‘I feel dangerous!’: Former champion Robert Whittaker accepts risky Khamzat Chimaev replacement to save UFC Saudi Arabia card

‘I feel dangerous!’: Former champion Robert Whittaker accepts risky Khamzat Chimaev replacement to save UFC Saudi Arabia card
‘I feel dangerous!’: Former champion Robert Whittaker accepts risky Khamzat Chimaev replacement to save UFC Saudi Arabia card

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LONDON: It has been a turbulent week for the UFC, with two high-profile cards enduring significant reshuffling. In the same 24 hours as Conor McGregor’s removal from UFC 300 was confirmed, it transpired that Khamzat Chimaev had been pulled from his main event clash with Robert Whittaker at UFC Saudi Arabia due to illness.

The Kingdom has emerged as an epicenter for combat sports in recent months, and the June 22 event in Riyadh will mark the first time the UFC hosts an event there. The loss of Chimaev is significant; not only is the Swede a significant contender for the middleweight title, but he is also a big star. The UFC was forced to pivot, and in stepped Ikram Aliskerov, a ferocious fighter on a seven-fight winning streak, with his only career loss coming at the hands of Chimaev.

This is a huge opportunity for the Russian. Ranked outside the top 15, but with two straight first-round finishes since his arrival in the UFC, the 31-year-old has a chance to usurp his opponent’s No. 3 ranking in the division. Whittaker deserves huge credit for accepting the fight, where he stands to gain little but lose a lot.

“It’s a little annoying. I spent months working for Chimaev because he’s a unique fighter, but I’m sure none of the skills I worked on will go to waste,” explained the Australian in an exclusive interview with Arab News. “The Reaper” acknowledges the challenge posed by Aliskerov: “Ikram’s a hard fight. I know he’s kind of come out of nowhere, but that element makes him more dangerous in other aspects. Plus, I think he’s better at certain angles in the fight game than Chimaev anyway,” he explained, adding, “The task is the same: Get in there, conquer, and go home.”

Whittaker ascended to the interim middleweight champion status following his victory at UFC 213. He later attained the position of undisputed champion when Georges St-Pierre relinquished the UFC Middleweight Championship in 2017. It was a landmark moment for “Bobby Knuckles,” who became the first-ever Australian champion in UFC history. Aside from knowing what it is like to hold the belt, the 26-7 star is a veteran of 21 fights inside the Octagon, and his attitude exemplifies just why he is so beloved by most MMA fans.

“It is what it is! I came here to fight. I’m headlining the card, I understand the responsibilities that that entails, I understand the amount of work that needs to go around it. The card is reliant on me to some degree,” said Whittaker. “Another thing is I’ve put three months’ work in. I’m shredded, I’m fit, I’m ready to fight. I’m not going to throw that away. If there’s a way to save the card, I’m going to do that. Props to Ikram for taking it. The fight goes on.”

Whittaker comes into this fight on the back of a crucial win over No. 8-ranked Paulo Costa at UFC 288. Having suffered a second-round knockout loss to current champion Dricus du Plessis in his previous fight, it was vital for the Sydneysider to get back in the win column. “It was massive. Any win is important. A win after a loss is even more important, especially the way that I lost against Dricus,” he reasoned, before adding, “I’m going into this fight with my head screwed on with the objective clear in my sights and a new kind of predator’s gaze.”

Du Plessis has already stated in interviews that even if Whittaker were to beat Chimaev, that would not be enough to earn a title shot. With the Aussie now facing an unranked opponent, it is likely he will need one more to seal a crack at gold, and many fans have been calling for a scrap with another former champion, Sean Strickland. “He looks like an awkward fight. I was trying to get him out to fight him before he beat Izzy (Adesanya), and then that obviously derailed my plans a little bit,” said Whittaker.

“We’re both in the division, we’re both at the top. Our paths will cross,” he added.

As far as Du Plessis’ comments go, Whittaker could not care less. The 33-year-old is fully focused on the task at hand and having spent 13 years fighting at the highest level, he understands one thing rings truest in the world of MMA: “Mate, winning opens doors,” he said. “I’ll worry about getting my hand raised and putting on a show and see how the chips fall after.”

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