Whittaker set for his ‘Conor McGregor moment’

FORGET a new gold belt, Robert Whittaker is gunning for his 'Conor McGregor moment' at UFC 243.

Set to defend his middleweight crown before 50,000 fans at Melbourne's Marvel Arena this Sunday, Whittaker has been told he will be catapulted into a new stratosphere should he overcome undefeated prodigy Israel Adesanya.

Speaking this week, leading ESPN journalist Ariel Helwani insisted that, should the Australian win, his popularity would explode not only Down Under, but globally.

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Among the most respected voices in MMA, Helwani said the fact Whittaker had been sidelined for 13 months meant he was yet to be considered among superstars like McGregor, Jon Jones, even heavyweight champ Stipe Miocic.

"But this fight, it's the perfect comeback for Rob," Helwani said.

"Fighting at home in front of a huge crowd, and against an opponent like Izzy, a guy who really brings 'buzz' to the event … it's perfect.

"I love these territorial fights that extend to the rest of the world. Love when fighters compete in front of their home crowds.

Robert Whittaker can have his ‘Conor McGregor’ breakout moment this weekend. Picture: AAP
Robert Whittaker can have his ‘Conor McGregor’ breakout moment this weekend. Picture: AAP

"And remember, when Stipe Miocic (first) fought in his hometown of Cleveland, he came across like a superstar. It was the same with Georges St-Pierre in Montreal, then Conor McGregor in Dublin … that's when they really came across like superstars.

"And there's undoubtedly a trickle-down effect from that.

"People watching on at home say 'wow that guy really is a big deal. People really care about him'.

"And that matters when it's the world that's watching."

Helwani insisted Whittaker would get a far bigger push from beating an undefeated Adesanya, undoubtedly the company's hottest rising star, then even his previous two wins over Cuban monster Yoel Romero.

"Israel is on a rocket ship right now," continued the commentator who hosts Ariel Helwani's MMA show on ESPN and ESPN2.

"When you look at Izzy, you see a star. He definitely has that 'It factor'.

"And he's also poking the bear.

Israel Adesanya is talking a big game ahead of Sunday’s fight. Picture: AAP
Israel Adesanya is talking a big game ahead of Sunday’s fight. Picture: AAP

"He's talking about Robert Whittaker in a way that no one else has before. Taking shots, trying to get under his skin.

"Rob is so well liked, so respectful that no one thinks to do it.

"So now you're starting to see a different side to Rob, where he is starting to punch back a little bit - and I like that.

"So then put all that together, and in Australia … it's the perfect combination for Robert Whittaker to make his return."

Quizzed on why Whittaker hadn't received more love Stateside from his two five-round wins over Romero - first with a busted knee, then a broken hand - Helwani added: "The first fight was weird because being for an interim belt, it was a bit like 'what are we fighting for?'.

"Nobody knew if the winner would even fight (then champ) Michael Bisping.

"Then in the rematch, Romero missed weight so it wasn't a title fight. Nobody knew what was going on.

"But this fight, it's fascinating stylistically, has a fascinating storyline, and then being held in Australia … it's all perfect."