A closer look: Who will be Whittaker’s next opponent?

Robert Whittaker UFC 160

Robert Whittaker is on a tear. Since losing at welterweight to Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson in February 2014, the 26-year-old has won seven straight. Six of those wins came in the middleweight division that Whittaker now calls home.

Each opponent more challenging than the last. Each performance more impressive than the one before. Whittaker’s stock has never been higher. That sentiment was echoed by UFC President Dana White recently on FOX Sports Australia’s Fight Week.

“That kid’s got absolute destructional power in both of his hands. When this guy starts punching, man, you’re in big trouble. He looked great, and he’s a super good guy. He has all the tools to be the first world champion out of Australia, in the UFC.”

The “looking great” that White referred to was Whittaker’s most recent outing, a stunning second round stoppage of Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza last month. Whittaker picked Souza apart for a round and a half, even daring to enter Jacare’s natural habitat on the mat and surviving what would on any other night have been a terrifying grappling exchange.

Not that night. Whittaker did what truly great fighters do. He made an elite top-level opponent look average. Jacare, who had won 10 of his last 11, more often than not easily too, had no answer for Whittaker’s power and precision on the feet. The Brazilian debuted six years before Whittaker and was over 10 years older, but it looked like man against boy in the Kansas City cage.

So what next? The win over Souza improved Whittaker’s status in the division to where only world class opponents will do. Another win should earn a title shot. Given the volatile nature of UFC matchmaking, one perfectly timed injury pull-out and he might not even need another win to fight for the title.

Michael Bisping (30-7) – UFC Middleweight Champion

The Brit has become the surprise ruler of the middleweight division, rattling off five impressive wins against top opposition. That included a short notice shot against Luke Rockhold for the UFC middleweight title, which Bisping won in shocking fashion.

With Dana White nixing the prospect of a title defence against Georges St-Pierre and installing Yoel Romero as the next opponent for the champ, Whittaker would need a similar route to an immediate title shot as Bisping had before him.

Given Romero’s previous USADA suspension, and the regularity with which we see fighters pull out injured, it is a possibility worth entertaining. A championship bout pitting Australia against the United Kingdom with a more natural build, ideally in a major location in either fighter’s homeland, would be the dream. If it is to happen in 2017, a short notice title shot is a more likely reality.

If it happens, Whittaker matches up really well with the reigning champ. Bisping’s game is built on solid striking fundamentals, a relentless work rate, and an ability to keep the fight where he wants it for long periods.

Whittaker has no reason to fear an in-cage boxing match against anyone in the division, and while Bisping is damaging on top, and still underrated off his back, the Australian would still have a shot at rolling back the years to his submission based roots and dishing out his first sub win since 2011.

Luke Rockhold (15-3) – Former UFC and Strikeforce Middleweight Champion

In a recent interview with MMA Fighting, Rockhold insisted that he would not fight until the UFC sorted out the middleweight title picture. The former champion went so far as to urge other fighters, including Whittaker, to do the same. No title fight, not even an interim belt, no Rockhold.

A lot has changed in the days that have passed since. Georges St-Pierre has been taken out of the equation, with Bisping and Romero set to meet later this year. That might be enough to encourage Rockhold to get back into the cage.

If not, an interim strap can never be ruled out. If Bisping vs. Romero does not happen for any reason or is delayed, Rockhold vs. Whittaker for an interim belt would serve a purpose for the UFC when looking for a worthy headlining fight.

Rockhold is the complete package. His striking from range is versatile and damaging, and he is one of the most physically imposing middleweights in the division. His athleticism and flowy style in the cage has seen him more than hold his own as an offensive submission threat against fighters he had no real right to be able to attack on the ground.

Yet for all his technical and physical brilliance, Rockhold can be his own worst enemy inside the cage. Lapses in concentration cost him dearly against Vitor Belfort and Michael Bisping. Switching off for even a moment against Whittaker would be ill-advised.

If a stadium fight in Australia against Bisping for the title would be the dream, a bout with Rockhold would be a treat for the purists. Two fighters who can do it all flowing back and forth over five competitive rounds.

