No Robert Whittaker, no worries: UFC continues to thrive in Australia

Gastelum is devastated by Whittaker dropping out of UFC 234 (1:28)

Kelvin Gastelum is disappointed by the news of Robert Whittaker dropping out of UFC 234 due to a hernia and declares himself the new middleweight champion. (1:28)

MELBOURNE, Australia -- You could almost hear the collective groan around Melbourne on Sunday morning when news broke that Robert Whittaker had withdrawn from UFC 234.

Whittaker, the UFC middleweight champion and main attraction in Melbourne, was just hours away from his title defense against American Kelvin Gastelum, before pulling out with a "potentially fatal" abdominal hernia injury which required immediate surgery.

With the main event having to be scrapped at the last minute, fans were left shell-shocked and UFC 234 loomed as an utter disaster. Had it not been staged in Australia, it may very well have been.

But despite the setback, thousands of fans, who appeared more enthusiastic than disappointed, streamed into Rod Laver Arena from as early as 9am to take their seats ahead of the now 11-fight card.

Sure, they had come for Whittaker, but they embraced what was dished up, particularly the new main event between Israel Adesanya and Anderson Silva. The pair dazzled inside the octagon, thoroughly entertaining the sell-out crowd for three rounds before Adesanya was crowned victorious via unanimous decision.

"The fans were incredible. I love Australia; this place is insane," UFC president Dana White said after the main event. "The place was packed and you would never have thought the main event was gone. Incredible.

"They showed up and there was a big sign out the front saying the main event is off and you can get a refund on your tickets if you want, but people didn't want a refund, they wanted to see fights.

"Everything worked out and we did really well considering what happened to us."

If 10 years ago you had asked Australians what the UFC was, you would likely have been met with some pretty puzzled looks.

The sport wasn't really on the radar back then as there wasn't exactly an abundance of noteworthy Australian fighters, not to mention it had yet to land on Australian shores.

However, that was all about to change, and change in a big way.

In 2010, Sydney hosted Australia's first UFC event, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira vs. Cain Velasquez, and from there it began to flourish. Suddenly there was interest. Suddenly there was backing. Suddenly there were fans.

Fast forward to Sunday and the roar which echoed around the arena when the last-minute main event drew to a close not only confirmed the sport's rapid rise to prominence in Australia, but also underlined the importance of the Australian market for the UFC franchise.

"If tonight didn't prove what an incredible, amazing, market this is, nothing will," White said of Australia. "To have the main event and the Australian champion fall out and this place be packed like nothing happened ... I love it. I would literally come here every weekend if I could. The people are incredible. The fans are amazing."

Tickets for UFC 234 sold out in under 10 minutes when they first went on sale, and while the majority of them were hoping to catch Whittaker in action, few would have left Rod Laver Arena disappointed.

White has made no secret of the fact he loves bringing his marquee fight nights, or days, to Australian shores and it makes sense given it has been one of the most successful countries the sport has ventured to.

Since the beginning of 2010, 23 different nations have hosted a UFC event and outside of the United States, only Brazil (33) and Canada (26) have had more of it than Australia, who tied the United Kingdom with 14 events at UFC 234.

Australia also continues to hold the record for the highest attended UFC event in history. The bout between Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm in 2015 at the-then Etihad Stadium saw 56,214 fans come through the turnstiles.

"Every time we come here the fights are really good," White said. "I believe it has a lot to do with the energy here in Australia and the fans. Fighters feed off that. This is one of the funnest places in the world to come fight."

UFC 234 may not have gone to script but its setbacks proved Australia will play a big role in UFC for years to come.