Stylistically back in February of 2019, the slated UFC 234 headliner between defending middleweight champion, Robert Whittaker and challenger, Kelvin Gastelum was a matchup that immediately jumped off the page to me as one of the best fights the promotion could field at 185-pounds.
Whittaker had just recovered from two absolute blockbuster back-and-forths with multiple-time title challenger, Yoel Romero — the latter of which came in a razor-thin split decision win, in the consensus 2018 Fight of the Year.
For Gastelum, the San Jose puncher had turned in a UFC Fight Night Shanghai knockout victory over former champion, Michael Bisping, as well as a close split judging success against former Strikeforce middleweight pack leader, Jacare Souza. It certainly wasn’t blistering form for Gastelum, however, he still presented a really interesting contender to Whittaker’s title.
Ultimately, on actual fight day, the main event clash between the two was cancelled, with a twisted and collapsed bowel, as well as a hernia suffered by Whittaker requiring emergency surgery. Gastelum would be removed from proceedings altogether, with current middleweight champion, Israel Adesanya promoted to a headlining spot against sport icon, Anderson Silva.
Three year’s later, both men’s careers have panned out quite contrastingly. Whittaker has since dropped his championship to Adesanya via a second-round knockout, but has rebounded ever since in unanimous fashion against two very altering contenders.
Clinching the 2019 Fight of the Year — Gastelum battled to a unanimous decision loss against Adesanya for the interim middleweight championship — which began a thoroughly disappointing three-fight losing skid for the Kings MMA product. And that brings us up to date to this weekend’s reworked headliner.
All is not lost for Gastelum, however. Two months ago he managed to snap that lacklustre slide, taking home a unanimous decision success against Ian Heinsich at UFC 258. Immediately making his presence known to the top contenders once more, the Californian offered his services on short notice if the UFC required a replacement for either Whittaker or scheduled foe, Paulo Costa on April 17th.
And by chance — his services were required. About four weeks prior to fight night, reports emerged detailing how Costa had been forced to remove himself from proceedings, suffering from a severe flu. Gastelum, of course, jumped at the opportunity to quite literally jump back into competition against the number-one ranked, Whittaker — who similarly invited the opportunity to remain on the card.
Following his second frame knockout loss to the countering hands of Adesanya in Australia back in October of 2019, Whittaker has barely put a foot wrong in the Octagon in his two outings since.
Headlining UFC Fight Island 3 last July, the fan favourite striker scored a unanimous decision success against former welterweight title challenger, Darren Till, in a five-round, feint-heavy chess match.
Returning to Abu Dhabi, UAE for UFC 254 in October, the 30-year-old finally met with the then-surging, Jared Cannonier in a rescheduled co-main event. In what was largely viewed as a title-eliminator to determine the next challenger to Adesanaya’s crown, another collected and composed display from Whittaker seen him snap Cannonier’s divisional rise.
Despite scoring his victory over the Texan, Whittaker was denied a rematch against Adesanya, with the latter electing to test light heavyweight waters against Jan Blachowicz in search for his second UFC title — ultimately falling short with a March unanimous decision loss.
Given that fact Whittaker would extend his winning spree to three straight fights with a win over Gastelum, he would be undeniable as the next contender to Adesanya’s throne. However, if Gastelum emerges with the victory, he has a legitimate case to secure himself a rematch against Adesanya — especially given his competitive battle with the City Kickboxing mainstay at UFC 236.
Both Whittaker and Gastelum are largely considered for their striking acumen, however, they’ve both got sufficient wrestling backgrounds to rely on if this weekend’s main event clash calls for the introduction of that facet.
Contrasting strikers; Whittaker is a very technical kickboxer with good distance management and a very shrewd, but potent snap high-kick off his right-hand side, which we’ve seen him utilise against the likes of Derek Brunson, Jacare Souza, Yoel Romero, and Jared Cannonier to best effect recently. For Gastelum, he’s a very, very sharp boxer, who puts his hands together expertly among his middleweight peers, never really overextending himself or falling into punches. It’s clean, concise and technically sound from the 29-year-old more often than not.
I’d tend to argue that Whittaker, overall has the more technically proficient standup to Gastelum when he mixes all his tools together. And he’s got calculated entries — carrying his hands low at times, leaving his opponent’s unable to properly map out where his jab or straight is coming from.
Whittaker has predicted that Gastelum will attempt to utilise his wrestling early on, however, I’d tend to agree that this may not be the most ideal tactical approach the longer this one draws on. Gastelum is incredibly durable — with none of his six professional losses coming by way of knockout.
Apart from his unanimous judging defeat to Adesanya, Gastelum hasn’t suffered severe damage, and even against the former, he really didn’t appear majorly fazed until the final frame of their co-main event clash at the State Farm Arena.
Gastelum’s ability to grit through some worrying moments and against conceivably higher level and more technical strikers will stand to him against Whittaker once more, however, I envision the former champion setting an early pace as similar to his second win over Yoel Romero and his October success against Jared Cannonier to score a decision win.
Prediction: Robert Whittaker def. Kelvin Gastelum via decision.
Senior writer for FightBook MMA. An aspiring mixed martial arts reporter based in Ireland. Producer of news articles, interviews, opinion features, and exclusive features such as, ‘The Fallout’, ‘The Breakdown, and, ‘This Week In MMA’.
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