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UFC Vegas 24 Preview: Does Whittaker get a title shot with a win over Gastelum?

Dig into the main card of UFC Vegas 24, headlined by former champion Robert Whittaker finally clashing with fellow TUF coach Kelvin Gastelum in potential title eliminator.

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Robert Whittaker who fights Jared Cannonier at UFC 254
Robert Whittaker who fights Jared Cannonier at UFC 254
Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

The UFC would do itself a major favor if they weren’t so wishy washy, particularly with this card. Not that I ever expect Uncle Dana to change his tune, but cards like UFC VEGAS 24 would be so much easier to hype if there was a clear expectation for what winners in high-profile fights could expect. In this case, Robert Whittaker is being left to dangle in the wind. Does he gain any ground should he defeat Kelvin Gastelum? The general answer that has been coming out of the UFC is as vague as it gets. If Whittaker wins, Uncle Dana will probably declare he’s “in the mix,” but the actual translation of that means “we want to find someone else to challenge for the belt, but maybe we’ll come back to you if we can’t find the option we really want in a timely manner.” Nobody would be ready to declare Gastelum ready to challenge Israel Adesanya again should he win – the former TUF winner just broke a three-fight losing streak – but it would certainly prime him for a potential run as soon as 2022. Still, this is all speculation as we really don’t know the stakes for the main event.

The UFC VEGAS 24 main card starts at 10 PM ET/7 PM PT on ESPN and ESPN+.

Robert Whittaker vs. Kelvin Gastelum, Middleweight

While Gastelum certainly deserves kudos for taking the contest on short notice, it should be made clear he has very little – perhaps even nothing – to lose by taking this fight and everything to gain. Should he lose, most expected that of him and he also has the excuse that he’s coming in on short notice. If he wins, he’s likely back in the top five of the official UFC rankings. Regardless, this won’t be an easy contest for him.

Gastelum has long been a source of frustration for fans. Upon first glance, his squat frame hides what an awesome athlete he is. With a powerful base and surprising explosion, he could probably take down just about anyone he sets his mind to putting on their back. Of course, Gastelum has become far more known for his iron chin and desire to throw fisticuffs as there’s KO power to spare in his fists. Given his short stature for the division, he has a better understanding of distance and angles than most give him credit for, but it’s understandable many would think otherwise as he frequently rushes in with reckless abandon. When Gastelum is measured, he tends to surprise.

Then again, it will be hard for him to out-technique Whittaker. Perhaps the boxer in the division, Whittaker tends to take a measured approach to his attack, at least in the early going. Once he’s gotten a feel for what his opponent is doing, the Kiwi tends to attack with what works. Thus, some fights he unloads kick after kick to the legs of his opponents, others he barely throws anything at their legs. Whittaker’s overhand right has a lot of power to it, but he has also become over reliant on it at times.

What may be the biggest key for Whittaker is his takedown defense. Gastelum rededicated himself to his wrestling against Ian Heinisch, allowing him to snap his losing streak. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him continue with that approach, but Whittaker is exceedingly difficult to drag to the mat. He wasn’t much of a wrestler when he first entered the UFC and was small for 185 when he first moved to the division. However, Whittaker put in a lot of time to shore up his wrestling and has filled out quite nicely. Given Gastelum’s tendency to lose focus, it wouldn’t be surprising if Whittaker were able to score his own takedowns.

With all that information, I’d be picking Whittaker. However, there is one bit I haven’t touched on that really pushes me over the edge on Whittaker. Heinisch was Gastelum’s first win over a middleweight that was either in their prime or approaching their prime. Nate Marquardt, Tim Kennedy, Michael Bisping, and Jacare Souza had all seen better days prior to Gastelum getting his hands on them, Gastelum having a clear overall physical advantage in every case. That’s not the case against Whittaker. Whittaker’s discipline should allow him to take a comfortable decision over Gastelum. Whittaker via decision

Jeremy Stephens vs. Drakkar Klose, Lightweight

Remember when Uncle Dana tried bailing Stephens out of jail so he could fight as scheduled on a card? Understandable if you don’t recall it; it was in 2012 after all. If you ever needed proof beyond that fact that Uncle Dana has a HUGE soft spot for Stephens, the fact that Stephens is in the co-main event of this card should be enough to convince anyone. After all, he hasn’t won a fight since early in 2018, currently enduring a five-fight winless streak, firmly establishing himself as the UFC’s all-time leader in losses. Does Stephens actually believe he’ll be able to solve his problems by moving up to lightweight?

There’s reasons to believe it’s a smart move and reasons to believe it’s foolhardy. Stephens did miss weight badly in his most recent contest, indicating his body’s metabolism is slowing down at the age of 34. If that’s the case, it might also explain why the typically difficult to put away Stephens has been finished via strikes in two of his last four losses. Allowing his body to be more hydrated at 155 could help him with his energy levels and his ability to absorb punishment. Then again, he will be fighting larger men and Stephens wasn’t particularly big at featherweight. Will he be prone to takedowns as he returns to a landscape he hasn’t traversed in over eight years?

