Robert Whittaker vs. Kelvin Gastelum headlines UFC 234 this February 10, 2019 at the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, Australia.
One sentence summary:
David: Sting Worm
Phil: Bobby Knuckles gets a welcome break (from fighting an old guy), while Kelvin Gastelum gets a harsh step up in competition (from fighting old guys)
Record: Robert Whittaker 20-4 | Kelvin Gastelum 15-3-1 NC
Odds: Robert Whittaker -230 | Kelvin Gastelum +190
History / Introduction to Both Fighters
David: Bad decision losses tell us a lot more than bad KO or submission losses. Losing a decision means more interactions, which gives us more information. Whittaker beginning his career with a loss to Court McGee seemed destined to stain any notion that Whittaker was an actual contender. It became clear he was in the wrong division, and now we’re talking about the undisputed non-interim champ. There’s not a lot to say about Whittaker. He hasn’t lost in five years. He’s the most consistent fighter in the division, and now he’s fighting one of the more inconsistent fighters in the division. Could it be a trap?
Phil: From decent welterweight prospect to interim uncrowned middleweight champ to the undisputed king, it’s been a fun ride to the top for Robert Knuckles, Esq. In terms of “you should love this guy if you’re a hardcore fan” champs, it’s basically a tie between him and Holloway at the moment. He’s young, smart, respectful, stays active, and is an absolute blast to watch. While he’s topping out a card that (let’s be real) kind of sucks, this is a good chance for him to show off against a surging young contender in his backyard. No matter how mediocre the undercard is, or how depressing Silva-Adesanya turns out to be, once this fight kicks off the atmosphere will be something special.
David: Gastelum was like a bigger-weight Efrain Escudero: a fighter with might get by on durability and pressure, but probably little else. Like Escudero, Gastelum beat the hyped striker with Anderson Silva-esque similarities. Unlike Escudero, Gastelum worked on every part of his game to be better while improving his existing strengths. Since then he’s been an on-and-off again contender with savage power, and underappreciated technique. This isn’t the fight we wanted, but it’s what we’re getting, and I’m not complaining (this time).
Phil: It still blows my mind that Kelvin was picked last on his season of TUF. Last! Although it was one of the last decent seasons in terms of the talent it produced, he was still passed over in favour of luminaries like Jimmy Quinlan, Bubba McDaniel, Adam Cella, and Tor Troeng. I’m not necessarily taking shots at the people who selected them, either- it just shows how extremely difficult it is to identify talent with limited information, and how easy it is to give credence to surface impressions. In this case, Kelvin was a nice-looking, soft-spoken, slightly tubby guy- the sort which tends to get viciously and depressingly annihilated. As it turned out, he was a freakish talent, with virtually every natural gift you can imagine for MMA.
What’s at stake?
David: Dana White has refreshingly pointed it out: this is number one contender stakes, baby! (except one guy in this tournament gets an opponent who is 43 and 1-4-1 in his last six)
Phil: There’s a clear one-two here: this fight card is mediocre and largely lives to market Whittaker to the home crowd, while setting up the far bigger fight which will pit the winners of the main and co-main against one another.
Where do they want it?
Phil: B-Knux is at least one offshoot of a very MMA-specific style which is often credited to Conor McGregor, but which was seen earlier with fighters like Rashid Magomedov and John Makdessi. Namely, he is a TMM-inspired boxer, where mobility is prioritized and combined with a kicking game which focuses on snap and volume rather than power. Kicking off punches and punching off kicks, while angling in and out and keeping a steady pace going is Whittaker’s bread and butter. In particular, he likes the establishing jab, which is followed by a right hand, the rear leg head kick, or just a punt to push the opponent out of range. He’s one of the best defensive wrestlers we’ve seen in the sport, able to shut down initial shots and deep wrestling chains from physical and technical phenoms like Yoel Romero. Small weaknesses are that his angles and offensive volume tend to be his primary methods of defense, and that he can occasionally be caught while blitzing his opponents.
David: Whittaker comes off as a blue collar boxer, but it’s just an illusion. I always thought people analyzed Fedor similarly: well rounded, good striker, good grappling. Fedor was more like: holy crap what an athlete for a “big man.” Likewise, Whittaker has incredible speed and accuracy in a lot of what he does. He’s a zone entry artist: focusing his fundamentals and power into figuring out ways to sequence offense from strict positioning. His punchers are a great example. His jab switches between probing, piercing, and stabbining. Which is par for the course when it comes to elite MMA striking, but he also does similar things with punches like an overhand right. He’ll lean into it, making it look like he’s betting the house on a KO with it, when really he’s just sequencing. Rather than aggro out or control opponents, Whittaker’s all about tempo.
