Michael Bisping vs. Kelvin Gastelum headlines UFC Fight Night 122 this November 25, 2017 at the Mercedes Benz Arena in Shanghai, China.
One sentence summary
David: The athletic commissions turn the other way to make Bisping v. Gastelum happen.
Phil: The Count goes back to his gatekeeping ways against one of the hungriest young welterweight prospects out there.
Odds: Michael Bisping +245 | Kelvin Gastelum -265
History / Introduction to both fighters
David: Bisping is coming off an entertaining loss to former, now once-more P4P great, Georges St-Pierre. It’s difficult to really unpack his loss. An awkwardly crowned middleweight king losing to a recently retired welterweight is tough on the analyst mind. But what is definitely not hard to unpack and make sense of is giving sufficient time to fighters for rest after getting their brains flagellated and their larynx crushed.The athletic commission even allowing this is just monumental incompetence on a scale I would otherwise not comprehend if the world wasn’t rimming itself with a grapefruit spoon. What’s the point of having medical suspensions (which Bisping was given - 30 days) if nobody gives a shit?
Phil: Having lost the belt that he chased for so long, Bisping has dropped back into his usual role as the globe-trotting company man, and seems relatively happy to have done so. I think he always genuinely believed he could get the belt, but even he felt like it was somewhat fortuitous that he was able to hold onto it. Now, I feel like he jumped just a bit too early at the chance to get back into being that bloke that'll fight anyone, anywhere. I'm not sure that it'll pay off. GSP put a savage beating on him, and Gastelum is not Cung Le.
David: Gastelum has had a tough run. First the devil’s lettuce took away his Vitor Belfort win, and then Chris Weidman choked him out in a quality contest. Gastelum has always played the part of a fighter just on the cusp of being elite, but a little ‘distracted’. He’s never quite built the rhythm you’d expect out of a fighter with his strengths, in part, because his strengths aren’t always on full display. This is probably one of the better matchups for him, assuming he’s peak Gastelum, and not munchies Gastelum.
Phil: Given the weigh-ins, I'm not sure that we're getting the best version of Kelvin. But you're right, he's never quite coalesced, and the reasons seem less clear-cut than people typically think. He's a workhorse in the gym, but he just can't keep away from the food. He's a predatory striker and grappler, but there are weird fights where he just takes his foot off the gas. The most disappointing fact is that Gastelum is at middleweight anyway. He promised Dana he'd be able to get back down to 170, and while I can respect that he saw an opportunity to get a win over a legend like Anderson Silva, it's still a bit concerning that he needs the towel to hit 185.
What’s at stake?
David: For a fight involving a former champion of three weeks ago, I would say, surprisingly little. A Bisping rematch with GSP doesn’t sound that appealing, and wouldn’t happen for awhile in any event. Gastelum doesn’t have the resume to really argue for a title shot, and certainly not he wins by a forgettable decision.
Phil: Gastelum needs to work to erase that Weidman loss, and a signature win over Bisping would be a good way of doing that, not least because I suspect that Gastelum can simply keep a higher pace of taking fights than the injury-riddled top of middleweight.
Where do they want it?
David: After all these years, I still struggle with identifying what makes Bisping elite. He’s not a powerful striker. His grappling is underrated, but underrated by the low bar set by middleweight. His wrestling is also underrated, but not elite, and he’s not even terribly durable (at least in terms of punishment - that doesn’t mean he’s not tough). What Bisping does do well, is fight with economy and urgency simultaneously. His strikes are rarely wasted, but keeps a relatively high output. This gives him more opportunities to surprise opponents despite little in the way of a dangerous arsenal. It also means judges will favor his style. Against GSP we saw Bisping’s usual in-and-out method of lunging in for jabs, overhand rights, and weakside kicks - using feints to avoid telegraphing his offense. He doesn’t get enough credit for being a really good range fighter. His movement isn’t broad, like a Dominic Cruz, nor lightning quick, like Demetrious Johnson. But he’s always in the blast template area, calibrating his and his opponent’s next move.
Phil: Bisping's main advantage is that he's simply become much better in recent years. His stance has changed, he's gotten better at feinting and hiding his punches behind his kicks and vice versa, and he's learned how to torque his left hook much more effectively. Whereas before he used to just wear on people with the jab and the one-two until they got tired, now he's a quality pressure striker, and a far more defensively responsible one. One of the things I've enjoyed is how effective he's been using a traditional striking toolkit against southpaws. Not for him the sitting back and looking for the cross: he's still managed to use his lead hand hook and jab mixup, by craftily working his way around hand traps and the opponent's lead leg with small steps and feints. If there's a real deterioration, I suspect it's in his grappling. He doesn't have the endless cardio that he did when he was younger, to battle his way back to his feet time and again, and he's generally looked far more ragged in his fights that have gone deep than he ever used to.