In terms of the measurements, Klose isn’t any bigger than Stephens, but he is thicker. Klose tends to make good use of his physical strength by pressing them against the fence and working them over with dirty boxing. It isn’t pretty by any means – it actually hurts his promotional push significantly – but it has been largely effective. Klose isn’t a slouch in space either, showing excellent timing on his counter punches with a steady compliment of low kicks too. The funny thing about Klose is the lack of takedowns he gets despite the elongated period of time he spends against the fence looking for takedowns. Perhaps Stephens won’t be too concerned about being dragged to the mat….

Though he’s older and hasn’t been able to find recent success, Stephens is largely the same fighter he’s always been: a hard swinging brawler who can be technical when he wants to be. How technical he wants to be is typically dependent on how much he respects his opponent. If he feels they’re beneath him, he’ll look for the KO and abandon technique. Klose isn’t on the level of most of Stephens opposition over the past decade or so, but Stephens also hasn’t endured such a long win drought in his career either. It’s hard to believe he won’t be focused. It’s also hard to believe Stephens won’t struggle with Klose’s physicality. This is a very winnable contest for Stephens, but he has a LOT of miles on his body. Could his losses simply be an indication he’s slowing down? He might still have something left, but Klose also feels like a bad matchup for him. Klose via decision

  • There’s only one fighter on the current roster who made UFC appearances before the presidency of Dana White began: Andrei Arlovski. If anyone knows anything about the UFC’s history, that should give one an idea of how old Arlovski is. However, given he was such a magnificent athlete in his prime and heavyweights have a longer shelf life than any other division, he’s still capable of manufacturing wins. Though he’s lost a step or two, Arlovski has helped make up for that by becoming far more technical than he ever was in his prime – in addition to using both of his hands with aplomb – and outpointing his opposition as opposed to relying on the finish. Of course, if he isn’t getting finishes, that means he needs to avoid finishes himself. Given Chase Sherman has stepped up his game since dropping three in a row, that could be problematic. A fine athlete with power, he also has greater room for error than Arlovski given his youth and durability. He’s hardly a defensive savant, but at least Sherman began making an effort to make his opponent miss their strikes, something he really didn’t do in his first UFC run. In fact, his improved patience in his return against Ike Villanueva was incredible to note, accurately picking him apart with precision as opposed to swarming as he would do earlier in his career. Sherman also is entering the contest with a full camp whereas Arlovski is stepping in with just over a week’s notice. This is a winnable contest for Arlovski, but Sherman’s improvements has me leaning in the direction of youth. Sherman via TKO of RD3
  • Due to legal issues and his recent losing streak, Abdul Razak Alhassan hasn’t won a contest since 2018. Given he’s missed weight several times, he’s making the move to middleweight. It’s hard to say if that’s a positive or a negative. Alhassan doesn’t appear to be as quick as he was upon his entry, which would be less noticeable against larger opposition. In addition, some fighters find their power increased when they move up as they aren’t depleting themselves as much. He’d better hope that’s the case as Jacob Malkoun appears to be a solid physical product, though he is exceptionally inexperienced. Malkoun’s striking appeared to show potential on the regional scene, but that was against lesser competition. His grappling at least has been somewhat tested, winning the ADCC Asia trials in 2019. Of course, that won’t mean anything if he can’t get Alhassan to the mat and there’s no indication he possesses the takedown chops. Alhassan’s takedown defense has been crap – despite his reputation as a judoka – and hasn’t won a fight beyond the first round. I can see Alhassan dropping this contest, especially if the fight leaves the opening frame, but I haven’t seen enough out of Malkoun to trust him enough to pick him. Alhassan via KO of RD1
  • At one point, it appeared Luis Pena was destined for stardom. With an unusually large frame for lightweight – he’s 6’3” with a 75” reach – and a killer gimmick as “Violent Bob Ross” thanks to his beard and afro, it seemed like all the pieces were about to fall into place. Unfortunately, Pena’s development has stalled and he appears to be in danger of being stuck as a gimmick as opposed to a star. Despite his length, Pena still struggles with his sense of distance, often coming up short with his strikes, particularly if it isn’t his jab. Though he was a solid wrestler in high school, it hasn’t translated to this level. Then again, much of that may have to do with his overconfidence in his ground game, to easily allowing himself to be taken down. That could be problematic against Alex Munoz, a brickhouse Team Alpha Male product with strong takedowns. Munoz is on the slow side, but he can take a punch – he tends to with his lack of speed – and can deliver a hell of a wallop too. However, the biggest thing in his favor is Pena has struggled against opposition he can’t physically overpower. Pena has changed camps, which will likely be a positive development. But if he can’t stop Munoz from taking him down and controlling him, he’s going to have his bubble completely burst. Given this is a bad stylistic matchup for Pena, I think that bubble is going to pop. Munoz via decision