Pre-Fight Thoughts: Robert Whittaker -vs- Kelvin Gastelum
Eight months removed from a second gruelling war with Yoel Romero, Robert Whittaker defends his middleweight title against fellow ex-welterweight Kelvin Gastelum. It's an intriguing fight between a fighter who opted to move up to 185 pounds after determining that cutting to welterweight was costing him more than he was gaining and Gastelum, who was forced to move up after too many misses on the scales. Not quite the same narrative for both fighters, but both have had a great deal of success since the shift to middleweight.
While there is very real concern that both fights with Yoel Romero may have taken something permanently from Whittaker, this will be our first chance to make that assessment. After notching a pair of wins over the terrifying Cuban, Whittaker has taken a significant amount of time off, and he is relatively young — so he's given himself every chance to recover from 10 of the toughest rounds in MMA. Gastelum is coming off a long break himself, following his win over mutual opponent Jacare Souza, although there's much less concern for the damage he took in that fight. All fights of consequence take something from their participants, but there is simply no comparison between their last fights in terms of lasting damage.
This looks like it will be an entirely stand-up battle, and one that favours Whittaker due to the diversity and variety of his striking. Kelvin Gastelum's chief attributes are his speed and tenacity; the challenger has good cardio and a good 1-2 combo. The main issue for Gastelum, however, is that I've just summed up almost his entire arsenal. Whittaker's footwork and counters could prove to be his undoing, if all Kelvin does is try and leap forward with a lightning-fast 1-2 — the champ will figure this out fairly quickly, I think. As good as Gastelum is, I haven't seen much in the way of development in the past few years.
Robert Whittaker is demonstrably tough as nails, and has shown himself capable of adapting his gameplans in real-time. Conversely, Kelvin has shown he too is extremely tough, however he seems to have precisely one route to victory and — as demonstrated in his loss to Chris Weidman — when it's not working, he doesn't seem to have a plan B. Gastelum's solution to adversity is to grit his teeth and just work harder, while this is a noble attribute it's also fraught with danger. If your problem is, for instance, that "Bobby Knuckles" is lighting you up, then biting down on your mouthpiece and continuing to try and box with him is not going to end well.
Gastelum's best hope is to find a way to keep the pressure on Whittaker; Kelvin throws fast, hard shots and if he can start accumulating damage early then he could wear the champ down in the later rounds. What Gastelum can't do is let Whittaker get settled into his groove, nor can he afford to expend excessive amounts of energy. Regardless of the winner, I think it is very likely to be a longer fight, going 2-3 rounds at least. Gastelum has shown he's got a good chin, so the chances of Whittaker scoring a quick KO are fairly slim, likewise Whittaker has shown much improved durability since abandoning welterweight.
My expectation is that Whittaker will successfully defend his title for a second time, although a Gastelum win is not nearly as far fetched as some make it out to be. Gastelum is a very talented fighter with a lot of durability and stamina, and that always makes for a dangerous opponent. Whittaker's poise and tactical methods have really impressed me over the course of his middleweight run, and I see no reason to think he's been diminished by the wars with Romero. I think Kelvin will have some early success, but Whittaker will be able to pick his spots and slowly pull ahead, racking up a high volume of strikes on a durable, tenacious, but ultimately ineffective opponent.
Middleweight is still pretty bad, but this is a good fight and I am very much looking forward to it.
(Editor's Note: the fight was cancelled at the very last minute, a result of Robert Whittaker being diagnosed with a hernia which left him unable to compete at UFC 234. Anderson Silva versus Israel Adesanya was promoted to the main event.)
Published: February 9th, 2019.