Rob Whittaker’s team gathered at a jiu-jitsu gym in Chicago late one night this week. It was the first time the group had been together since landing in the US after Whittaker left Australia almost two weeks before.
On hand was Whittaker, who makes his first defence of his middleweight title against Yoel Romero this weekend at UFC 225, as well as coaches Fabricio Itte, Alex Prates and Justin Fitzgerald.
Reunited on the other opposite side of the world at Vianna Brothers Jiu Jitsu Academy, the crew put in some light work as fight week swung into action.
“It’s always good to have familiar faces around,” Whittaker’s coach Fabricio Itte told Sporting News from Chicago.
“Even just seeing the other Aussie fighters and the Kiwis around the world.
“Then, when you have your own team here, it’s great.
“We’re very lucky to have Daniel Vianna, who runs the gym here that’s been our base for the last two weeks.
“It’s just great to have that familiarity and comfort when you’re in a foreign country.
“It just makes such a huge difference.”
Whittaker, who travelled to Chicago with his wife Sofia and the couple’s four-month-old daughter Lilliana, has wrapped up training and preparation ahead of his rematch with Romero, but fight week isn’t just about relaxing and waiting for the bout.
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“There’s heaps of media stuff to do and we’ve gotta keep the weight on point,” Itte says.
“We still work out as well – nothing hard – but we do a workout late at night around the time the fight’s going to be on. So that’s at eight or nine pm.”
As always, there’s a weight cut to think about as well. And with the added responsibility of being the champ in a headline fight of a PPV card, Whittaker’s team must plan his day around media commitments.
“So, the real weight cut doesn’t take place until the day before the weigh-in – the diet is in place now – but it’s not easy,” Itte says.
“Where he goes we go. He’s doing all sorts of media and stuff, so we need to make sure he’s got the right amount of water going into him and that he eats when he has to eat. It’s about balance.
“We’ve got media here and there wanting him to do stuff, but unless it’s on the schedule, we won’t do it. We have to be mindful of that, so his manager and myself and the other coaches have to navigate that minefield.
“If we said yes to every single thing, he’s not going to be able to train or eat properly or drink properly. We have to have the meals ready for him to eat when he needs to eat.
“It’s not like we’re just cruising around until the fight. There’s a lot to do. You can’t just turn up without a plan and wonder what to do. You’ve gotta be on top of it.”
Whittaker has adopted a new approach to training over the last couple of years, with an intense focus on diet and preparation. It means Itte is rarely worried about Whittaker’s readiness to fight, but he admits there are still nerves.
“You have a close relationship to the fighter and their family, and you worry because there’s so much at stake,” he says.
“I don’t get nervous about his skillset or his abilities, but just about him being able to perform well and not getting hurt.
“I’m not nervous thinking about ‘have we done what we’re meant to do?’ Because I know we have. You’re anxious about the result and what’s going to happen on the night.”
While Whittaker is used to the constant presence of the UFC’s Embedded cameras, Itte says he still slips up every now and then.
He reckons he got caught out this week while having a laugh with Whittaker.
“Me and Rob were just talking shit and I mentioned my Chinese dad,” Itte laughs.
“I didn’t realise they were going to use that, and it’s a bit out of context. It’s just an old joke, going way back, but there’s going to be people out there who think I’m Chinese now.”