UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker aiming for August return

UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker, who was scheduled to face Kelvin Gastelum two weeks ago but was pulled from the title defense on fight day and rushed to a hospital in Melbourne, Australia, said Monday that upon being examined, he was told, "You need emergency surgery, or you're going to die."

Whittaker, 28, underwent surgery for a hernia and collapsed bowel while UFC 234 was going on. He spent a week in the hospital and now is at home in Sydney.

"I feel good," Whittaker said during an appearance on Ariel Helwani's MMA Show. "Obviously, I feel blessed to be able to be sitting here."

Whittaker was told by doctors that he can ease back into training in four weeks, and he hopes to return to the Octagon in August.

That return likely will be against the winner of an April 13 interim title fight between Gastelum and Israel Adesanya.

Although Whittaker (20-4) understands why the UFC opted to book a fight for an interim belt, he believes that both men "jumped the queue just a bit."

Gastelum was granted his UFC 234 title shot after two wins following a submission loss to Chris Weidman in 2017. Adesanya is 16-0 but has not fought anyone in the top five. "Get Adesanya to run the gauntlet like I did," Whittaker said. "Let's see if he looks the same afterward."

Whittaker was less impressed by Adesanya's win over Anderson Silva at UFC 234, he said, than by the performance of the 43-year-old Silva. "Anderson's not in his heyday," he said. "He's easily on his way out. Everyone can see that."

Whom does Whittaker hope to see emerge from the April 13 interim title fight?

"I think Adesanya matches up better for me," he said. "I think I can get inside his guard, and I can put heat on him. I think Gastelum is a hard fight because he's a tough guy with a thick head. [Adesanya] is not an easier fight -- wrong word. It's a better fight for me."

Whatever fight comes, Whittaker is eager to get back to business. He has been middleweight champion since December 2017 but has not yet defended his belt. That's not entirely his fault, as last summer's challenger, Yoel Romero, missed weight, making their meeting a non-title fight.

But this month marked the second time in just over a year that Whittaker withdrew from a title defense. Both times, the fight was to be in Australia, so he feels like he again let down his countrymen.

"As serious as the surgery was and the injury and the illness," he said, "the overwhelming feeling was embarrassment."