defence on home soil against Kelvin Gastelum after undergoing emergency surgery for a collapsed bowel and an internal hernia.
Speaking from hospital at the start of what could be a two-month recovery period from the operation alone, the Sydneysider said he tried to get past his health issues.
“I tried my best to try and swing it,” he said from his bed on Monday.
“I was fighting the doctors the whole way up until they said ‘you have to get surgery or you’re gonna lose part of your bowel or it could be potentially fatal’.
The surgery is the latest in what is becoming a long list of health issues to stall Whittaker’s career.
He has fought just once since winning the middleweight belt in July 2017, first forced to sit on the sidelines due to a knee injury then pulled out of a defence last February with a staph infection.
When he finally returned, Whittaker broke his hand in a championship defence that was downgraded to a non-title bout when Yoel Romero missed weight.
If not for his teammates being with him in Melbourne, the Australian may have jumped in the cage against Gastelum risked his long-term health, or worse.
“I wanna say a special thank you to my teammates, my coaching staff, my management, my friends and family that helped me during the whole period,” he said.
“Especially my team. They were with me through the rehydration period (after weigh-ins) – even though I couldn’t drink water and they were still trying to give me positive reinforcement.
“And then they said ‘Rob, you need to go to hospital, you’re throwing up all your rehydration’. They were honestly looking after me and I can’t express how thankful I am to have guys like that surrounding me.”
What the UFC said
UFC boss Dana White said Whittaker ‘had suffered a less than one per cent, freak, injury.
“What they told me was that his colon and intestines had popped out,’ White said in the post-show press conference.
‘HOLY S***’: Hollywood stars’ awesome fanboy moment at UFC 234
“They don’t think it was anything he did yesterday, they think he’s had it for a while and it’s been popping in and out.
“The scary part is that if he took a shot to the stomach he could have died.
“He could rupture the colon and become septic and that’s not good.
“Everything happens for a reason. It’s great the way this worked out, to find out this kid had this problem and was unhealthy and we were able to get it fixed and they think he’ll be out for four to six weeks.”
Whittaker first reported issues on Saturday evening, but White said the champion didn’t want to go to hospital until Sunday morning.
“He was actually going to push through it and fight, thank God he didn’t,” White said.
How Whittaker’s team handled the drama
Whittaker’s manager Titus Day said the fighter reported feeling bloated and tired around 6pm on Saturday.
“Then about 10 o’clock we got a call from (Whittaker’s wife) Sofia saying he’s got some bad stomach cramps and he’s in quite a lot of pain and can’t sleep and can’t go to the bathroom,” Day told AAP.
“We said we’ll call the UFC doctors and shortly after that he started vomiting so everyone was alerted.
“Rob is absolutely shattered for everyone else. This is Rob’s huge special moment in life, it’s just been shattered, so there will be a lot of pieces to be picked up and we’ll do it.”