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Diggin’ Deep on UFC Vegas 34: Can Cannonier crack the chin of Gastelum?

Get the low down on the main card action of UFC Vegas 34, headlined by heavy handed Jared Cannonier looking to punch a ticket for a title shot by punching out iron chinned Kelvin Gastelum.

Jared Cannonier fighting Jack Hermansson at UFC Copenhagen
Jared Cannonier fighting Jack Hermansson at UFC Copenhagen
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

In comparison to many of the other Fight Night main events, Jared Cannonier and Kelvin Gastelum is a perfectly acceptable main event for UFC Vegas 34. It’s far from a great headliner, but given Gastelum is a replacement for Paulo Costa, it isn’t one that I’ll complain about.

Well, I won’t complain about the quality of the match by itself, but there was already a fight on the card that I would have rather seen go five rounds instead. After all, it’s certainly possible Alexandre Pantoja could get a crack at the flyweight title if he can overcome Brandon Royval. Some will point out Cannonier could also get a title shot with a win, but who would you rather see potentially go five rounds: a pair of kill-or-be-killed flyweights or a pair of measured middleweights? Even worse, the UFC didn’t even give Pantoja and Royval the dignity of being the co-main event. When they market the flyweights like they don’t matter, they’re telling the fans flyweights don’t matter. No wonder the flyweights aren’t a money division.

Jared Cannonier vs. Kelvin Gastelum, Middleweight

Arguably, Cannonier is the hardest hitter in the middleweight division. The former heavyweight has secured everyone of his victories at middleweight via KO/TKO, putting his prodigious power on display once he made the drop to 185. His violent ways led to Israel Adesanya to encourage him to get an impressive win and there was a good chance he’d get a crack at the gold belt. However, there are plenty who believe his resume would still be lacking. Gastelum has lost four of his last five, meaning a loss to Cannonier would drop him to losses in five of his last six. That doesn’t sound like much of title clincher. His other wins in the division are David Branch (zero wins since that loss almost three years ago), Anderson Silva (long past his prime), and Jack Hermansson (his best win, but Hermansson doesn’t appear to be top 5).

Then again, the quality of competition argument could be made about Gastelum. The former TUF winner was fortunate to be pit against a slew of opponents on the backside of their careers. In fact, only two of his twelve UFC wins (I’m counting his NC) have come against competitors still on the roster: his most recent win over Ian Heinisch and his debut win over Uriah Hall. Bottom line: even though these two have been on the roster for years, there’s plenty of reason to question just how good they are.

Given Gastelum’s recent skid, the consensus has been to pick Cannonier. However, there are plenty of reasons to believe there is a clear path to victory for Gastelum. First of all, Gastelum has one of the notoriously hardest chins to crack in the business. Not noted for his defensive tendencies, Gastelum has eaten the best his opponents have had to offer and kept coming. Cannonier has historically struggled to stop takedowns and when Gastelum remembers, he has a nasty wrestling game and an underrated ability to get an opponents back. Plus, Gastelum has historically been the busier fighter.

Of course, there are reasons besides the obvious to believe Cannonier will take this contest. While it’s true Gastelum has never been put away with strikes, there are signs his chin is weakening. He was hurt early in his most recent contest with Robert Whittaker and showed a surprising reluctance to engage. Does he no longer trust in his chin? That reluctance also leaves open the possibility of Cannonier being the busier fighter, especially if Cannonier starts landing his low kicks early and often as Gastelum is unlikely to do anything to deter Cannonier from chewing up his legs. Plus, while Cannonier originally started as a heavyweight, Gastelum notoriously blew his tenure at welterweight with several botched weight cuts. Cannonier is naturally quite a bit bigger than Gastelum, which might be enough for him to stuff Gastelum’s potential takedowns.

Despite being undersized, Gastelum has the physical talents to win this contest more often than not. Unfortunately, he has relied so much on those physical gifts that he has never been able to put it all together on the mental side of things. Perhaps Gastelum finds a way to put together a disciplined performance, but I haven’t seen him do it enough to justify picking him here. In fact, nobody’s chin lasts forever and I think Cannonier has the stuff to crack him. Cannonier via KO of RD2

Alexandre Pantoja vs. Brandon Royval, Flyweight

The stakes are about as high as they get outside of a title fight in this contest. Pantoja may have lost to Askar Askarov last year, but Pantoja has missed weight recently (whereas Askarov has) and Pantoja also has a win over reigning champion, Brandon Moreno, two if you count their exhibition contest on TUF. Royval might even be able to secure a title shot with a win. His only UFC loss is to Moreno and that was due to a shoulder injury. Plus, his go-for-broke style is an easy sell.

Given what he has shown in his three UFC contests thus far, it wouldn’t be a stretch to label Royval as one of the most exciting members upon the roster. He isn’t the most technical fighter, but has a sixth sense for when to take a risk, acquired after many years of trial and error of his risk taking ways. Of course, if he doesn’t make good on his spinning attack or submission off his back, he tends to leave himself in a very vulnerable state.

