When it comes to star pupil and former UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker, coach Alex Prates has seen it all.
The Gracie Jiu Jitsu Smeaton Grange head coach has been by Whittaker’s side for his entire MMA career, but heading into his first meeting with opponent Israel Adesanya at UFC 243, he saw something he had never seen before: An angry Robert Whittaker.
Faced with the trash talking game that Adesanya has been known to utilise leading into fights, the usually affable Whittaker found himself getting drawn into the rivalry. Even those closest to him were caught off guard.
“To me, Rob getting disturbed by Israel talking in the first fight was the most unusual behaviour I have seen from him since we met. Very unusual.” Prates, speaking to Fight News Australia, recalled.
The result largely reflected Adesanya’s success on the microphone, with the Nigerian born-Kiwi scoring a second round TKO over his Australian rival in front of a bumper crowd at Melbourne’s Marvel Stadium.
Heading into their much anticipated rematch at UFC 271 this weekend, coach Prates believes that Whittaker is primed to produce a much-improved performance this time around.
“Training camp has been phenomenal, best version of Robert I have seen by a large margin. His improvement since the Kelvin Gastelum fight is huge.”
“We definitely learned a lot from the defeat (at UFC 243) and used it as fuel and knowledge to get better.”
Given how the first fight played out on the feet, Prates says that striking has been on the agenda. Not to prepare for Adesanya specifically, but with a view to levelling up the striking game of Whittaker. To do that, they have enlisted the help of some of Australian boxing’s most recognisable names.
“Training did not change a huge lot. One adjustment that we made was the appointment of Mr. Johnny Lewis to sharpen up his boxing skills.”
“Anyone who can replicate Israel’s style would be UFC top 5. We bring in the best strikers, wrestlers and grapplers we possibly can. For this camp we are sparring with Tim Tszyu and Charlie Bubb, as far as striking goes, you will not find much higher level in the world.”
However the biggest change, in his estimation, is the mindset of the fighter himself.
“What HAS changed is Robert’s approach to it. He is training like 18-year-old Rob again, hungry as ever.”
At the end of the day, the goal is simple: recapture the UFC middleweight title that Whittaker lost to Adesanya that day in Melbourne. The Whittaker camp, it seems, is brimming with confidence this time out.
“We are not under any illusion about the hardship of the task ahead, but at the same time we have never been as confident in the preparation that has been done.”
“We are here with the sole mission to take the UFC middleweight belt to South West Sydney and this is what we are going to do.”
Adesanya, for his part, has been in typically fine form on the mic. But the mind games that worked so well ahead of the first meeting, according to Prates, will not have the same effect on Whittaker. The rivalry, he says, is not all that it seems in the media.
“Rob is back to his normal frame of mind and I can assure you, with all honesty, that he does not dislike Israel at all.”
“They are just two different young men fighting for the same thing. Not much in it really.”
Catch all the action from UFC 271 live on pay-per-view via Main Event or UFC.tv. Prelims are available on UFC fight pass, Kayo Sports or ESPN.