David: Gastelum has the habits of a wrestle-boxer without falling obviously into said category. I consider him a wrestle-slugger. ‘Slugger’ is a weird that typically has a bad connotation - someone who slugs is someone who can’t rely on boxing technique, and therefore relies on raw force to bludgeon an opponent out of waking life. But a good slugger simply knows their strengths, and makes the best use of their other tools to support their top (punching power) down (jabs, takedowns, etc) approach. At his best, Kelvin pumps a mean, quick, and thudding jab from his southpaw stance and wraps his forward movement up with piercing strongside kick. His jab first rate; not only does he throw it with power, but he doubles up on it to set up a big overhand left. As a result, his straight one-two combinations can look sensational - how Johny Hendricks wasn’t finished in their bout is beyond me. What this does is allow Gastelum to wing strikes when he feels like his opponent is running on E. This gets him into trouble (see Rick Story knocking him clean out for a split second), but that’s just the nature of the slugger’s path - play to your strengths, pressure, and force them to defend. It will always cost them more than it costs you with the right approach.
Phil: Like Bisping, Gastelum plays the open-stance matchup in an uncommon way, working off his lead jab and one-two. His handspeed is simply absurd, and almost everyone he fights gets nailed by that one-two at some point and looks... baffled. He's an incredibly predatory back-take finisher (the skill which basically took him through The Ultimate Fighter), something which could conceivably get play against Bisping, who tends to try to get back to his feet at all costs if the fight hits the mat. If GSP can bait you into an RNC, Kelvin Gastelum almost certainly can as well.
Kelvin's weaknesses are more intangible, aside from some flaws in wrestling defense. While you'd expect that someone who has consistent problems with the scale would have cardio issues, it isn't the case. Kelvin can maintain a great pace. His problems instead seem to be that he doesn't really know how to win and then keep winning? He's not a frontrunner, but it always feels that he struggles to keep a lead, because he becomes unsure of what to do; whether to keep consistent, or try something different. For all Bisping's flaws, this is not a problem he has ever had, who takes every hint of blood in the water as a cue to pile on more volume until it's clinch knees time.
Insight from past fights
David: To me, the closest corollary to Gastelum for Bisping is probably Luke Rockhold. Both fighters penetrate the blast zone with high octane offense, and mop up with excellent scrambling abilities. Obviously, this is a superficial comparison - Gastelum doesn’t have the reach, nor the grappling acumen. But he approaches fighting in a similar way, sweeping in with various strikes to finish immediately with a punch zone entry, or use them to initiate clinches and takedowns. Bisping was successful once, and that’s where he has the best chance - catching Gastelum on the reset. Bisping is good at landing singular strikes on the reset, which could give Kelvin quite a bit of trouble.
Phil: Anderson Silva might not be anything like his previous self, but Bisping demonstrated again his newfound facility for dealing with southpaws when he feinted his way inside the Spider's defenses and cracked him with the left hook. This is an interesting dynamic to me. Kelvin has shocked a lot of people by being a slightly unorthodox southpaw striker, but has he ever faced someone who can work an open-stance jab and hook game like Bisping?
David: Gastelum needing the towel is a bit disconcerting, but this is par for the course for him. Whereas Bisping’s three weeks off from being brain damaged is not. Gastelum is not a big draw, and coming off a loss. I really have no idea how they couldn’t find a more appropriate opponent. Especially for an organization that claims to be the pinnacle of its “sport”.
Phil: Gotta be Bisping's damage. He says he's recovered completely and... sure. He is a man who has taken a great deal of punishment over the years. Maybe he thinks he can tough out a fight after that elbow barrage, but this doesn't feel like a bout Bisping took because he was hugely confident that he could win it.
David: Given Bisping’s activity, it’s hard for me to imagine a scenario where Gastelum isn’t able to blitz him at a certain point. Bisping is still susceptible to overhand punches, and that left body kick of Kelvin’s will prove to a significant factor. It won’t be easy - Bisping’s workrate and wits are enough to give anyone trouble - Gastelum should be able to find the range on his punches enough to remind athletic commissions that this is why they have rules. Kelvin Gastelum by TKO, round 3.
Phil: Weidman and Magny have shown that it's possible to get to Kelvin with a power takedown game, but Bisping doesn't have that. Kennedy also demonstrated that even if he's taken down, Kelvin is pretty hard to hold down. In the end, I think Gastelum's pace is just too much. Even if he can't wipe out Bisping early, and even if the Count can put some work in on the shorter man, I struggle to see how the aging Bisping keeps going in a striking match with the younger, faster fighter for five rounds. Kelvin Gastelum by submission, round 3.