UFC World Middleweight Champ Robert Whittaker is a warrior in the Octagon. But while he’s best known for his sharp jab and devastating left hook, The Reaper’s guiding mantra has always been family first.
That was emphatically proven when he recently pulled out of his forthcoming fight against Jared Cannonier in order to donate bone marrow for his sick youngest daughter. Robert has been with his wife, Sofia, for 14 years, and is a devoted father to their three young kids: Jack (4), John (3) and Lilliana (2).
The 28-year-old learnt the value of family early. After his parents separated in 2000, Rob and his brother Steven moved to the Sydney suburb of Menai to live with their dad in a housing commission unit. Jack Whittaker effectively brought up the boys as a single dad, taking complete care of his two young sons.
Here, Rob reflects on his upbringing, fatherhood and why any World-Champ belt will never compete with LEGO in the eyes of his eldest son.
“When I walk into the Octagon I always tap my chest. People often see that as me tapping my Southern Cross tattoo and I don’t mind it being interpreted like that because I am very proud of my country. But there’s another reason why I do that. My father got me that tattoo when I was 18. And I always tap my chest to show that whether he’s in the crowd or in the stands or at home, it’s a way for him to know that I’m thinking of him. It’s my way to show him that I know he’s watching.
“My father was always very supportive. For a while when we first moved in with him as little kids, he looked after us full-time on his own. He was a great dad – he was always present. He made sure there was food on the table, he cooked for us, he did all our washing, he cleaned the house. He did it all.
“When I was a kid I didn’t understand how tough that would have been – I was a little shit to be honest. But looking back retrospectively I can see that my father sacrificed a lot, he did a lot of things I’m sure he didn’t want to do, and he always put us first. So I have a lot of respect for him and I also take a little bit of inspiration from how he was.
“My father showed that you can still be a great dad if you’re doing it on your own. Whatever your situation, you just need to be the best parent you can be. There’s no standard – it’s just about trying to do your best.
“Dad was strict when he needed to be, but supportive. He always made sure my brother and I played sports so that we’d stay out of mischief. He enrolled us both into karate school when I was six. That was all about self-defence. Dad did Tae Kwan Doe when he was younger, and he was in the army too, so he could see the value in self-defence.
“Being a fighter has definitely helped me as a man and as a father. I’ve had to do a lot of soul-searching on my journey to become a martial artist. There is nothing more exposing and humbling than getting your arse handed to you. Or having a bad day in the gym when you’re expected to be at the top of your game. But it’s things like that that make you aware of what’s really important in life.
“A lot of fighters get very swept up in the limelight and they start to change who they are. Whereas I know who I am and I know what counts. There’s nothing better then coming home after a hard day and seeing my kids’ little smiles.
“What’s been my proudest moment as dad? I’m still at that stage where my kids do anything and I’m so proud. My son toilet-trained himself and I was stoked! Everything they do I get so swept up in. Everything.
“The biggest thing that having kids has taught me as a fighter is that you’re really nothing special. When I came home with the world-champ belt my son just looked at me and dragged me to his LEGO set. He didn’t care about the belt, he didn’t care about the fight, he just wanted me to play LEGO. That’s humbling in a sense that it makes you realise there are lots of people out that don’t like watching fights, and they don’t care either – you’re a nobody to them. It makes you wake up a bit.
“How I am in the octagon is completely separated from how I am as a father and as a loving husband at home. At home, that’s who I really am. The other is a job – I understand that when I step into the Octagon I’m walking into the office, I’m there for a purpose and when the job is done I leave it there and I go back to being a father and a husband.
“I used to travel for my fight camps and go over to Canada to train. But the traveling and the time away from my wife and my father and my mother, it just became too much. It was starting to affect me emotionally and having a direct effect on my training so I stopped. And that was before I had kids, so the idea of doing that now is just preposterous.
“If I had to sacrifice my time with my family to be the world champ then being the world champ just wouldn’t be worth it. There’s nothing stronger, nothing more powerful than my family that pushes me forward. My family gives me direction and it also gives me fulfilment. My family is what makes everything worth doing.
“How would I feel if one of my sons wanted to be a UFC fighter? Mate, it would crush me. It would! I’m very emotional with my family. When one of my boys hurts themselves I go into meltdown mode – I want to try and destroy whatever they scraped their knee on! But the thing is I also know that they’re going to do whatever they want to do. The best thing that I can do for them as a father is to make sure they have the right skillsets to do whatever they want to do.”