Every fighter, regardless of their place within the combat sports world, goes through a period of doubt. It is a time in which they call into question their justification for committing to the violent career path they have chosen.
Ultimately, their journey comes to a fork in the road where they must answer a burning question – Is this what I want to do?
Hobart’s Rob Wilkinson is all too familiar with this.
After compiling an impressive 11-0 undefeated record and moving his training to Sydney, Wilkinson was signed by global MMA leader, the UFC.
During his run with the promotion, Wilkinson was unsuccessful in bouts against Afghanistan’s Siyar Bahadurzada and now UFC Middleweight champion, Israel Adesanya. It was at this point that he was released from his contract.
The fighter known as ‘Razor’ was now forced to find the answer.
“I had a little break after my release from the UFC,” Wilkinson told The Inner Sanctum.
“I’ve reassessed things. I kind of lost my passion for the sport for a little bit, when I was living in Sydney and when I was in the UFC.
“I was still training after I got released from the UFC, but I was just training, not seriously for a fight or not doing it like I have to do it. Just doing a little bit of training just once a day because I enjoy it.”
This process of reassessment has resulted in a number of career adjustments that have ignited a newfound desire to compete at the highest level in MMA.
First came a move back home, among family, friends and teammates at his training base, Hobart’s Hybrid Training Centre (HTC).
“I’ve moved back to my home town Hobart and I’ve definitely re-found my passion for it – loving training, loving learning new skills,” Wilkinson said.
“At HTC we’ve got a new gym opened up, a couple of my really good friends bought into the gym so it’s starting to run.
“It’s a new, state of the art facility and it’s got some good coaches and run really well. There’s a lot of excitement in there and a lot of really good energy. We all want the best for each other. I think that’s definitely helped.”
After his arrival back in Hobart, Wilkinson has since taken on a leadership role amongst his teammates. While this has taken some getting used to, he is working hard to impart knowledge and self-belief upon fellow gym members.
“Sometimes it’s a bit of a shock to me when people do look up to you a little bit, like ‘oh he has fought in the UFC’ and stuff like that,” he said.
“I used to always think I was the youngest guy in the gym trying to train and now I’m kind of the most experienced guy at the gym, the older guy trying to lead by example and show how far we can get even from Hobart.
“I’m trying to take on that role a little bit more and show anyone from our gym or anyone from Tassie how far we can go. I believe we’ve got a lot of great talent here MMA wise, kickboxing wise, Jiu Jitsu wise.
“We can get to the UFC, we can be World champions. Just because we’re in a small city doesn’t change that. I believe anyone can do it at our gym, we’ve got heaps of talented guys.”
Then came a change of weight class after realising that he had literally outgrown the Middleweight division. It has been a move that Wilkinson recognises as vital to both his career prospects and his physical health.
“My coach Priscius always said I would end up at Light Heavyweight. When I first started I was 19 years old fighting at Middleweight and just continuously grew like all males do up until their mid to late 20s – they just kind of get a little bit bigger and thicker,” he said.
“My last fight against Israel (Adesanya) at Middleweight was my hardest cut and I felt that in the cage a lot. I didn’t feel myself. I felt very drained. You can see that in my performance, especially after the first round.
“I just had no energy left. That’s probably the worst I’ve felt in a fight fitness wise after one round. I cut 13-14 kilos in a week.
“People would always say ‘you excited for the fight?’ and I’m just trying to make weight first and I’ll think about the fight.
“Middleweight to Light Heavyweight is the biggest gap, nine kilos. I don’t think I’m a massive Light Heavyweight now. I’m not small, I’m 6’3. I think if there was one in between I would have moved up a while ago.
“It’s the best I’ve felt. I’m 29 now and I feel like the next five years of going into my prime, my best years and I really want to make the best out of it.
“I feel much better not doing big cuts and not having to stress about that. That was the biggest challenge going into a fight.”
Positive outcomes were to follow and on the back of time off and career adjustments, Wilkinson went undefeated across kickboxing and MMA in 2019.
A perfect start on the road back to the being signed to a major promotion came to a temporary halt due to COVID-19 however and meant Wilkinson was unable to fight at all during 2020.
“I really wanted to be active after my break and then obviously COVID hit and I’ve only been able to have one MMA fight so it’s been a little bit frustrating,” he said.
“I was pretty confident I was going to be signing with Bellator last year, I thought it was happening.
“My manager was talking to them and then COVID hit, then they weren’t doing shows and obviously they’ve got backlogged fighters and it’s difficult flying anyone out of Australia at the moment.”
Despite what will be a 15 month lay off, Wilkinson remains motivated and is focused on ascending the global ranks at Light Heavyweight.
His newest challenge comes in the form of a Light Heavyweight title bout at HEX Fight Series 21 on Friday April 9. Standing across the cage from Wilkinson will be highly credentialed Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt, Daniel Almeida (9-6).
“The UFC told me I was young and everything when they released me and after three fights to talk to them again and see how I’m going,” Wilkinson said.
“This will be my second fight back and for a title as well so I’m hoping to get one as soon as possible after this one in this half of the year if I can, then be looking at getting to one of those big promotions by the end of the year.
“I think the Light Heavyweight division, it’s not a stacked division. I think they need a few more fighters in that.”
The upcoming fight has brought out all mental aspects of the fight game, including trash talk.
“He’s a high level Jiu Jitsu guy. I expect him to want to take it to the ground,” Wilkinson said.
“Though apparently he has said in interviews he plans on knocking me out and he wants to keep it standing. I believe he’s got one knockout before.”
‘Razor’ subsequently dismissed the pre-fight words of his opponent and is confident in his ability to secure the title victory in dominant fashion. Doing so would mean taking one more giant step towards the big stage.
“Lots of wrestlers or Jiu Jitsu guys, once they get a knockout they kind of love it or think they’re going to knock everyone out,” he said.
“I believe I can take this fight anywhere and win. My wrestling’s better than his, my striking’s better than his, my strength and conditioning will be better than his and I’m comfortable taking it on the ground.
“I’d love to give him his first submission loss in the cage, but also I could see myself knocking him out.”
“I want to go and put on a dominant performance here and show why I should be back in the big stage – on UFC or Bellator – and go get this belt.”
HEX Fight Series 21 goes down on Friday April 9 and can be streamed at FITE.tv