Robert Whiteford: Scottish MMA fighter on mental health, friendship and DIY

By Lauren DickBBC Scotland
Robert Whiteford
Robert Whiteford made a winning return to mixed martial arts in November last year

"The stereotype of a fighter is being strong minded and strong bodied. They think we are invincible - we're not. If my routine gets broken, my life kind of falls to bits."

Some people swear by jogging. Others take medication, or try meditation. For Robert Whiteford, mixed martial arts is the remedy that keeps his mental health on an even keel.

The 37-year-old Bellator fighter hit "rock bottom" when an enforced year out of the sport was compounded by his marriage split.

Whiteford tells BBC Scotland about battling back from his darkest days and becoming a DIY fanatic amid life in lockdown.

'Friends were my life-saver'

Whiteford has been competing at professional level since 2009, and made history as the first Scot to sign a contract with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in 2013.

Released three years later in the wake of successive defeats, he joined Russian MMA promotion Absolute Championship Berkut (now known as ACA) and began with three straight wins. Life was sweet for the Fauldhouse man.

But when the organisation ran into financial trouble, Whiteford's fights dried up and his attempts to be freed from his contract ended in his having to take a year out.

"Then I had the breakdown of my marriage," he says. "It wasn't until I hit rock bottom that I knew something was missing. I really noticed it then, how important MMA is to me.

"I wasn't training or going to the gym. It's a lifestyle and not just a job. It probably takes up about 90% of my week.

"The people who helped me through the last year were my friends. They basically brought me back to life. Before then I ran solo. It was a case of 'we'll see each other when we see each other'.

"It's made me realise how important it is to stay in contact with one another."

'Everyone stumbles at some point'

Whiteford's return to the sport - on the Bellator roster - was triumphant and dramatic. His first fight was last November against former UFC rival Sam Sicilia and the Scot won by knockout in the final six seconds.

With his next bout - scheduled for 16 May against Saul Rogers - scuppered by the coronavirus pandemic, Whiteford is confined to home.

The support he relied on during a difficult 12 months remains as important as ever, and is now being reciprocated.

"I've made a point of setting aside time to check in with my friends every few days," Whiteford says. "Even if it's not to help me, you never know how they are feeling until you ask. It could just take a wee text or a phone call to change their day or lift their spirits.

"It's important to let each other know that you're there. I had a blip in my life and everyone takes a stumble at some point. It's just about trying to do the best you can and get through those blips together."

Crying for weeks & knocking down walls

Before lockdown commenced, Whiteford had to deal with personal heartache when his beloved sidekick, ginger cat Ollie, died.

Whiteford explains: "I think I cried my eyes out for about two weeks. He was the most consistent thing in my life over the past 10 years - he lasted two girlfriends and a marriage...

"I took him for granted - I thought he would always be there. I never had one picture of him up around the house - my girlfriend went and got me a canvas and I've put that up in my bedroom.

"My girlfriend has come up to keep me company during all of this. She's been a godsend."

Robert Whiteford (right)
Whiteford (right) has been filling his time outside the ring with DIY projects at home

With his sport on hold amid the pandemic, Whiteford has been making good use of the extra time on his hands.

In place of knocking down opponents in the cage, he has been knocking down walls in his home.

"My routine hasn't changed all that much because I've basically isolated myself for the past 12 years - it's quite a lonely sport," he says.

"The only thing that's changed for me is that I can't get to the gym to do sessions with my training partner. I've built an extension on to my house to fit a gym in, and I run eight miles every two days.

"As much as I enjoy fighting, I like the downtime as well. I've spent a lot of time doing DIY - I've knocked more walls down than I probably have left standing!"