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Ireland’s Conor McGregor, Canada’s Georges St-Pierre, North America’s Ronda Rousey. Could Australian MMA’s leading man, Robert Whittaker, transcend the sport and appeal to the mainstream public?
For those who follow and cover MMA, it can be easy to forget that it’s still a very niche sport in Australia. It can be even easier to forget its lack of acceptance. A lack of acceptance which pervades beyond public perception.
It wasn’t exactly radio silence when Whittaker became the first Australian to win a UFC title belt, but the media coverage – or lack thereof – which followed, was a disappointing reminder of the disconnect.
Mainstream news outlets rarely cover MMA, yet manage to sprinkle an op-ed here and there re-igniting debate of the sport’s barbarism.
Only last year, Western Australia overturned a ban on the use of fenced enclosures in MMA bouts.
The contingent of disapproval is real, but despite this, Australia has never been more successful in MMA. The number and quality of fighters prove we’ve never been better. This growing success calls for a growth in media representation, or at the very least, a change in the narrative portrayed in media representation. Alas, you’re unlikely to gain sympathy for crying foul on inadequate coverage of a violent, blood sport.
But perhaps Whittaker is the man to champion a change.
Last night in a historic event, the first episode of The Ultimate Fighter 28 was broadcast on free-to-air television in Australia. It was a deal reached based on Whittaker’s participation in the show as a coach. Channel 10’s sports-dedicated channel One will also air the season finale and UFC Adelaide live on December 1 and 2.
All UFC content is typically behind a paywall in Australia with cards spread between Foxtel, UFC Fight Pass and Main Event. While TUF programming has been met with a growing sense of malaise amongst the US audience, this could be a fresh introduction for many Australian viewers.
It’s been over a year since he won the UFC middleweight belt, but more recently it seems Whittaker is getting a nod of approval from mainstream media. Next week he will be visiting Perth and Sydney for An Evening With Robert Whittaker, where he will discuss his life and journey as a fighter before a live audience.
Whittaker might be the perfect candidate to win the endorsement of Australians. He embodies the values and attitudes that our culture has traditionally celebrated; perhaps none more significant than humility. Tall-poppy runs deep in Australia and as a consequence we tend to overvalue the modest, particularly where it exists in spite of clear and overwhelming success. The humble hero is cause for celebration. It’s an interesting proposition to consider how Conor McGregor may have been received if he’d been born here.
Whittaker is the everyman; a humble, respectful, controversy-free, through-and-through family-man who appears to be unanimously well-liked. On top of that, he’s an incredibly exciting fighter. A better (and more palatable) ambassador for Australian MMA would be near impossible to find.
Comparing Whittaker to the likes of megastars like St-Pierre and McGregor is obviously bold – and premature – but there are compelling reasons to believe he could very well become a widely beloved figure in Australian sports and, hopefully, start to shift some of the negative perceptions held of MMA.
The Ultimate Fighter 28 will continue to air Thursday nights at 9.30pm on Channel 10’s One sports channel.