Gegard Mousasi (42-6-2)

Like Whittaker, Dutch veteran Gegard Mousasi is red hot right now. The career has been long, 14 years and 50 fights, but Mousasi has never been in better form than he is currently.

Forget the officiating that confused the ending of Mousasi’s bout with Chris Weidman at UFC 210. The tide had turned and it seemed inevitable that Mousasi was well on the way to his biggest win in the UFC.

Finally, everything seems to have clicked into place. Where once Mousasi was derided for not doing more in the cage, now he is finishing top middleweights with regularity. Four on the bounce to be exact, Thiago Santos, Vitor Belfort, Uriah Hall and Chris Weidman.

If he was to be matched up with Whittaker the winner would surely earn themselves a title shot. Such is the quality at the top of the division, it is another bout that would be incredibly difficult to call.

Mousasi is arguably the more versatile fighter and has proven he can stay the course over five rounds. Yet those advantages are exactly that, arguable. Whittaker’s hands are outstanding, his movement and footwork put him in positions to land with power and avoid taking damage.

And while we have not seen him pushed into the championship rounds since 2012 before his UFC career began, that doesn’t mean he would have a problem there. At middleweight cardio hasn’t seemed to be any sort of issue.

More than that, Whittaker shrugged off Jacare Souza’s attempts to control him on the mat, and is a proven submission threat himself. Whittaker vs. Mousasi might be the fight that makes most sense at this point, and calling it accurately involves a lot of guesswork. Flip a coin and hope for the best.

Yoel Romero (13-1)

While the 40-year-old freak of nature is next in line to fight for the UFC middleweight title, a bout with Whittaker is not far off becoming a reality. At worst, Whittaker remains one more win away from a title shot and by the time he has that, Romero might be the champion.

It’s a fight Whittaker is more than capable of winning too. Romero is a physical specimen. A true Olympic level athlete, capable of channelling incredible force in the direction of his opponents at the most opportune times.

Yet for all his natural gifts, and the technical ones he has learned across two different sports, Romero remains a frustrating watch. Sometimes he will do nothing, waiting for hesitant opponents to lead before eventually unleashing hell on them late in a fight.

Sometimes he controls the action early, making his opponents appear outmatched, before struggling to maintain a pace and dropping off in the third round.

Unlike any other top 5 middleweight there are clear, demonstrable holes in Romero’s game. Unlike any other top 5 middleweight, his otherworldly athleticism means they barely matter.

Avoiding being taken down and held there by Jacare is one thing, but surviving the incoming barrage of elbows if Romero gets on top would be another. On top of that, on the feet, Romero is always dangerous even when he looks like he’s not. Just ask Chris Weidman, whose skull absorbed the full force of a fight-ending flying knee at UFC 205.

This feels like a fight that Whittaker wins if he survives early. If Romero could be dragged to the end of the third round, something Whittaker has all the tools to achieve, then the needle moves firmly in the Australian’s favour.

Notable Mentions – Chris Weidman, Anderson Silva and David Branch

As a former UFC champion Chris Weidman remains a notable opponent, and with his recent losses might even be a dangerously wounded animal to face. That said, would the Serra-Longo fighter really want to face arguably the most dangerous middleweight in the world right now, coming off of three consecutive losses?

All-time great Anderson Silva only has so many fights left in him before retirement forces itself onto the unwilling Brazilian. A close win over Derek Brunson has given Silva a little momentum, but a legacy fight against Georges St-Pierre is a more fitting next step. Silva does not need another loss to a top contender at this point.

If the big fights Whittaker deserves are not presented, then the winner of UFC 211’s middleweight clash on Saturday, David Branch, would provide solid opposition. Branch may not have thrilled in his edgy win over Krzysztof Jotko, but he now has a top ten UFC win to go with his previous 10 fight win streak and two-weight champion status in World Series of Fighting. It might not be pretty, but it is a fight Whittaker should expect to win.

Stephen Rivers