Preview: UFC 234 ‘Whittaker vs. Gastelum’

Whittaker vs. Gastelum

By Tom Feely Feb 7, 2019


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It took a while, but the Anzac scene has finally come through. Oceania Ultimate Fighting Championship cards used to mostly just be good for some fun fights from some limited prospects -- which, admittedly, is still true of a lot of this lineup -- but this one's headlined by two true championship-level fighters from the region: Robert Whittaker, who already is middleweight king, and Israel Adesanya, who might be his next challenger. Past that, this card's almost more notable for who's not on it than who is -- for the first time in a good while, the UFC has options, even if potential contenders like Alexander Volkanovski and Dan Hooker -- or even a flawed rising heavyweight like Tai Tuivasa -- don't make appearances here. As far as what is on the card, it's a two-fight show as far as being pay-per-view worthy, much like UFC 221 last year. But like that outing, everything on this card at least looks fun, even if a ton of it won't matter by Sunday. But the region’s at least in good hands now, so hey; progress.

Middleweight Championship
Robert Whittaker (20-4) vs. Kelvin Gastelum (15-3, 1 N/C)

Odds: Whittaker (-245), Gastelum (+205)

Let's try this again. Last February, UFC 221 was supposed to feature Robert Whittaker, the UFC's first Australian champion, heading to Perth to give the country its first hometown title defense. So, naturally, Whittaker was the only person who got injured in lead-up to the card. This year, it’s take two in Melbourne, as Whittaker gets a huge moment in a career that, at one point, wasn't a sure-fire success. Whittaker came up through the welterweight bracket of the England-versus-Australia “TUF: Smashes” one-off Season, and while he was a fine prospect, he also plateaued in short order, most memorably losing in under four minutes to Stephen Thompson. At one point, Whittaker needed a win over Mike Rhodes to stay afloat, but after that, Whittaker moved up to middleweight and hasn't lost since. At first, Whittaker was able to win a series of striking matches where his increased speed served him much better at 185, but it was his 2017 win over Ronaldo Souza that turned him from possible regional star to potential champion. Whittaker had a burgeoning and successful amateur wrestling career by that point, and that natural talent manifested itself in impressive fashion against Souza, as Whittaker was able to survive on the ground, mostly keep the fight standing and light up his oppoent for a second-round stoppage. That gave way to a duo of absolute wars against Yoel Romero; few men have been able to withstand the ridiculous bursts of violence that Romero brings, but Whittaker did so twice in narrow fashion, winning two close decisions to reign as middleweight king. Now Whittaker heads home for a massive moment in Australian MMA, where Kelvin Gastelum hopes to spoil the party.

Gastelum's success also came out of nowhere, to an extent; Season 17 of “TUF” was all about Uriah Hall and his vicious string of knockouts, but at the end of the season, an unknown Gastelum was able to score a close victory and take home the crown. This was back when the UFC would adjust when things didn't go quite their way, so when they realized they had a young potential Mexican-American star on their hands, Gastelum quickly got the promotional push. Gastelum made it through the meat grinder that can be the UFC's prospect matchmaking -- within two years, he was able to score wins over tough vets like Rick Story and Jake Ellenberger -- but weight issues led to him being hospitalized before a 2015 fight with Tyron Woodley, and that'd quickly become the narrative of Gastelum's career. The UFC forced him up to 185 for a fight before allowing him to cut back down, then just as Gastelum appeared to have his weight issues under control, he got pulled from a fight once again, this time against Donald Cerrone. From there, the UFC has basically convinced Gastelum to stay at middleweight by matching him against faded versions of big-name opponents; Chris Weidman's power wrestling game was too much for Gastelum, but other than that he's obliterated late-career forms of Vitor Belfort and Michael Bisping. That got Gastelum to the precipice of contendership, and after a narrow win over perennial bridesmaid Souza, Gastelum now has his title shot: even if it's still a weight class higher than he'd prefer.

This should be a fun fight, but Whittaker appears to have all the advantages. Gastelum's career progression has been a bit odd; Rafael Cordeiro usually produces strong pressure fighters, and while Gastelum's shown glimpses of that, he tends to coast on his natural talent to win in the flow of the fight rather than forcing any sort of gameplan. That's worked great against older fighters that Gastelum has been able to outlast or knock out cold, but against someone as young, fast and durable as Whittaker, it seems to play right into the champ's hands. If Gastelum tries to counter Whittaker with combinations, the Aussie can play that game just as well. And if Gastelum goes back to relying on his wrestling game, Whittaker should also be able to shut that down. So that leaves a sudden finish as Gastelum's main path to victory, and given that Whittaker was able to survive the hellfire of Romero's offense, it's unclear if Gastelum has anywhere near that arsenal. Add in that Whittaker also appears to have the better gas tank, and this is a fight where Gastelum is simply outgunned -- and moreso as the fight continues to go on. The pick is Whittaker via third-round knockout. Advertisement

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