Sports

Robert Whittaker appreciative of Ikram Aliskerov, now plans to ‘take his head off’

Veteran middleweight Robert Whittaker has paid tribute to Ikram Aliskerov for stepping up at short notice, but that’s as far as the Australian’s gratitude goes as he now prepares to take the Russian’s “head off” in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, this weekend.

Whittaker [26-7, 16-5 UFC] was originally due to fight Khamzat Chimaev, only for the 30-year-old to fall “violently ill” and then withdraw as part of a wild day of UFC drama that also saw the much-anticipated UFC 303 card descend into complete chaos.

But UFC officials were able to make a series of changes to both the Saudi and UFC 303 line-ups, including Aliskerov stepping in on short notice for what will be just his third fight in the UFC after earning a contract on “Dana White’s Contender Series” in 2022. Whittaker, conversely, will be making his 22nd appearance in the Octagon, a body of work he said fills him with confidence and the ability to adjust to a change of opponent at such short notice.

“It all happened pretty quickly, and I’m blessed in the fact that my team and management, the UFC themselves, and even Ikram that it all came together and I was still able to fight,” Whittaker told ESPN from his Dubai camp.

“A week out not many people are in a position to take that fight, so I would have done all that work for nothing and it would have been quite upsetting because this is my career, this is how I put bread on the table. So, I’m just very blessed and thankful that everything got across the line.

“My coach said “Chimaev is out” and there was a bit of turmoil at the time. But he understood what I wanted, he understands that I am in the fight game and I’m here to fight, so he said “leave it with me, I’ll talk with the UFC”, my team went and spoke with the UFC and we organized it and now I’m fighting on Saturday still — it’s all good.”

While Whittaker has taken the change of opponent in his stride, he did admit that he would have to make some tweaks before confronting Aliskerov (15-1, 2-0 UFC) inside the Octagon.

“It’s tricky, because there [are] a lot of changes. I spent three months preparing a very specific game plan for a very specific opponent. But it is what it is, sometimes you have just got to work with what you are given, and I believe my skill sets are better across the board, so I am just going to go in there and lead the fight where I want it to go and play to my strengths.

“I’ve got a fair whack of experience under my belt right now and I know how to fight, you could put me up against anybody right now and I’ll do what I’m supposed to do.”

Where the withdrawal leaves Chimaev remains to be seen, with Whittaker telling ESPN last month he thought the Russian’s entry into the top portion of the middleweight rankings had been a bit “how you going.”

That, for those not familiar with Australian slang, essentially translates to “doesn’t quite add up”.

What does compute for Whittaker is the threat that Aliskerov poses, particularly given he remains somewhat of an unknown in the UFC.

“They’re [Whittaker’s team] definitely doing their research and I’m watching some tape of his fights in the UFC, but there’s not a lot to watch to be fair,” the former middleweight champion said. “I’m going to go out and there and utilize my skill, play my game, and see how he handles it, that’s kind of the approach.

‘I’ve had opponent switches before and at the end of the day, we’re just two blokes going to have a fight and I know how to fight… he does [have some power], but not better than [Paulo] Costa, and everyone hits hard in the division.”

Whittaker earned plenty of praise for his performance in his last-start win over Costa, picking apart the Brazilian with a classy striking game that produced 95 significant strikes to his opponent’s 67.

But he still feels he has much more to give as he eyes a third shot at the middleweight title, an opportunity that may come following a victory on Saturday night [ET, Sunday morning AEST].

“Final week looks much like any other final week, just another day at the office, I’ve done this for a long time and I have a lot of fights under my belt,” Whittaker said. “I know what to do, I know what works, I’m going to coast into it, make the weight, I’m going to have a good re-feed and then I am going to go and punch on with Ikram. And I’m going in there to take his head off.

“I’m happy with the win and I’m proud of certain things in the fight [against Costa], but I don’t think it’s my best performance, I think I still have much more to offer and I’m hoping to showcase that next time.”

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