Phil: Kelvin Gastelum came to the sport as a back-take and wrestling specialist, but fell in love with his hands shortly after his UFC debut, and has never really looked back. His offensive wrestling hasn’t improved particularly since those days, and he retains his ability to teleport to his opponents back and choke them out. The main thing which had people touting him as a future contender was the blazing handspeed he showcased. It’s a rare thing that we see effective southpaw one-twos in the UFC, and Gastelum seems to be trying to make up for their deficit by himself. His game has become minimalist to the point of predictability: he hops in and out of range, baits the opponent with a single up jab, then shortens or increases his hop so that the opponent misjudges the distance, then dings them with the one-two. He’s not much of a defensive fighter, and his tendency to come in on straight lines means that he absorbs a lot of punishment. One notable improvement in recent fights is that his sprawl and chain wrestling defense was greatly improved against Jacare Souza. That seems unlikely to get play here, but it does demonstrate that he’s still capable of adding skills.
David: Gastelum is a combat creature of percussion rather than precision. He’s very good at certain things: a slick, quick, and piercing right hand jab (for example), back control, durability (the shot Rick Story landed on him would have knocked down an elephant), etc. But they’re all mixed up in a package of intermittent apathy (Magny and Hendricks), and the numbers five (foot) nine. He’s kind of inherently limited physically, and is prone to limiting himself psychologically, but because he’s such a badass in so many areas, we’ve got the reluctant contender type. He’s a little like a highly technical, middleweight version of Derrick Lewis: in place of power, you have raw mechanical acumen that allows him to succeed even when his mind falls behind. Keep in mind, I don’t think Gastelum is being held back because he’s not a smart fighter. I think it’s the psychology that affects a lot of good fighters: being just below the best makes it harder to weaponize your delusions, so you end up working when you should be fighting/fighting when you should be working. This is typically the difference between the elite and the great: elite fighters either never waste time, or can get back wasted time with violent urgency.
Insight from past fights?
David: This matchup should be second nature for Whittaker. He’s dealt with a lot of “wrestlers” who could strike, and pretty much beat ‘em all. There’s a specific strike that I can see landing on Gastelum in the worst way and it’s the left hook he crippled Brad Tavares with: that punch was concealed with a swift level change. Just dirty. The mechanics are different — Gastelum is a southpaw while Tavares stands in a traditional stance — but the punch’s efficiency stays the same: Whittaker hides his strikes well, and like Tavares, Gastelum isn’t great at defending against the punches you don’t see.
Phil: The most notable one is obviously Whittaker’s bouts against Romero. A powerful, crafty, stocky southpaw who typically only needs one shot to end the round? The comparisons beyond that point don’t favour Gastelum, however: Romero has more strike variety, is a better wrestler, adapts better over the course of the fight, and has much better footwork and overall defense than Gastelum. Another interesting one is Gastelum’s loss against Weidman - Weidman’s lateral footwork has improved in recent years, and this was one of the major issues which prevented Gastelum from being able to line up his step-ins.
David: What the hell is he hiding in there? Marsellus Wallace?
Phil: Indeed. Apparently they still allow him to fight, but kinda nasty.
David: I can see Gastelum taking this fight in pieces through the first two rounds. He’s tough as nails, and has solid power. Turn this bout into a bar fight, and the odds are much closer. But Whittaker is as professional as they come. I just don’t see him getting drawn into a firefight, and his ability to penetrate Gastelum’s already-slim defenses will be the difference. Robert Whittaker by TKO, round 3.
Phil: There’s only one real reason to assume Gastelum wins this, unless he shows sudden shocking improvements of the kind that he’s largely eschewed throughout his later UFC run, and that’s if Whittaker was broken by his second fight with Romero. I don’t think that’s the case, so Gastelum is disadvantages in volume, range, movement, diversity and adaptability. He’s landed big shots on everyone he’s fought recently, so there’s a solid chance that Whittaker has a scare, but other than that Sir Robert steadily wears his fellow former welterweight down to a stoppage. Robert Whittaker by TKO, round 4.