How Robert Whittaker and Darren Till Learned to Manage Mental Health Struggles

Tom TaylorContributor IJuly 23, 2020

FILE - In this June 10, 2018, file photo, Robert Whittaker reacts after his middleweight mixed martial arts title bout against Yoel Romero at UFC 225 in Chicago. Whittaker defends his UFC middleweight title against Kelvin Gastelum in the main event of UFC 234 in Melbourne, Australia, on Sunday. (AP Photo/Jim Young, File)
Jim Young/Associated Press

MMA oozes so much machismo, so much bravado, that it's easy to forget that the men and women who fight professionally are real people with real problems.

Take former UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker, who will battle Darren Till in the main event of UFC on ESPN 14 this Saturday, as an example. Despite his status as one of the best fighters on Earth, Whittaker recently took a break from competition to deal with some mental health concerns that could have put an end to his MMA career.

Whittaker's problems began before his two most recent fights: a decision win over Yoel Romero and a knockout loss to Israel Adesanya. Like so many afflictions of the mind, his began gradually, almost indecipherably, until the darkness seeped into every part of his life.  

"It was definitely gradual," Whittaker told Bleacher Report from Abu Dhabi, where his fight with Till will take place. "Once it started creeping into my head, it started creeping and creeping into everything else I did."

Initially, Whittaker thought that his issues, which he describes as feeling "completely burned out," would disappear on their own. When they didn't, he decided to step away from competition with no firm plans to return.

"I'm a fighter," he said. "This is my trade. It's such a big part of who I am that it was hard for me as a fighter to see [what was happening].

"I have trials and tribulations. I kind of thought that I'd get through this with nothing: don't worry about it, ignore it, push it to the side, get through it. Then you do that for six months, a year, a year-and-a-half. It just eats at you. It's like the ocean. It just weathers the storm.

"I'd been mulling [a break], but again, the whole time it was like, 'it's not this, it's not me, it'll go away.' So after the Adesanya fight, and I was no longer the champ, there were no longer the same stresses, the same pressures to do things, so I was like, 'I'm going to take some time out.' It was uncertain. Uncertain is a good word. It was very uncertain. I didn't know where I was going to go or what I was going to do."

Once his decision was made, Whittaker withdrew from a planned UFC 248 fight with Jared Cannonier and disappeared from the public eye, leaving fans to speculate about his status. After several months away from the sport, he re-emerged, reinvigorated, speaking with great candor about what he had been going through.

"There's no shame if you don't want to do something anymore or something makes it hard to," he said. "You've got to self-reflect and be real with yourself because nobody else is going to."

It's unfortunate that it was so surprising to hear a professional fighter open up about their mental health, but that was the reality. While Whittaker assures these issues are "much more common than everybody thinks" among fighters, it's rare to hear these world-class athletes acknowledge what they go through when they are not surrounded by chain-link fencing.

Interestingly, one of the few men to do so with the same frankness as Whittaker is the one he will fight Saturday. 

For a time, Darren Till stood out as one of the brightest young contenders in the UFC welterweight division. He was undefeated, confident and widely seen as a future champion. Then the train went skittering off the rails.

Jeffrey McWhorter/Associated Press

In his first bid at the welterweight title, he was dropped and choked out by Tyron Woodley. In his next fight, he was on the receiving end of a brutal, one-punch knockout courtesy of Jorge Masvidal, who was then regarded as a journeyman rather than the top welterweight contender he is seen as today. Riding the first two losses of his career, both emphatic and brutal stoppages, Till began to question everything he thought he knew about himself.

"I was just upset at myself," Till told Bleacher Report from Abu Dhabi. "I considered myself invincible for a long time, and to have the invincibility stripped of you is so savage. It hurt a lot, so it took a lot of building back up."

Where Whittaker took a break to get his head straight, Till opted for a different approach, moving up to the perilous middleweight division in search of a fresh start. In his first fight in this new weight class, he was matched up with former interim title challenger Kelvin Gastelum, who held a spot in the middleweight top five. By accepting that fight, Till gave the impression that his confidence was as solid as ever.

That couldn't have been further from reality.  

"I was just terrified of fighting; the bright lights, big stage, that sort of thing," Till said. "I was really scared of fighting, especially fighting Gastelum, because of the guy he is and the guys he's beaten. It was on the biggest stage possible. It couldn't have gotten any bigger. There were a lot of emotions at the time.

"I'm fine with it, admitting I was scared," Till added. "I think we all get scared. It doesn't make me any less of a man to admit that."

Despite the fear he felt, Till defeated Gastelum by split decision. The relief he felt was profound. 

"I felt like I'd conquered my own personal mountain inside my head—something I think a lot of people are too scared to do, something people don't have the chance to do," he recounted. "I've conquered the big scary mountain that I was afraid of, and after that, it was about building myself back up.

"It was a big weight off my mind. [It taught me] I can conquer anything. I can come back from 10 losses. I can come back from defeat in life. It made me a lot stronger, that fight. That fight taught me a lot about myself."

Like his upcoming foe, Till suspects that mental health problems are far more common in MMA than fans might expect.

"I believe we all do have demons and mountains to climb, mostly inside our own heads," he said. "Every single individual, whether they say it or not, is trying to conquer something inside their head and trying to overcome something, whether it be fear or whatever. They're all on their own path, their own journey. It's all individual experiences. 

"I think mental stuff is 90 percent of [competition] overall. A lot of fighting, especially on the big stage, comes down to mental [state]. Some people just can't get in the right state of mind. Some people flourish from it. It just depends.

"It's a tough thing to understand, the mind."

With his confidence-boosting win over Gastelum in the rearview mirror, Till is in a fantastic place mentally, even with his fight with the former champion Whittaker bearing down.

"After my last fight, I'm content and I'm in a happy place, and I've trained really hard," he said. "I've put in the work and the rounds, and I'm going to go in there and fight happy. 

"I can't wait. Time's ticking. I count every minute down."

Till can rest assured that, after a revivifying hiatus, Whittaker will be feeling much the same way Saturday night.

"The Robert Whittaker [fans are] going to get is a happier one," Whittaker said. "A much happier one. I'm doing everything I'm doing for me and my family. One, because I enjoy it. And two, 'cause it's how I provide for my family. [I'm] very ready to go."