The UFC is a league built for social media; On any given Australian Sunday, we’re stuck to our screens as our feeds feature highlights packages ending in knockout blows, and fighters employ entire dance routines for their entry to the octagon. Staredowns lead to scuffles at the weigh-in while trash talk and trolling fill the gaps during the leadup to the fight. The competitors fight for social clout well before they go toe to toe on fight night, and the league leverages the brittle egos and enormous audiences of each fighter to amplify their content, fill their seats, push their product and PPV signups. It’s something, man. It’s a well-oiled machine rolling through city after city, showing long-standing sports leagues a thing or two about creating an engaged community.
In contrast to the performative strutting, chest-puffing and capping of the competitors, one fighter stands on his own two as a man first, fighter second ... and social media troll comes somewhere in the low-300s. Australia’s Robert Whittaker is more interested in using his platform to spark social change than hit 500k views on TikTok, but his unique strategy is defying the odds – the man they call Reaper is consistently one of the most admired and well-loved fighters in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Only five days after losing his UFC Middleweight Championship belt to challenger Israel Adesanya, Robert Whittaker spoke candidly to Complex about fatherhood, family, community work and staying humble.
In social media comments, in YouTube comments, on Reddit, it's astounding to me, among all the negativity you usually encounter on those platforms, how well-loved you are – Is this something you've noticed?
[laughs] Thank you very much. It's something I've noticed now, but I'm under the honest belief that like attracts like. I feel that, on my podcast Grange TV and on my social media platforms, I'm just being me. I'm trying to be a guy that one day my kids will look up to. I'm trying to set an example to my own kids first and foremost, but [also to] any other young guys, or older guys, that care enough to have a look. Like attracts like, and I feel like we've created a culture that displays that
How do you think you've built that culture?
I think it's just an organic thing, I am who I am. I stay true to my morals and values and I didn't try to be someone I'm not. I didn't try to act a clown to get more likes, I didn't try to hit a viral video because I acted a fool. Obviously, that impacted my initial growth [laughs].
I never went viral and hit a million views in two days but it's something I've been consistent with and honestly my fan base and a lot of the fans, especially in Australia, they see that I'm genuine. I'm not trying to be fake, I am who I am, and I'm just a normal bloke like everybody else.
Did you have a role model or maybe a case study that you looked at, or someone you admired, that inspired that outlook?
My old man for sure. he's probably my biggest role model, in my life. He's a guy who kept me straight and narrow, he's very much 'don't be a fool, don't embarrass yourself', he was my biggest role model. he set a great role model for me and my brother, and I can only hope to do the same for my own kids.
You've mentioned previously that he was big on honour and integrity – where did you see that displayed?
I'm not too sure. It's hard for me to pinpoint individual moments of when it was displayed, it's just something that I grew up with. We were very much 'what happens on the field stays on the field,' 'be humble in defeat, be humble in victory.' I guess the best way to say it is that my old man is just very down to earth; he's a normal guy like everybody else, and I'm just trying to make him proud. If I had have done something, acted like a clown on YouTube or anything like that, he would have given it to me – trust me. So I just try to make him proud.
As someone with a platform, it's my responsibility to use that platform to the better of others.
And yourself as a father, you're trying to do the same thing now
Yea. I want to be the sort of man my kids can look up on YouTube and show their friends, and not cringe. I want to be the sort of man my kids are proud of, they want to boast about their old man, they want to show off their old man, not someone they're embarrassed by.
Do you feel you're tracking well on that trajectory?
Yea, I feel like I'm on the right track, the right path. I have really good people surrounding me, a really great support network; friends and family and coaches and workers and my kids are happy, I'm happy, I feel the love from the fans, the crowd, and yea I feel like I'm on the right track.
My son is three years old, and he's big on punching. I have to try so hard to tell him again and again 'you don't punch people, you don’t punch people’. It's easy for me to do, I've never punched anyone. What about yourself, is that a challenge in the home when so much of what you do revolves around striking?
Yea definitely. It's super hard to try to tell my boy 'don't hit your brother' when I do what I do for a living [laughs]. There's that comprehension in communication barrier still. But it's not that punching is wrong, it's just that there's a time and a place. But trying to explain that to a 4-year-old is challenging at the best of times.