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Refreshed Robert Whittaker ready to start climb back to the top

A happy and "rejuvenated" Robert Whittaker has a rematch with Israel Adesanya in the back of his mind, but the former UFC middleweight champion's focus is for now faced firmly on Britain's Darren Till.

The July 25 fight between the pair was confirmed by the UFC last week, the announcement at last giving Whittaker (20-5) some certainty in a year when he has ridden the ups and downs of life as a fighter.

Having gone public with a mental battle, which he admits forced him to question his future in the sport, Whittaker said he has recaptured the love of mixed martial arts and is also happier than ever outside of the Octagon.

"Earlier in the year, I was so burnt out I didn't know what I wanted to do," Whittaker told ESPN. "It's very hard to plan for everything based on how you're feeling at the time; so I just let it ride out, I let myself have that time off, that time away.

"Honestly, if I knew the world was about to shut down, I might not have had the break then; but I had that break, and during that time I just started feeling revitalised and rejuvenated in myself. And by the time I came back [to training], that hunger, that urge to train and to put my skills to the test. It was an urge just to get back to my trade, which is what I'm doing now."

Whittaker, 29, hasn't fought since his loss to Adesanya at UFC 243 in October. The second-round KO ended the Australian's yearlong reign as the middleweight champion and left Whittaker to pick up the pieces of a fight that in no way went to plan.

"After every win or loss, I go back to the drawing board and see what worked and what didn't, and I've made a lot of little tweaks to how I do things," Whittaker explained. "The way that I did certain things beforehand [and] during fight week, my mental state, the physical [preparation], the [weight] cut, the fight itself, my emotions, I dissected all of it.

"Luckily for me, I have a great team; we always review what we're doing, how we're doing it, are we enjoying it, and we mold the training to our lifestyle. So it's been really good; I've had a lot of support from my team."

Whittaker and Till (18-2) had enjoyed some lighthearted exchanges on social media before the fight was announced, but the Australian insists it is all business now.

"It's a bit of a laugh; it's something different," Whittaker said. "At first, because I had the time, I was just having a bit of fun with it. But I can't be bothered now. It kind of dragged on. I'm not huge on that social media stuff; I like going on there, just posting my thing so my fans can get an insight on what I'm doing day to day. But having those ongoing dialogues becomes quite hard."

"I think he's a great fighter; he's got a lot of hunger," Whittaker said of Till. "He's very skilled. But unfortunately, he's been matched with me."

Whether a win over Till is enough for Whittaker to earn a rematch with Adesanya remains to be seen, so too whom the UFC might look to line the champion up against in the meantime.

The Nigerian-New Zealander's first title defense, a unanimous decision victory over Yoel Romero, was widely panned across the sport for its lack of action. It was a bout in which the referee intervened and demanded the duo start fighting.

Whittaker looks at the wider middleweight roster with excitement, though, and hopes to get the chance to win back the belt either later in the year or early in 2021.

"The middleweight's division is very exciting," Whittaker told ESPN. "There's fresh blood, there's a lot of movement in the division, a lot new guys moving up and making a name for themselves with Till, [Jack] Hermansson, [Jared] Cannonier, coming in. And then you have some of the guys that have been in the division a little bit longer now, like myself and some of the other boys. It's an exciting time.

"As a fighter and as a competitive athlete, I want to get back. I want that rematch. Whether [Adesanya] has the title at the time or not, having that rematch is just something as an athlete that I want. But other than that, all my sights are set on Darren Till."

His fight still a month away, Whittaker will have a few more weeks at home before he departs for Dana White's "Fight Island" in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Whittaker admits he is yet to look into the UFC's coronavirus protocols and the COVID-19 testing that takes place in fight week, but he insists he will be ready to go nonetheless.

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Whittaker also will be keeping an eye on what is a busy fortnight for fighters from his part of the world, starting with Dan Hooker's fight against Dustin Poirier this weekend then Alexander Volkanovski's rematch with Max Holloway on what is a bumper opening to the UFC's slate of cards in the Middle East.

"I think Hooker's one of the best fighters in the world, personally," Whittaker said. "His skill set's crafty. He's very, very smart inside the Octagon. He's always ready to fight. So I expect good things for him.

"And the same goes for Volk. He's a powerhouse in the sport -- striking, grappling, stamina. He's a powerhouse in the sport right now."

"Both of those guys are very, very hard to beat," Whittaker said.