UFC 234: Whittaker vs. Gastelum - Predictions and Picks
This Saturday sees the UFC’s first pay-per-view event of 2019, as UFC 234: Whittaker vs. Gastelum goes down live from Melbourne, Australia. The card is top-heavy even for modern UFC standards – the double main event of Robert Whittaker vs. Kelvin Gastelum for the UFC Middleweight title and Israel Adesanya vs. Anderson Silva sound epic, but the rest of the show is largely devoid of top-level contenders.
The likely reason for this is the fact that tickets sold out so quickly based on those top two fights that the promotion simply didn’t need to stack the rest of the card, but still, it’s a trend which hopefully won’t continue. Realistically, the two ESPN+ Fight Nights we’ve had thus far in 2019 were stronger cards on paper.
Still, there’s obviously a couple of interesting fights going on here. Here are the predicted outcomes for UFC 234: Whittaker vs. Gastelum.
#1 Robert Whittaker vs. Kelvin Gastelum
It’s hard to believe given he’s held the title since late 2017, but this will actually mark Robert Whittaker’s first official UFC Middleweight title defense. Of course, he’s fought since then, defeating Yoel Romero, but as the Cuban missed weight for that fight, it became a non-title bout instead. And being a native Australian, the Melbourne crowd should be absolutely molten for the return of ‘The Reaper’.
Kelvin Gastelum earned his title shot by defeating Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza via narrow split decision at UFC 224 in May 2018; prior to this, he’d knocked out former champ Michael Bisping. Since moving back to Middleweight in December 2016, the TUF 17 winner is 4-1, with his wins over Bisping and Souza following victories over Tim Kennedy and Vitor Belfort. His lone loss came against Chris Weidman, but given Weidman has since been knocked out by Souza – who Gastelum beat – this title shot seems fair to me.
This is a massively intriguing fight because at 28 and 27 respectively, the two men are likely just approaching their primes in terms of their fighting careers. Both men have excellent skills in all areas; Gastelum has more of a grappling background than Whittaker but recently he’s preferred to use his striking to win fights, and both men have also shown a solid ability to take punishment, particularly Whittaker, who survived an insane amount of offense from Romero in both of their fights.
In terms of how they match up, I’m giving a slight advantage to Whittaker. Both men prefer to use a boxing-type game on their feet, but Whittaker has also been known to use some vicious leg and calf kicks, and it was his use of these that largely allowed him to break Romero down in their second fight. And while Gastelum has knocked opponents out in the past – Bisping and Belfort for instance – his punching power is of a natural clubbing style, while Whittaker is probably the cleaner puncher.
Gastelum has a tremendous wrestling background and he might be quite underrated in that department actually – he shrugged off the takedowns of an NCAA Division I champion in Johny Hendricks, and also managed to prevent the massive Tim Kennedy from getting him down – but I’m questioning whether he can get Whittaker off his feet given Romero – probably the best wrestler in the division – failed in that aspect.
The area that has me somewhat worried for the Aussie is the fact that he’s taken a lot of damage in his 7-year UFC career. He was knocked out pretty cleanly by Stephen Thompson in early 2014 in a Welterweight bout, and while he’s obviously fared far better at 185lbs, the punishment he endured in his two fights with Yoel Romero was potentially career-altering. And he’s hardly been injury-free either, as he spent almost a year on the shelf between those two Romero fights as well.
With that said, he doesn’t look anywhere near shot or shopworn to me just yet, and so I’m looking purely at how the skillsets of the two men stack up. And while Gastelum hits hard and is a fleet-footed striker at 185lbs, Whittaker is equally quick and is likely a more technical kickboxer. And given the Romero fights suggested it’s almost impossible to take him down and keep him there, I just don’t see Gastelum outwrestling him either.
Gastelum might do well early here, particularly if Whittaker comes in nervously due to the huge crowd that are going to be heavily behind him, but in the end, I can see Whittaker slowly picking him apart while avoiding his takedowns. Based on his own durability I’m not sure that ‘The Reaper’ can pick up a finish, but I’m taking him to win this one by unanimous decision.
The Pick: Whittaker via unanimous decision