The UFC train arrives back in Flinders St. Station for UFC 234 and it’s a massive one! Robert Whittaker looks to defend his middleweight belt and further solidify his place as one of the best fighters in the sport; against well rounded American wrestler, Kelvin Gastelum. In the co-main event, Nigerian-Kiwi striking Phenom Israel Adesanya takes on the aging legend Anderson Silva. The rest of the card lacks star power, but there is a nice sprinkling of ANZAC talent and some interesting up and comers. Read on for our preview of the two big fights.
Robert Whittaker returns to Melbourne for the first time since 2016 and this time he is bringing a championship belt. The last few years have seen meteoric rise for Whittaker. On the cusp of championship contendership after the KO win over Brunson in Melbourne, Whittaker KOed Jacare Souza the following April and then went onto to have 10 of the greatest rounds in UFC history against real life superhero, Yoel Romero. He got a win and a draw in those two fights, enough to see him win and defend the middleweight strap. He will now defend the belt for the first time on home soil against another fast rising middleweight, Kelvin Gastelum.
Kelvin Gastelum earned this title shot with a KO victory over former champion Michael Bisping and a close, but decisive victory over the aforementioned Jacare Souza. Gastelum was a successful college wrestler, before transitioning to MMA at an early age. After only 5 professional fights, Gastelum was called up to the ultimate fighter season 17 and went on to win that tournament against the highly touted Uriah Hall. Despite coming from a grappling background, Gastelum prefers to keep the fight standing. He uses his wrestling to win rounds late or shrug off takedown attempts. His striking game mostly revolves around a jab and a southpaw counter combination, and he always strikes while moving forward. His best attributes are his physical abilities; he has excellent cardio and is incredibly strong. He is a good dirty boxer up against the cage and is very strong on top. The question will be; is his well-rounded skillset enough to see of the next level striking of Whittaker?
Prediction: In my opinion this is a really good matchup for Robert Whittaker. On the feet there is a massive gulf in class when it comes to power, speed, defence and variety of offense. If Whittaker can stay long and fight like he did against Jacare and Romero, I think his offense will be too much. He will land in combination and then dart out at angles preparing for the next assault. He will also use front and elliptical kicks to keep Gastelum from getting any forward momentum. Interesting, this will be one of the few fighters where Whittaker is the taller fighter, so how he adapts to ‘punching down’ will be something to watch. Offensively, Gastelum will have nothing to give Whittaker that he didn’t already see at a higher level against Romero. Romero is basically the much, much better version of Gastelum and Whittaker beat him over ten rounds. I don’t even give Gastelum a punchers chance, as Whittaker took a hellacious beating off Romero without going down. The only pause for concern I have is how will look coming off back to back fights with Romero. It is no exaggeration to call those to fights an all-out war, and the beating Whittaker took (while still coming forward) was one of the most visceral in recent memory. But if Whittaker comes out looking anything like the guy we have seen in the past, he should cruise against Gastelum. I think a finish is unlikely as Gastelum is one of the most durable fighters in the business, but I see a very one sided decision in front of an adoring home crowd at Rod Laver Arena. Robert Whittaker by 50-45 decision.
The match-up is the very definition of the ‘passing of the baton’ fight. For nearly a decade Anderson Silva was considered the very pinnacle of MMA striking and despite some late career issues (loses, drug bans and injuries), he is still very much in the debate for greatest MMA fighter of all time. In Israel Adesanya we very may have the new breed of creative and technically brilliant striker. I’m not going to break down Silva, because if you don’t know who he is, stop reading this right now and watch his career highlights; you’ll be in for a treat. Suffice to say he is a brilliant Muay Thai fighter.
Israel Adesanya was born in Nigeria, but moved to New Zealand at age 9. He fights out of the brilliant City Kickboxing in Auckland, home of other ANZAC UFC fighters Dan Hooker, Kai Kara France, Shane Young and Alexander Volkanovski. Before focussing on MMA fulltime, Adesanya had a successful kickboxing career where he amassed a 75-5 record. He is an incredibly innovative and technically gifted kickboxer. Adesanya is along rangy fighter, who is excellent at using his length. He also feints, fakes and uses angles very well. His Achilles heel is obviously the wrestling, but so far he has been able to badly punish anyone who has tried to get him to the mat. However in this fight there is absolutely no risk of Silva trying to take him down. To this point in his UFC career, Adesanya has been matched up with journeyman wrestlers, so it will be interesting to see how he adapts to another high level striker.
Prediction: I’m not really a fan of this match up. The UFC is trying to make a star out of Adesanya, but I don’t think they should be doing off the back of a severely compromised legend. At the risk of sounding disrespectful; I kind of view this as a matchup between a top of the line computer 7 years ago vs a top of the line computer now. If these two were fighting in their primes, I still might favour Adesanya. He is bigger, a better defender and has a more devastating offense. This will be a fight between two counter punchers, so I expect it to be tentative in the early stages. But as Adesanya gets comfortable I think he will go to work on Silva. Silva hasn’t fought in two years and even back then the signs of aging where very apparent. He will be at least a step slower and his chin looks very shaky these days. I’d love nothing more than seeing Silva come out and put on a throwback performance and really it put to Adesanya, but I just don’t see it. I expect Adesanya to put on a show and propel himself towards UFC super stardom (and a potential massive trans-tasman title fight with Robert Whittaker). Israel Adesanya 2nd round TKO.
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