Cameron Ciraldo has convinced the UFC fighters who helped him create rugby league’s No.1 defensive team to also make the move from Penrith to Belmore in 2023 — and all without breaking the ‘no poaching’ promise he made to his old club.
Only a few months after stating he would not chase Panthers players in his first year as an NRL head coach, Fox Sports Australia can reveal Ciraldo will still be joined at Bulldogs HQ by the Australian fight crew headed by UFC superstar Robert Whittaker.
For the past two years, Whittaker and his western Sydney team — which includes, among others, coach Alex Prates and fellow UFC fighter Jacob Malkoun — have been working behind the scenes as the Panthers wrestling coaches, and helping to transform the Panthers into a defensive juggernaut.
Asked earlier this year to describe the impact Team Whittaker was having on a club that would eventually become back-to-back premiers, superstar No.7 Nathan Cleary replied: “Massive”.
Yet now the crew is Belmore bound.
Importantly though, the switch has already been given the green light by Panthers coach Ivan Cleary and CEO Brian Fletcher.
While Ciraldo recently revealed he would not be poaching Penrith players in his new role, his relationship with the wrestling coaches falls outside those constraints given he was the former Panthers assistant who initially scouted the crew prior to the 2021 season.
Ciraldo even spent time at Whittaker’s gym overseeing sessions before agreeing to sign the group.
As a result, the Panthers understood that they only secured the group’s services through Ciraldo.
Also helping the process is the fact that coach Cleary already has another Australian fight favorite to fill the void — UFC pioneer James Te Huna.
Now six years retired from the Octagon, Te Huna has morphed into a highly respected wrestling coach who has already worked alongside several NRL coaches.
He will start working with the reigning premiers in the pre-season.
Across at Belmore, it will be the same for a fight team overseen by renowned coach and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt Prates.
Apart from helping Whittaker to become Australia’s first UFC champion — and now looking to get him back there with a title eliminator on Australia’s blockbuster UFC 284 February card — the group also boasts three NRL premierships in less than a decade, having also worked with the 2014 South Sydney Rabbitohs.
The crew from Smeaton Grange were brought to the Panthers by Ciraldo in 2021 – enjoying immediate success.
Yet despite having helped the Panthers to consecutive premierships, the fighting team’s shift across to Canterbury has caused no ill will among the reigning premiers.
Ironically, many of the Panthers players also have close relationships with UFC heavyweight Tai Tuivasa and light heavyweight Tyson Pedro.
In fact, Cleary is about to open Penrith’s new Drink West brewery — a business venture he owns with the fighting duo.
The Panthers coaching department is also more than happy with new wrestling coach Te Huna, the retired light heavyweight who has built up a strong resume within rugby league circles.
Te Huna is also a proud Penrith product and, within Aussie fight circles, considered one of our toughest athletes to ever compete inside a steel cage.
Better, his work with the NRL dates all the way back to 2009 when, before even entering the UFC, he was employed by the Parramatta Eels to bring some toughness to a squad that would eventually go all the way to an NRL decider.
The signing of Team Whittaker adds to a Canterbury coaching staff which already includes renewed Dogs enforcers Willie Mason and Mark O’Meley – working respectively as a pathways transition coach and defensive coach.
Bulldogs players will begin training with Whittaker’s crew throughout the pre-season.