The spotlight may not have been on Robert Whittaker this weekend, but it should have been. While everyone was distracted by the grand guignol of Influencer On Wrestler violence and coked-up commentary, Whittaker was a nice rejoinder to what prizefighting can be at its purest. Harnessing his skills, wits, creativity, and endurance, Whittaker took Kelvin Gastelum apart piece by piece for a decision win that now has him looking to regain his title.
Granted, it’s not a great win on paper per se. Gastelum was 1-3 coming into his bout with Whittaker this weekend. Despite that, Gastelum’s quality of competition hasn’t been lacking. In addition, Gastelum has always been something of a fight enigma. He can look excellent, and lose, or look awkward, and win. Gastelum, in my opinion, looked sharp this weekend. Whittaker just happened to be sharper.
Now the question is: does Whittaker deserve a rematch against Israel Adesanya? Well first off, matchmaking tends to be a superficial process. If you’re ranked, a win will begat a ranked opponent who also won. If you’re unranked, a win will get you closer to ranked opposition. A ranked fighter who lost might be setup against an unranked fighter who won, and so forth. If you’re Chael Sonnen, these rules don’t apply. Ultimately, it’s a mathematical, if uninteresting affair.
But every now and then, UFC matchmakers get it right. Take Jose Aldo vs. Petr Yan, for example. It didn’t follow an According-to-Hoyle pattern, but everyone knew: Aldo looked excellent against Marlon Moraes, and probably deserved the win. When Moraes ended up getting dusted by Cory Sandhagen — a prospect coming off a loss — it made spiritual sense for Aldo to fight for the vacant Bantamweight belt: Aldo is a living legend, probably deserved to be coming off a win, and looked good enough to think he might replicate his featherweight magic at bantamweight.
Whittaker is writing a similar story. His current run might seem a little rough around the edges. The bouts against Darren Till and Jared Cannonier weren’t exactly freebies. But I think he was working with the same thoughtful ingredients he used against Gastelum. Versus Till, Whittaker managed to keep his strengths in the spotlight against an opponent who should have kept Whittaker’s strengths quieter — it’s rare for a counterpuncher to look like a counterpuncher against another counterpuncher. Versus Cannonier, he had to contend with a fighter whose Plan A (heavy leg kicks) tends to be more than enough, and is in general, tough to beat, or at least tough to beat as thoroughly as Whittaker did.
Adesanya, meanwhile, is coming off a loss to Jan Blachowicz. The loss didn’t tell us much, beyond just the fact that Izzy was moving up in weight. For one, Blachowicz is highly underrated as a technician, and it’s about time we show some respect. Two: Adesanya may not have looked like his “usual” self, but he didn’t look unlike himself either. It was a fight he lost gradually: not a fight he got outlcassed in, didn’t have an answer to, or came in unprepared for.
It’s fitting that it would be a Gastelum victory for Whittaker that would prompt a rematch against Adesanya, since it was a Gastelum victory for Adesanya that would prompt a title shot against Whittaker. Similarly, both the champion and the challenger looked vulnerable before their first bout, with Adesanya getting a little too close to sun against Gastelum’s left, and Whittaker enduring injuries against one of MMA’s certified mythical creatures.
Plus: who else is there? I’m with Whittaker on this one. Marvin Vettori can wait. An Adesanya vs. Whittaker rematch cannot.