Robert Whittaker made it to the top of the MMA mountain by winning the UFC middleweight title, then fell off, but he climbed back up, only to lose a shot at regaining his title from the man who took it, Israel Adesanya.
It's the recipe for a fighter to lose motivation, feel that hunger slip away, and start to see that love for the sport fade, knowing that to get a third crack at a man who beat him twice requires a long road of hard fights to put it kindly.
Yet as the Aussie star returns for a co-main event clash with Marvin Vettori (18-4-1 MMA, 8-3-1 UFC) on Saturday's UFC Fight Night 209 event, Whittaker (23-6 MMA, 14-4 UFC) really and truly sounds more excited than ever.
"I cannot wait to get back in the octagon," Whittaker said. "It's how I work; it's work for me, and I feel like I need to work. It's been so long since the last fight, and I'm not happy with the amount of fights that I had in the last couple years. I would have liked to have fought more, but we're here now, we're finally gonna cross the line and get to work."
The 31-year-old is supposed to say all those things, but tone of voice says a lot, as well as facial expressions, and "The Reaper" ticks all those boxes in a positive manner before his first fight since the razor-thin loss to Adesanya in their February rematch.
When the two clashed in 2019, it wasn't pretty for Whittaker, as he was stopped in two rounds at UFC 243. Three wins and nearly three years later, though, the fight was a nip-and-tuck affair, with Adesanya taking the nod by two scores of 48-47 and one of 49-46. It showed that Whittaker was closing the gap on "The Last Stylebender," and he was pleased with a performance he thought earned him his title back.
"The last fight with Adesanya was a hard fight," he said. "He's a great fighter, and I feel like I came a long way since that first fight, obviously, and I did a lot of good things, but it just wasn't my night. The judges gave him the nod, and it is what it is. But that hasn't dissuaded me. I'm just gonna work my way back to another fight with him, probably until the day I retire. So I'm just gonna keep grinding away and getting better. That's just the main thing for me, to get better at my craft and to get in as many fights as I can."
Not letting the loss get to him is a positive sign for Whittaker, but it doesn't mean he thinks he fought the perfect fight and got robbed. He saw holes that still needed to be sewn up in his game, and he focused on those over the last six months.
"I was a little hesitant to pull the trigger in certain points of the fight (with Adesanya), obviously because of some lingering affect of the first fight," he said. "(The first time) I overextended myself, I was too aggressive, and I got caught. I left too many holes. But I worked on a lot of those. I learned a lot about myself from that fight, and me as a fighter, I do believe that I'm the best fighter in the world."
Those are words Whittaker fans want to hear from their man, who is still ranked number one in the world heading into his meeting with Italy's Vettori, another fighter with a pair of losses to Adesanya, but who is also ranked second in the world. So while this isn't a title elimination fight in official terms, if Alex Pereira upsets the champ in their UFC 281 main event in November, it might be, even though Whittaker isn't focusing on such matters.
"I like taking fights," he said. "I just want to fight, and I want to better myself. And I want to fight everyone and be at the top. It doesn't bother me who's at the top; I just want to get there."
Beating Vettori would be a good step forward.
"He's tough, he's fit, he's hungry, and we're both after the same thing," said Whittaker of his foe. "I just look to get in there and do my job. I want to work."
It will seemingly take some work to earn another crack at the crown, especially if Adesnaya is still wearing it, but that's okay with the former champ, who believes the future is a bright one.
"I feel like I'm coming into my prime," he said. "I'm finally sitting on a lot of experience, I've made a lot of adjustments skillwise in the way I fight and preparation-wise, and I'm fine tuning all the little things that make me such a dangerous fighter, and I look forward to seeing how I can display that in the fights coming up. I have a lot of fights left in me, and I think the best is yet to come."
This story first published at UFC.com.