The medical oddities befallen upon Robert Whittaker are best communicated and most believable when stated simply by the man who endured the pair of fight-canceling ailments over the past 20 months.
"I've gotten the chicken pox one time, and then I had emergency bowel surgery the second time," Whittaker said on this week's UFC 243 conference call. "It's just -- it is strange."
Strange indeed, especially for the sport of mixed martial arts where injuries that lead to fight rearranging or canceling more often involve broken bones or torn ligaments.
But such has been the title reign of Whittaker since becoming the middleweight champion in 2017, first as interim then later installed as the undisputed champion. A month before he was scheduled to make his first title defense against Yoel Romero at UFC 221 in February 2018, Whittaker pulled out of the fight. He later revealed it was because of chicken pox and an abcess infection.
Then, the night before UFC 234 last February, Whittaker was forced to withdraw from his title defense against Kelvin Gastelum. He had immediate surgery on fight day to fix a twisted and collapsed bowel and an intestinal hernia.
"The last couple of years have been a bit up and down," Whittaker said. "But I feel absolutely amazing. On the back of that emergency surgery that I had to undergo, I just doubled down on my health, I've really, really paying close attention on how I’m feeling, how I’m performing and just my overall health. And on the back of that I've just become stronger, bigger for it."
How much stronger, bigger and healthier will be determined on Oct. 5 when Whittaker defends his title against interm champion Israel Adesanya at UFC 243 in Melbourne, Australia. The pay-per-view event will air on ESPN+.
Whittaker last fought on June 9, 2018, winning a split-decision over Romero.
The Nigerian-born, New Zealand-raised Adesanya has tried to not think about the New Zealand-born, Australian-raised Whittaker's recent medical history.
"I’ve kind of put it out of my mind leading up to it but the last fight, you know, he pulled out on the day of the fight," said Adesanya (17-0). "So until we're locked in that cage, I’m not going to hold my breath."
Adesanya made his UFC debut at UFC 221 in Perth, Australia, on the same card Whittaker was to supposed to face Romero. He beat Rob Wilkinson by TKO in the second round. He has fought five more times since then, a run that includes a first-round TKO of Derek Brunson, a torch-passing decision over his idol Anderson Silva, and a unanimous decision win over Gastelum last April for the interim middleweight title.
The rise of Adesanya has been steady and entertaining. He's a talented fighter who has shown the ability to move and strike in ways that have drawn comparisons to Silva and light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, two of the greatest fighters in the 25-year history of MMA. He also has a presence in front of a microphone and exudes confidence in every interview.
"There's going to be a certain amount of awkwardness that he has that I feel like I haven't seen before but he can try and prove me wrong," Adesanya said of facing Whittaker (21-4). "From what I see, I’ll pick him apart quite easily."
Whittaker is five inches shorter than Adesanya and gives up nearly seven inches in reach.
"I’m going to deal with it like I have dealt with it with others that I’ve fought," Whittaker said. "I’m going to stay on the outside and I’m going to use my speed to get inside. Generally that’s kind of the game plan when a shorter opponent is fighting a taller opponent. But in saying that, Gastelum was able to hit him and he's shorter than me."
The 5-foot-9 Gastelum gave Adesanya his toughest fight earlier this year.
"I have attributes that I use very well and I think what his camp might look at is the last fight and think, 'Oh, well Kelvin was able to get close,'" Adesanya said. "That was just an error on our part and a beautifully crafted game plan on their part on how to get close but we've taken care of those errors and those misjudgments on our side so yes, I’m going to be able to use my height and reach like I always have."