There’s no doubt Pantoja would not only be willing to take advantage of an opening provided by Royval, he’d be able. Only Deiveson Figueiredo and perhaps Manel Kape offer more punching power in the flyweight division and there are some who would argue his grappling may be the most dangerous part of his game. Of course, much of his ability on the ground hasn’t been seen by viewers very often due to his own love of a firefight.

There’s two things that leave me leaning in the direction of Pantoja. First, the difference in their durability. Pantoja has never been finished whereas Royval’s history of shoulder issues will forever be an issue. Secondly, while there’s no denying Pantoja is a wild man, his attack has a more technical base to it, both on the feet and mat. Plus, there appears to be a shelf life to the type of reckless attack put forth by Royval. It’s very possible he still has some time before it hits his expiration date, but Pantoja’s more mature blend of technique and risk taking has me leaning in the direction of the Brazilian. Pantoja via decision

  • Does anyone remember a time before Clay Guida was on the UFC roster? The former Strikeforce champion isn’t anywhere near the level of fighter he was in his prime as his energy levels are no longer at the insane levels they were at a decade ago, but he’s still about as well-conditioned as you can ask a 39-year old lightweight can be expected. One of the adjustments Guida has made to remain relevant is returning to his wrestling roots as opposed to engaging in the insane firefights that made him a fan favorite back in the day. However, it’s hard to believe his wrestling will work against former Olympic silver medalist Mark O. Madsen. Madsen is one-dimensional, but that wrestling dimension is so damn good, it may not matter against the likes of Guida. This will be the first time in a long time Guida will have a decided advantage on the feet, but Madsen hasn’t been suckered into having a firefight yet. Plus, even if Madsen is mechanical on the feet, he has plenty of power and Guida’s chin isn’t nearly as iron-clad as it used to be. Madsen bullies Guida to pick up the win. Madsen via decision
  • Chase Sherman’s return to the UFC was a nice story given the obstacles he had to overcome, but it’ll be a mere footnote if Sherman doesn’t make his second stint a lengthy one. Sherman has always had the physical skills, clocking in at 6’4” with a 78” reach. His poor defense is what killed his first run, but he’s been making strides to shore that up, taking a far more mature approach rather than the guy who willingly walked into jab after jab in his UFC debut. What Sherman does best is push a heavy pace and lay the volume on thick. There are some that think Parker Porter might be able to keep up with Sherman given Porter landed 126 significant strikes in his last contest, but Josh Parisian isn’t on par with Sherman. Porter is a harder hitter and better wrestler, but he’s mechanical in his movement, even by heavyweight standards and will have issues navigating Sherman’s improved outside attack with his stout frame. It’s hard not to see Sherman coming out ahead in this contest with his deep gas tank. Sherman via TKO of RD3
  • I’ve been watching a lot of film on Trevin Jones as of late, all without any of that research not coming to fruition. It seems like it’s finally going to pay off as it’s hard to believe Saidyokub Kakhramonov is going to pull out just days after accepting his short notice call up to the big show. The newcomer has a habit of swinging for the fences early, possessing enough power to make that a workable strategy… at least on the regionals. The jury’s out whether it’ll be effective at this level, but there’s reason to doubt it’ll work against Jones given Jones has proven to have a solid chin. Of course, we know this because Jones’ defensive deficiencies have seen him pieced up plenty prior to securing a brutal KO blow in his two UFC appearances. Jones has solid BJJ credentials, but it’s hard to believe he won’t be overpowered by Kakhramonov’s superior wrestling chops. However, Kakhramonov is coming in with no camp and he has slowed down late in fights before. I won’t be shocked if Kakhramonov pulls off the upset, but Jones steady approach should allow him to either get a decision or a late stoppage. Jones via decision
  • It could be argued Vinc Pichel is one of the most underrated members of the UFC roster for quite a while. After all, he’s 6-2 despite being the clear favorite in only two of those contests. Of course, he’s also been on the roster for 9 years, fighting less than once a year in that space. Plus, Pichel is now 38. Nonetheless, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more hard-nosed competitor on the roster. While he’s never been anything more than an average athlete, Pichel presses a hard pace and tirelessly pursues takedowns, breaking his opponent’s mind more than their body. He’ll have a hard time breaking Austin Hubbard given Hubbard tends to get stronger the deeper a fight goes. Of course, some of that is due to Hubbard being a notoriously slow starter, digging himself a hole he needed to climb out of in order to win each of his UFC contests. Hubbard’s grit is similar to Pichel’s, but he lacks Pichel’s dogged aggression and hasn’t shored up his takedown defense enough for me to trust him. Should Pichel try to prove a point and win a standup battle, Hubbard has a chance. Don’t count on it happening. Pichel via decision