UFC Vegas 24: Unfinished Business for Whittaker and Gastelum

Robert Whittaker and Kelvin Gastelum, UFC Vegas 24
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - APRIL 16: (L-R) Opponents Robert Whittaker of Australia and Kelvin Gastelum face off during the UFC weigh-in at UFC APEX on April 16, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Former champion Robert Whittaker is looking to lock in a second shot at Israel Adesanya, but Kelvin Gastelum wants that and more when he meets “The Reaper” at UFC Vegas 24.

If you were to put Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker into a medieval story, the two would be in an epic tale.   You would have the soft-spoken former king, still dangerous and looking to reclaim the throne.  Across the battlefield, the outspoken ruler who took the crown would stand across from him.  In the post-Anderson Silva era of the middleweight division, Whittaker and Adesanya have established themselves as the two most dominant forces at 185 pounds.  While Adesanya is the rightful man of the moment, Whittaker’s work outside of title bouts deserves its own praise.

There is no way around it, Whittaker’s loss to Adesanya in 2019 was a one-sided domination.  But if his harshest critics demanded he work his way back, he could do no better than to turn away two of the highest profile contenders in Darren Till and Jared Cannonier.  Both men were seemingly pegged by Adesanya himself to challenge for the title next, and both found themselves unable to overcome the skills of “The Reaper.”  A third victory in a row would leave no question who the second best fighter in the division is, and leave Adesanya to either face him again or admittedly take a lower profile contender.

In 2018, Kelvin Gastelum was scheduled to challenge then champion Whittaker following a stint as coaches on Season 28 of The Ultimate Fighter.  The stage was set with Gastelum going into enemy territory in Whittaker’s backyard of Melbourne, Australia.  Disaster would strike that morning as news broke that Whittaker had been forced out of the bout.  It would be the catalyst for the toughest skid of Gastelum’s professional career.  He would go on a 0-3 run that included losing the Fight of the Year for the interim title to Adesanya, then losses in uninspired bouts against Darren Till and Jack Hermansson to fully halt the momentum he had built up.

A February victory over Ian Heinisch served to remind everyone that he had plenty of fight left.  When the call came that Paulo Costa had withdrawn from the bout with Whittaker, it proved to be a golden opportunity for Gastelum.  Following the Heinisch victory, he was still looking at building himself back up the rankings.  Instead, he has a chance to leap back into title contention with the biggest victory of his career over the established former champion.

Stylistically, the explosiveness and ability to control distance of Whittaker will have to contend with the speed and output of Gastelum.  The former champion should look to chop away at Gastelum’s leg and body early, creating openings to target the head later in the fight.  Gastelum should look to use his boxing to work his way inside and mask entries for takedowns in the fight.  While Whittaker has proven to have great takedown defense, Gastelum’s striking could be the difference in getting the fight to the mat where he will have the advantage.

A Whittaker victory should be enough to warrant a rematch with Adesanya when surveying the current middleweight landscape.  Gastelum’s case for a rematch would be strong as well, especially considering the nature of their first fight and the expected timeline for Adesanya’s return in 2021.  If it does not materialize, there could be a push for him to face fellow top contender Marvin Vettori in a title eliminator.