Why Robert Whittaker accepted a likely 'harder fight' vs. Ikram Aliskerov after Chimaev withdrawal

Say you’re Robert Whittaker. Say you’ve got a big fight booked against the undefeated Khamzat Chimaev as the headliner of Saturday’s UFC Saudi Arabia (3 p.m ET, ABC/ESPN+). It’s a fight that, if you win, almost guarantees you another shot at the middleweight title you once held, so that’s a pretty big deal.

You spend months training for this fight. You study Chimaev’s strengths and weaknesses. You get on a plane to Saudi Arabia confident that you’ve done all that’s required to beat him and plot a course back to UFC gold. Then, a little over a week before the fight, Chimaev pulls out due to illness. Disaster, right? But don’t worry, the UFC has a backup option for you, and it’s … Ikram Aliskerov.

Here’s where even the most dedicated observer of the sport could be forgiven for asking, who?? Aliskerov has had just two fights in the UFC. He’s not ranked at middleweight and never has been. He was most recently scheduled to face the similarly unranked Andre Muniz on a largely forgettable UFC Fight Night card, and even on that low-wattage event he was far from main event status.

So when Whittaker first heard his name thrown around as a replacement opponent?

“I didn’t know anything about him,” Whittaker told Yahoo Sports. “And that’s no disrespect. Some people have taken my words out of context a little bit and … throwing that quote out there a little disrespectfully. But no disrespect, I didn't know a lot about him. Then I did some research and watched some tape obviously, because I'm about to fight him. I understand, realistically, this guy might be a harder fight than Chimaev.”

That’s another part of what makes Saturday’s network TV main event an especially tricky situation for the 33-year-old former champ. Despite not being known, Aliskerov does appear to be pretty good. Even with nothing close to Whittaker’s big fight experience, he’s only a slight +115 underdog, according to BetMGM.

ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 17: Robert Whittaker of New Zealand prepares to face Paulo Costa of Brazil in a middleweight fight during the UFC 298 event at Honda Center on February 17, 2024 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Former UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker will face the relatively unknown Ikram Aliskerov on Saturday in Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Beating a guy like that provides a limited boost for someone of Whittaker’s existing renown. But losing to a guy like that? It could be a catastrophic setback at this point in his career.

No question, it’s a tough spot to be in. Then again, what choices did Whittaker really have beyond accepting the fight and doing his damndest to win? He’d already put in the work in training camp. The UFC had already tapped him as one half of the main event. Turning down Aliskerov likely would have meant no replacement opponent at all, which in turn would have meant he did all that work for no money.

And then there’s the other part, which comes with the territory for anyone who already has been and hopes to one day again be the world champion.

“We are fighters at the end of the day,” Whittaker said. “There isn’t a single fighter in this game that I don’t think I can beat. And if I did think there was somebody that I couldn’t beat, I wouldn’t be in this game. That’s the mentality I have. I believe I can beat everybody, wholeheartedly. But secondly, I try to make my opponents worry about my game. I play to my strengths. I like to lead the fight into the avenues that give me the most advantage, because I can control that no matter what my opponent does. No matter who my opponent is, I can control that.”

Talking to Whittaker at this stage of his career, control is a theme that comes up a lot. As in, fighters don’t have all that much of it, so they need to be careful to focus on the few areas where they do. The opponent who shows up on fight night, or the value fans and media might assign to wins or losses over that person, these things are outside a fighter’s control. Even the shifting sands of rankings and title shots are largely out of a fighter’s hands.

All you can really do, Whittaker pointed out, is win the fights you’re given.

"This is the hard truth of this sport,” he said. “Winning fights will open doors for you, no matter what.”

As many big fights as he’s won, Whittaker ought to know. But in the process, he’s also built a legacy that goes beyond just victories and titles. At a time when some fighters try to gain attention for being the most outrageous or most offensive, Whittaker is the rare fan favorite who just seems like a genuinely good dude who is exactly as he appears to be, with no posturing or pretensions.

That’s the part of his own career that he feels most proud of, he said. He may not have won them all or taken the quickest route to the top, but he also didn’t have to sacrifice who he was to get anything he hadn’t truly earned.

“I'm proud of it because it's something that I can show my kids my story and be proud of every moment and every stage that I have in it,” Whittaker said. “And I think where I am today is the best part. I feel like I'm ticking boxes that weren't open to me before. I feel like I'm hitting milestones that I've never hit before. I feel like I'm hitting levels of fitness and strength and fight IQ that I just couldn't reach earlier. And I'm excited, mate. I'm excited. I think … I'm in my prime.”