There was a time when mixed martial arts was an obscure combat sport far from the spotlight dominated largely by boxing.
That couldn’t be more true for Rob Wilkinson, who was one of a handful practicing the little-known cage fighting competition in the early 2000s.
The fighter who hails from Hobart has had a rollercoaster career. His rise eventually saw him join the UFC where he ultimately lost to Siyar Bahadurzada and then Isreal Adesanya.
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In the five years since that loss in UFC 221, Wilkinson has remained undefeated.
His latest success, the light heavyweight PFL World Championship over Omari Akhmedov, earned the Australian a cool $1.5 million that he plans to spend on a house.
It’s been a remarkable glow-up for Wilkinson, who hailed his coach Priscus Fogagnolo for the ultimate scalp.
“I started boxing when I was 16 and started MMA when I was 17,” said Wilkinson.
“Me and my coach back there, Priscus Fogagnolo, we called it the chicken coop – it was just the back of the gym.
“No one even knew what MMA was. I was talking about it saying what I did and you’d kind of have to say cage fighting and people would look at you funny.
“Priscus has been my coach ever since I started – for 13 years now. He’s the hardest-working man I know and that’s why I’m here.
“He instilled that in all of us at the gym – just hard work and work ethic. I remember him pushing me harder than anyone.
“I’m very grateful to have him in my life and passing that down to me.”
Wilkinson’s win has many asking the question – what’s next?
Lev Pisarsky of MMA outlet Sherdog said Wilkinson stole the spotlight at the PFL World Championship finale.
“Fans may remember Wilkinson as the Australian grappler who fought in the UFC middleweight division and was knocked out by Israel Adesanya in early 2018. He is a very different man almost five years later,” Pisarsky wrote.
“Not only is he now an enormous light heavyweight, but he has developed powerful, punishing striking to go with his bruising grappling.
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“Personally, I thought that his opponent in the finals, Omari Akhmedov, a former top-10 UFC middleweight who had also moved up to 205 pounds, had a very good chance of beating him.
“Wilkinson was… favourite, but much of that had to do with cardio concerns about Akhmedov. I thought Akhmedov had better defence and would do well in the stand-up. Wilkinson proved me dead wrong.
“Incredibly, the Australian had improved his striking in the mere three and a half months since his last outing in the PFL playoffs, with sturdier defence and a fine use of feints. His own punches looked as crisp as ever, repeatedly battering Akhmedov with combinations.
“I especially loved his use of the uppercut whenever the man from Dagestan tried to wrestle.”
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The fight between Wilkinson and Akhmedov was “mercifully” called off by the doctor between rounds after the Russian fighter took a barrage of punches to the head.
Pisarsky posed the question whether Wilkinson might chase a UFC return or even an appearance in Bellator.
In any case, Wilkinson would be the favourite for another $1.5 million should he chase another season in the PFL World Championship.
“With Wilkinson’s combination of brutal ground-and-pound and aggressive striking, he may well be a to- 15 light heavyweight at this point, possibly even better,” said Pisarsky.
“I would love to see him in either the Bellator MMA or UFC light heavyweight division, where at 30 years old and still getting better, he would be a fearsome contender.”
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