The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday returns with UFC on ESPN 22—essentially a one-fight show on Saturday at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas. The main event offers both excitement on paper and stakes in practice. With the middleweight title picture wide open, either Robert Whittaker or Kelvin Gastelum could make a case for himself as Israel Adesanya’s next challenger. Nothing jumps off the page beyond the headliner, but the co-feature—which sees Jeremy Stephens move back to lightweight to meet Drakkar Klose—should result in good time. Elsewhere, former champion Andrei Arlovski takes on Chase Sherman in an intriguing heavyweight pairing.
Now to the preview for the UFC on ESPN 22 “Whittaker vs. Gastelum” main card:
Middleweights#1 MW | Robert Whittaker (22-5, 13-3 UFC) vs. #8 MW | Kelvin Gastelum (16-6, 11-6 UFC)
ODDS: Whittaker (-255), Gastelum (+215)
The middleweight title picture is wide open, so a win here could put either Whittaker or Gastelum in line for a title rematch against Adesanya. Whittaker’s last performance, an October win over Jared Cannonier, served as a nice reminder that the former middleweight champ still has something left in the tank. The worry was that Whittaker’s inspiring but brutal rise on the 185-pound ladder had caused his body to betray him just as he figured to hit the crest of his career. A winner of the one-off “The Smashes” season of “The Ultimate Fighter” back in 2012, Whittaker was in danger of sliding off the UFC roster after an uninspiring run at welterweight. However, everything clicked for “The Reaper” upon his move to middleweight. With an additional speed advantage, Whittaker was suddenly a much slicker boxer with knockout power. It quickly became apparent that he was the next regional star for Australia and New Zealand, and wins over Derek Brunson and Ronaldo Souza established him as one of the clear top middleweights in the world. Whittaker became interim champion—he was later promoted to undisputed titleholder—in a 2017 war against Yoel Romero and defended his belt in an equally difficult rematch, but he never got his crowning moment on home soil. Injuries took him out of a scheduled title defense against Luke Rockhold in 2018, and a 2019 bout against Gastelum in Melbourne, Australia, was scrapped on just hours’ notice thanks to Whittaker suddenly suffering an abdominal hernia and a collapsed bowel. That raised some concern about his general health, but he wound up making a full recovery in time for a fight eight months later against Adesanya. Whittaker was once again denied his big moment in front of the Australian faithful, as Adesanya took both his title and his status as the great star of the region. In a virtuoso performance, Adesanya essentially countered everything Whittaker had to offer before scoring a second-round knockout. After taking some time off due to burnout, Whittaker returned for a flat performance in a win against Darren Till. Given how the last few years had gone, the worry was that the Romero and Adesanya fights had left Whittaker a shell of his former self. However, things snapped back to normal against Cannonier, and Whittaker now looks ready for another shot at middleweight gold. He has to take care of Gastelum first.
Gastelum has not reached quite the same highs as Whittaker over the course of his career, but he is in a similar spot, having recently put together his strongest performance of the last few years in a much-needed win. Gastelum’s another “Ultimate Fighter” winner, having come out of nowhere to take the Season 17 crown from the much more hyped Uriah Hall. To the UFC’s credit, the promotion realized it had a prodigious talent on its hands and wound up featuring him accordingly. Gastelum put together an impressive string of performances until things went completely south in a 2015 bout against Tyron Woodley. Gastelum’s weight-cutting issues got so severe that he had to be hospitalized, and he was shockingly still allowed to weigh in and make it to the cage for an understandably flat performance. However, that was the first sign of the weight issues that would eventually force Gastelum up to middleweight, as well as the beginning of the idea that he was more than willing to coast on his natural talent. Upon his move up to 185 pounds, Gastelum wound up facing a slate of established veteran opponents that got him a lot of notoriety but answered few questions about his ability to hang at an elite level. Souza, Tim Kennedy, Vitor Belfort and Michael Bisping all had great careers, but Gastelum caught them all at a time when they were either about to start or were fully in the middle of career-ending downswings. Still, that was enough of a run to earn Gastelum his scuttled shot at Whittaker, which in turn became an interim title fight against Adesanya that saw him put in one of the best performances of his career. He was outgunned, but his combination of aggression and durability kept Adesanya on his toes for the entirety of a five-round war. That made his subsequent performances against Till and Jack Hermansson all the more frustrating. Gastelum looked completely flat against Till, and the Hermansson fight ended almost immediately after the Kings MMA rep’s lax defense got him caught in a heel hook. Given the nature of his rise through the ranks, Gastelum badly needed to show he could beat an opponent in his prime, and he did so against Ian Heinisch in February. Against a rock-solid opponent, Gastelum affirmed that he is simply at another level in terms of natural talent when compared to most of his middleweight peers. Now off the schneid, Gastelum can suddenly put himself back in the title mix with a win against Whittaker.
This feels like a bit of a closer fight than it would have been in 2019, mostly due to Whittaker’s struggles in the years since. The former champion still should remain the assumed favorite, however. While the Heinisch fight was a reminder of how well Gastelum can handle himself in a variety of areas, he still gets a lot done on the back of his natural talent and willingness to keep pressuring his opponents. That can work against Heinisch and the more battle-worn vets of the middleweight ranks, but Whittaker showed against Cannonier that he can still pick apart anyone who relies on physicality more than technical depth. Yet this is still a dangerous fight for Whittaker. Gastelum has proven seemingly impossible to knock out, so Whittaker will likely have to wade through danger for 25 minutes in order to walk away with the win. Gastelum could change the fight with one or two big moments, but Whittaker appears to be up to the task. The pick is Whittaker via decision.
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