Since losing his UFC middleweight title to Israel Adesanya, fan-favorite Robert Whittaker has re-positioned himself for a rematch with the champ on the strength of a three-fight winning streak. Heading into what would become Whittaker’s latest victory, interim title challenger Kelvin Gastelum didn’t seem to pose any serious threats to Whittaker in terms of skills. But the simplicity of his approach, paired with his remarkable physical attributes, gave him a chance nonetheless.
Robert Whittaker navigated that danger in style. In one of the cleanest performances of his career, Whittaker developed reads on Gastelum’s offense, using the high guard to deflect the rear hand and jamming up the Kings MMA fighter’s entries with a beautiful jab. From space, he got to work with many of the classic Robert Whittaker combinations we know and love.
Kelvin Gastelum looked renewed in his bout with Ian Heinisch, showing up in good physical form and focused on establishing his offensive wrestling again—after straying from his base in the past few years. However, it was Robert Whittaker who was able to score takedowns this time around. And he did so with ease.
My last article on Robert Whittaker focused on defensive wrestling. Now, we can take a look at how Whittaker was able to wrestle offensively and rag-doll Kelvin Gastelum.
Robert the Wrestler
As explained in-depth in Wrestling for MMA: Robert Whittaker, the stance and overall striking habits of the former champion serve him well as a defensive wrestler. A more bladed stance hides one side of Whittaker’s hips, limiting shot selection, and gives the lead hand side easier access to hand-fighting and pummeling. This is heavily enhanced by the ‘Reaper’ carrying his lead hand low, it’s essentially a built-in underhook.
When a fighter is purely focused on defense, an intercepting underhook can be used to not only stop a takedown attempt, but to turn their opponent so they can get the opponent’s back to the cage. When a fighter is willing to mix in clinching offense, the ability to intercept in the clinch is much more versatile. Check out my article on Jussier Formiga for more on that.
The ability to read and anticipate an opponent’s offense is an important part of an effective intercepting grappling game. Luckily, Kelvin Gastelum is very consistent in almost exclusively throwing his jab, followed by his rear hand to the head. Take a look at how Robert Whittaker is able to build off of this dynamic.
Backed up by the jab, Robert Whittaker sees Kelvin Gastelum loading up on his rear hand. Dipping levels, Whittaker drops and pushes in with his lead shoulder to maintain his base while evading. Whittaker slides his lead hand up into an underhook, then squares up his hips to close distance, allowing him to hook around the other side for a bodylock.
Notice that Whittaker is not just changing levels and grabbing the bodylock. He is planting in his base, then closing the distance between his hips and Gastelum’s as he cinches up his grip. Finishing bodylocks in open space in MMA is all about taking initiative. A fighter needs to strike fast—assuming their opponent has decent defensive competency, and will start to retreat and create space after feeling the bodylock. Assuming Gastelum would know to get his hips back, Whittaker works quickly.
While pressing his hips in, Robert Whittaker arches in his lower back while squeezing the bodylock high on Gastelum’s back. This forces Gastelum to stand up tall, taking the weight off his legs and weakening his base. Whittaker then takes a big step outside to the left of Gastelum’s base, using his foot as a block. The idea is that the attacking wrestler uses their lower body to create a block, and then they use their upper body to move their opponent over that block, tripping them.
Robert Whittaker must be tremendously strong, because he had no issue crunching down on that bodylock and pivoting to his left—collapsing Gastelum backward and to the side, over the blocking foot and onto his back.
Gastelum was fine to grab double overhooks, but he lost the position early on when he failed to create space between their hips after the initial pummel.
See, below, this exact same finish demonstrated from another angle in the second round.
From the example above, it’s clear that Whittaker pulls Gastelum to the side with the bodylock, horsing him over the block. One difference in this example is that there’s a little more space between their hips when Whittaker initially locks his hands. He deals with this by taking a penetration step through Gastelum’s base before taking his outside step to create the block. Robert Whittaker had great instincts pulling the trigger in these upper body situations. It’s quite impressive, and appears to be a newer part of his game.
One look that Whittaker shows at the end of the fight is more familiar. Off the motion of his head movement in response to Gastelum’s lead, Whittaker weaves into a snatch single.
Whittaker has looked for singles more often than any other takedown in his MMA career thus far, but has typically used them to strike off the break or establish positions against the cage. Just as he did with his upper body takedowns in this fight, Whittaker very quickly attacks his finish to make the most of his entry.
With the head outside, Whittaker looks to ‘run the pipe’ to finish the single. Once again, taking his opponent’s weight over a compromised base is key. All in one motion, Whittaker pulls up the leg, then ‘C steps’ (or circles back), away from the single. Kelvin Gastelum is forced to balance on his remaining leg, but the ‘bowing’ motion of Whittaker on the single leg guides his butt to the mat. Once Gastelum’s lower body is on the ground, Whittaker is able to release with his right arm and cover the hips to establish control.
Whittaker’s control over Gastelum’s body in this sequence has a lot to do with the way Gastelum defends. He reaches around the head, looking to stick tight to Whittaker and balance on one leg. To be blunt, it’s lazy defense. When the head is outside, a defending fighter can look to do a number of things. they can push the head down and get their hips back, they can push the head inside, whizzer and look to limp leg out, or they can even crossface and sit through the corner.
I’m sure Kelvin Gastelum knows how to do these things, but his instincts to defend quickly – with urgency – were not there. Gastelum has gotten by in MMA as a defensive wrestler by scrambling and using ‘tricks’ to escape on the mat, Robert Whittaker afforded him no such opportunities.
It will be very interesting to see if Robert Whittaker can make any of these new looks work against Israel Adesanya, who struggled in wrestling situations vs. light heavyweight champion Jan Blachowicz. Blachowicz had notable success in catching intercepting bodylocks, although Adesanya’s reactions in those situations were much better than Gastelum’s (and I’m sure the size difference was a factor). Whittaker absolutely deserves a rematch, we’ll see if his improvements can lead to success.