Robert Whittaker sets course for the future after time away

Whittaker explains when he knew he needed to take a break (2:17)

Robert Whittaker explains how a Christmas Day training session made him feel burned out, causing him to question if he still wanted to fight and to realize he needed a break. (2:17)

Robert Whittaker says he has regained the "spark" to train and fight after stepping away from the UFC following an 18-month period when his desire to throw down waned.

Whittaker spoke of his time away from the sport for the first time late last week, but he delved much deeper into the hiatus while appearing on Ariel Helwani's podcast, revealing he was struggling for motivation as far back as 2018.

"It's just like anyone else -- sometimes you get up and don't want to go into work," Whittaker explained of the mysterious circumstance that forced him to withdraw from a fight with Jared Cannonier at the start of the year.

"And other days it's like you want to go to a hospital to call in sick. You can't just jump to the conclusion that you're burnt out. ... I was just not enjoying the process at the time.

"I started feeling like this after the second [Yoel] Romero fight ... different things that came up in between just made it worse. [An abdominal] injury everything on the back end of it. Because of that, the need to fight grew but the want to fight declined."

Whittaker would eventually return to the Octagon at UFC 243, only to see the middleweight belt wrapped around Israel Adesanya's waist after just 1 minute and 27 seconds into the second round.

The Australian makes no excuses for that defeat, insisting he was well prepared for a showdown in Melbourne that set a new record attendance for the UFC. And there has been a silver lining in the defeat, too, in that it forced Whittaker to confront the feelings he had been suppressing.

"Before the fight, I have to believe I'm the best ever -- once you allow doubts in your head you've already lost," Whittaker told Helwani. "Physical health, best I've ever been. Mentally, maybe not, but it is what it is. I felt great, I just didn't fight very well.

"[Defeating Adesanya] would be like putting a Band-Aid on a knife wound and the fallout would've been worse. The loss forced me to face it and deal with it."

Whittaker's lightbulb moment came on Christmas Day last year, the 29-year-old finally asking himself why he was continuing to train when he had clearly lost the desire to do so.

But after some time away with the family, some changes to his training program and even a consultation with a psychologist, Whittaker was ready to set course for a return to the UFC two months later.

"I put no dates on needing to come back, when I got the hunger to come back that's when I knew I was ready to come back," he said.

"Mid-February I got back in and felt good, was shedding Christmas weight ... then all of a sudden there's a [coronavirus] pandemic.

"I didn't go to the gym at all, I just trained because I wanted to train, which is very different from training when you have to. It was weird -- there was no schedules, no alarms or nothing; I'd recommend it to anyone if they can."

Whittaker was unsure of exactly when he might return to the Octagon given the current pandemic, but said he was definitely keen to thrown down at Dana White's fight island, if it could be organized.

The Australian was set to face Englishman Darren Till in Dublin in August before COVID-19 began its devastating spread across the world. But while other sports remain suspended indefinitely across the globe, the UFC is edging closer to a return next month.

Looking beyond that, a rematch with Adesanya is also appealing.

"[I've] never had hard feelings with him. We're not friends. But I'm not friends with most of the world, he doesn't need more friends, I don't need more friends," Whittaker told Helwani.

"Hopefully we'll meet again down the road and I get one back."

For now, though, he's just happy to have the desire back, particularly as a change in career path holds limited appeal.

"Yes, obviously it's terrifying because this is what I do for a living," Whittaker said when asked if he was scared the spark to train and fight would not return.

"You have to love it because it's too dangerous. It's scary because if you don't love it, then you have to get out. And that means I would've had to get another job, and I'm not good at anything else."