Pre-Fight Thoughts: Kelvin Gastelum -vs- Israel Adesanya
One of two fights for "fake belts" at the top of the UFC 236 fight card, this pairing of former welterweight Kelvin Gastelum and surging newcomer Israel Adesanya is still a compelling fight. Both fighters have ways to win this fight, and each would pose very interesting match-ups for Robert Whittaker when he is able to return to competition. While it's not the title fight I think anyone would have specifically asked for, it's still got merit. It's a credible co-main event, even if the interim belt almost assuredly means the winner just gets the next shot at Whittaker's real belt .... unless it doesn't. (Ask Colby Covington about that one.)
Since debutting in the UFC just over a year ago, Adesanya has had a rocket strapped to his back and has made the most of the promotional push. In his 5 fights — which is a lot by modern UFC booking standards — we've seen Adesanya dish out some nasty beatings, handle the "wrestling problem" one expects former pure strikers to have, and has thus far shown he is every bit deserving of the hype. It's not to say that Adesanya winning this fight is a foregone conclusion, but he's thus far not demonstrated any glaring weaknesses and has acquitted himself well in the few grappling / wrestling situations he's been exposed to.
For Gastelum, this fight is going to be a difficult problem to solve. Gastelum's athleticism and speed will help him, provided he doesn't succumb to hubris and convince himself that he can strike with an elite kickboxer like Adesanya. Gastelum has a good, lightning-quick 1-2 combination and ... well, that's about all he's got as far as striking goes. Saying that Kelvin Gastelum would be bringing a knife to a gun-fight would be a generous interpretation of how their pure striking skills match up. Kelvin needs to use his speed and formiddable grappling prowess, if he intends to win this fight.
I feel like this bout could end in one of two ways: Adesanya styles on Gastelum and finishes him before he gets a chance to settle in and implement any of his game, or Kelvin will keep Israel off balance enough to shut down the striking — or punish him for the defensive holes his unconventional attacks leave — and wear him down with wrestling and maybe even submit him. Although many of his recent wins have been via strikes, it would be unwise to discount Gastelum's jiu-jitsu skills and we've yet to see how Adesanya handles sustained grappling. (To be fair, he's looked composed and very good when forced out of his comfort zone but those have been brief occurrences.)
I think a decision is the most unlikely outcome in this fight, even if it's not anywhere near impossible. Both fighters like to assert themselves in the cage, and one of them is going to be successful; I'm not expecting a staring contest or anything like the hard sparring match Adesanya had with Anderson Silva. My expectation is that either Kelvin Gastelum is getting battered with punches and kicks or he's going to seize an opening when it's presented, take Adesanya's back and strangle him in short order. I think the best odds are on Adesanya continuing to live up to the hype but Gastelum winning wouldn't be too crazy.
Still, a Gastelum win, at least to me, is the least likely. I am always sceptical of fast-tracked strikers but Israel Adesanya has thus far exceeded every expectation placed up him. The worst you can say is that he didn't murder Anderson Silva, and he still won that fight handily and was never in any danger, so he seems to be the real deal. I expect Kelvin Gastelum to prove challenging, but will ultimately wilt under the creativity and sheer violence of Adesanya.
Published: April 13th, 2019.