About 10 minutes into the most important fight of his life, things weren't going well for Robert Whittaker. He was trailing after losing each of the first two rounds, his opponent Yoel Romero had a documented history of dominating third rounds and, worst of all, Whittaker was injured.
Sometime early in the first, Romero had hit him with a kick in the same left leg he had hurt in training, aggravating the injury. It is difficult enough facing a former Olympic wrestler on an eight-fight win streak. Now he had lost all room for error.
It was one of those moments where Whittaker would have been well within the norm to believe everything had begun to slip away. To believe that, because Romero was far older and had overcome so much more in life, maybe this was meant to be his night.
After all, Whittaker is only 26. His future, it would be easy to reason, is still way in the future. There would be time to overcome a loss, especially to a rampaging Romero.
So returning to his corner between rounds of the UFC 213 main event, how did he feel?
"It was unstable," he said during his in-cage post-fight interview. "I know that Romero will capitalize on any weakness he sees, so I had to play it off. It's pretty bad, but champions are made of this stuff."
No stability in his leg, no room for error, and for the final three rounds, Whittaker (19-4) rose to the occasion. For the final 15 minutes, he was as close to perfect as he needed to be. He controlled the volume, he shut down Romero's wrestling, he sprinted to the finish line in the fifth when everything hung in the balance.
It was a championship performance, even if it was only the interim belt on the line. Truly, he may be the best middleweight in the world, above even current champion Michael Bisping.
"That was the most agonizing 15 minutes I've had," Whittaker said. "But it's unbelievable."
Whittaker was the contender that most never saw coming. After winning his season of The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes in 2012, Whittaker went 2-2 in his first four fights as a welterweight, eventually getting knocked out by Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson.
Sean O'Connell @realOCsports
Bobby F****ing Knuckles!!!! What a beast! Won the last 3 rounds on one leg. What a fight!!! UFC2132017-7-9 05:06:01
As he tried to tread water, he came to realize the weight cut was costing him more than it offered. After one more fight, he decided to abandon the cut in favor of competing at his more natural class of middleweight.
Unburdened by the change, he was immediately a revelation, tightening up his striking and earning back-to-back knockouts. It's been onward and upward ever since, with Whittaker's punching his ticket to the interim title fight after knocking out the Brazilian star Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza.
In some divisions, seven wins in a row is enough for a title shot, but Whittaker needed the eighth. Now, after Saturday, the UFC finally said he would get to face champion Bisping later this year.
That's the right call. Bisping hasn't competed since escaping with a decision against 46-year-old Dan Henderson last October. Since then, he's publicly flirted with Georges St-Pierre in a matchup that was promised, fell apart and has spent the last two weeks undergoing emergency resuscitation in hopes of being revived.
Still, if Bisping was going to fight any middleweight, it seemed up until Saturday night it would be Romero, who was never shy about calling out Bisping, reminding him he was on the way to tangle.
The two had a built-in, albeit mild, feud that will have to be back-burnered for the kid who punctuated a remarkable streak with a remarkable ending.
After two rounds, according to FightMetric, Romero (13-2) had out-landed Whittaker 63-17 and had converted three takedown tries. The rest of the way, Whittaker landed 77 strikes to Romero's 51 and allowed only a single takedown out of eight attempts.
While some were quick to point to Romero's decreased output in the final three rounds, such an assessment fails to offer Whittaker credit for his early scrambling and ability to return to his feet quickly, forcing Romero to expend copious amounts of energy for little gain.
"I knew he always tries to dictate the pace and control of the fight with wrestling," Whittaker said on the Fox post-fight show. "He did surprise me with the volume of wrestling, but it took a toll on him. He tried to set a pace he couldn't keep up with."
Finally we found something that Romero can't do.
Prior to last night, it seemed he refused to subscribe to human bounds. He has a body that an artist might sculpt with clay and then think to himself he's gone too far. Muscles on muscles, sinewy and lithe. That aesthetic exterior, though, is something of a facade. Romero is 40 years old, having come to MMA after a life spent in amateur wrestling, and after escaping Cuba.
Time is of the essence. Prior to the fight, he spoke about winning the belt and bringing it back to Cuba to show his son he had to leave behind and whom he hasn't seen for 11 years. For a while, it seemed like fate.
Still, even after Whittaker's late takeover, the fight was up for grabs in the fifth. It was a battle of wills, and Romero wasn't ready to give in. Trying to escape Whittaker's vaunted left hook, Romero slipped the punch but then slipped down to the mat. Whittaker pounced, draping himself on Romero and riding out most of the rest of the round while sealing his comeback.
Whittaker's career arc isn't an usual one for fighters who end up wearing gold. On the way up, he overcame an inconsistent opening to his UFC career and a misguided division switch. On the way to (interim) gold, he overcame an injury, a slow start and a rampaging Romero.
There have been plenty of places for him to quit, big moments for him to back away from, yet nothing seems to faze him. He's quiet and polite, an anti-Bisping personality who fights with the same grit and resolve as the champ and who, because of it, earned the opportunity to surpass him.