Robert Whittaker, as he was back in 2017, is now once more undeniable at the top of the middleweight pile, and fully deserving of a shot at undisputed gold. In my opinion, the former champion was even undeniable back in October of last year following his second consecutive win since dropping the title, however, the UFC was more than happy to construct a false narrative that he wasn’t interested in a rematch against Israel Adesanya.
Back in October of 2019, Whittaker met with the now reigning champion, Adesanya in a blockbuster stadium show to unify the middleweight titles. Running through a gauntlet of Uriah Hall, Derek Brunson, Jacare Souza, and the monstrous Yoel Romero not once, but twice, Whittaker suffered a second-round knockout against Adesanya, and took the following nine months out of active competition, citing burnout.
Forced to run the gauntlet once more following his title loss, Whittaker has been tasked to overcome three of the most tricky, and largely contrasting styles the middleweight division has to offer; The rangy, shrewd, and hugely talented striking ace, Darren Till. The enormous stature and power offered up by Jared Cannonier, and on the weekend, the natural wrestler, and slick boxing oriented, Kelvin Gastelum.
Passing with flying colours against the trio, Whittaker turned in technically sound performances against each opponent, displaying his renowned kickboxing ability and on occasion, wrestling to stifle the oncoming threat.
Credit must also be handed to Gastelum in heaps for his decision to replace Paulo Costa and face a challenge presented like Whittaker on just a month’s notice. Gastelum’s another contender who’s run the gauntlet at middleweight, with his clash against the former champion coming as his eleventh against a former or current professional mixed martial arts champion.
It was always going to prove a tall order to overcome someone of Whittaker’s poise, composure and stout ability over five rounds on short notice, and he displayed a certain grit and durability which has become a staple of his career. Credit where credit’s due.
So, Whittaker has firmly stamped his title contentions, for the second fight running, while Gastelum needs to take a measured but competitive return to competition. The opportunity to fight Whittaker on short notice was one that he couldn’t turn his nose up at. If he wins, he’s likely rematching Adesanya and Whittaker isn’t, of course. Below, join me as I play matchmaker for the duo, nevertheless.
Israel Adesanya vs. Robert Whittaker II:
Not to say that Adesanya had his chickens counted before they hatched, but he transparently offered the above-mentioned, Till a shot at his middleweight title if he could overcome past opponent, Vettori. Granted, I see the need for a fresh, new matchup as champion, but even with a win over Vettori, Till still didn’t, in my estimation deserve a title shot. He would be 2-1 at middleweight, with Whittaker holding a win over him, but a collarbone break forced him from proceedings at UFC Vegas 23. Bogus matchmaking at its finest if it were to come to fruition in those circumstances.
As I mentioned, Whittaker could’ve campaigned for a title rematch against Adesanya off the back of his October ‘Fight Island’ win over Cannonier, but the power’s that be determined Adesanya would challenge Jan Blachowicz for light heavyweight gold a division higher instead. A difficult prospect to turn down for Adesanya; becoming a two-weight champion held simultaneously, and further etching your name into mixed martial arts folklore.
Let’s restore some normality to the middleweight ranks — a division that has produced countless interesting stylistic battles over the last half a decade and book the rightfully deserving Whittaker in a September or October stadium shot against Adesanya.
Jared Cannonier vs. Kelvin Gastelum:
Measured, but competitive. Cannonier suffered a broken ulna as a result of the very first kick Whittaker landed during their UFC 253 co-headliner last October and has yet to feature in the Octagon since. When his timeline allows a return to active competition, set him up alongside Gastelum.
Whilst his defeat to Whittaker was unequivocal, you’ve got to give Gastelum props for taking a matchup of that profile and the title implications that came with it, on short notice, and rewarding him with a clash against Cannonier seems fitting.
Against Whittaker himself, Cannonier saw an impressive three-fight stoppage run come to its end. Entering the tie off the back of three consecutive wins since his middleweight bow, Cannonier managed knockouts over both David Branch and Jack Hermansson, in between a brutal display of leg kicking which forced a stoppage against former middleweight kingpin, Anderson Silva.
Derek Brunson and Marvin Vettori are on the cusp of a title challenge of their own, and could possibly square off against each other to determine the next challenger after Whittaker. Jack Hermansson will draw Edmen Shahbazyan at UFC 262, and Uriah Hall is set to rematch Chris Weidman this weekend at UFC 251. Gastelum doesn’t deserve a severe drop down the rankings in terms of next competition, and Cannonier still offers him a chance to look higher, but the latter also needs to look lower off the back of his clear-cut defeat to Whittaker.
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’.