As far as name value goes, UFC 234 might be a two-fight show, but what a couple of headlining fights they are.
Middleweight champion Robert Whittaker competes in his Australian stomping grounds on Saturday when he goes for his first official title defense against Kelvin Gastelum in the main event of UFC 234. When we last saw Whittaker, he was surviving five more rounds against Yoel Romero (who missed weight, rendering their rematch a non-title affair). Now he once again faces an elite wrestler with dynamite hands. While Gastelum doesn’t have the freakish finishing power of Romero, he brings a non-stop approach that will perfectly match the fearless Whittaker.
In the co-main event, Israel Adesanya looks to capitalize on a 4-0 2018 campaign and start off his 2019 season with a statement win over MMA legend Anderson Silva. “The Last Stylebender” has been saying all the right things about what facing Silva means to him and how he’s ready to tear the torch from Silva’s grasp, but he could be headed towards disappointment if Silva can turn back the clock and put on a vintage performance.
Also on the main card, Ricky Simon continues his climb up the bantamweight rankings when he fights Rani Yahya, Montana De La Rosa faces Australia’s own Nadia Kassem in a flyweight bout, and 22-year-old light heavyweight prospect Jim Crute fights short-notice replacement Sam Alvey.
What: UFC 234
Where: Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, Australia
When: Saturday, Feb. 9. The three-fight UFC Fight Pass preliminary card begins at 6:30 p.m. ET, the four-fight ESPN preliminary card begins at 8 p.m. ET, and the five-fight pay-per-view main card begins at 10 p.m. ET.
Will Robert Whittaker’s middleweight reign be halted before its begun? And at the hands of another welterweight transplant?
That’s a legitimate possibility as Kelvin Gastelum finally gets his title shot, though not in the weight class that he long predicted he would. The former Ultimate Fighter winner has been outstanding at 185 pounds, with his deep gas tank and fast hands giving him an advantage over the division’s best. Former UFC champions Michael Bisping, Vitor Belfort, and Chris Weidman all felt Gastelum’s power, with Bisping and Belfort failing to make it out of the first round and Weidman getting rocked before managing to compose himself and submit Gastelum.
In a straight boxing match, this is a toss-up. When you add in Whittaker’s skillful kicking game, the odds lean more clearly towards the champion. He’s going to punish Gastelum’s lead leg with kicks while using his expert range striking to make it difficult for Gastelum to set up takedown attempts. As he’s shown in two fights with Yoel Romero, Whittaker’s takedown defense is out of this world.
Against the fence, Gastelum will be able to prevent Whittaker from opening up, but keeping him pinned there is another challenge altogether. Look for Whittaker to avoid being smothered and keep the action primarily in the center of the Octagon, where he can take his time feinting and picking Gastelum apart.
Gastelum has never been knocked out and that should remain true at UFC 234, though it will be Whittaker who gets his hand raised after five tough rounds.
Israel Adesanya is 100 percent correct in saying that Anderson Silva isn’t getting his proper respect from the oddsmakers. He’s also 100 percent correct that he’s going to put Silva away.
That’s no slight to Silva, whose struggles in the Octagon over the last few years have been somewhat overstated. In his losses to Chris Weidman, he faced a hungry challenger in his prime who was a matchup nightmare for Silva (and that’s not even mentioning his unfortunate leg break in their second fight). He defeated Nick Diaz in a five-round fight that has essentially been erased from the books due to both of them failing drug tests. He was outworked by Michael Bisping, but appeared to knock “The Count” out cold in the middle of the fight only to have Bisping saved by the bell. He was completely grounded by Daniel Cormier after agreeing to fight the future heavyweight champion with less than 48 hours to prepare. And he escaped with a narrow decision win against Derek Brunson in his last outing.
All of that is to say that Silva is still a high-level fighter and certainly one that is much better than his recent results would indicate.
Picking Adesanya is more about the reputation that “The Last Stylebender” has made for himself over the past 12 months. By far, Silva is the best striker that Adesanya has faced in the UFC, so this is will be a true test of Adesanya’s vaunted kickboxing skills. No takedowns, no wrestling, just who has the best standup.
Silva isn’t a fast starter, so it won’t be surprising to see Adesanya lead the dance early on. The question is whether Silva can still reach the top speeds that he used to. We know Adesanya can and if he senses the slightest weakness or hesitation on Silva’s part, he will pounce.
Had this fight happened in Silva’s prime, it would be a much more difficult call to make. As it is, youth will be served and Adesanya is going to pick up a knockout win.
There’s a lot to like about Ricky Simon’s game, especially as it pertains to thwarting Rani Yahya. He has great wrestling, which should allow him to determine where the fight takes place. And his cardio is top-notch, so he should have the edge in a three-round battle.
Where Yahya has always excelled is in the grappling department and as good as Simon’s wrestling is, he’ll be in serious danger if he makes any mistakes on the mat. Even if he doesn’t, Yahya is such a gifted jiu-jitsu artist that he could force the action and catch Simon with something. He’s shown a willingness to stand and trade on the feet too, but Yahya would be wise to conserve his energy rather than go all out trying to dent Simon’s relatively fresh chin.
I like Yahya to find a submission at some point, though if he starts too slow and allows Simon to take the initiative, he will lose on the cards.
Montana De La Rosa better be ready for boos because she’s going to take out the hometown girl.
Taller, longer, and more battle-tested, De La Rosa has several advantages entering her fight with Nadia Kassem. A cursory glance at their stats might make this seem like a classic grappler vs. striker matchup, but De La Rosa showed in her win over Rachael Ostovich that she’s comfortable striking from distance and Kassem was aggressive off of her back with submission attempts en route to defeating Alex Chambers.
Should this be contested primarily on the feet, it will be difficult for Kassem to land a power shot against the rangy De La Rosa. On the ground, De La Rosa has shown she is a dangerous finisher and done so against better competition than Kassem has faced. That experience will make a huge difference.
De La Rosa by submission in round two.
Pick: De La Rosa
Jim Crute has all the makings of a fan favorite fighter with his aggressive attitude and a well-rounded skill set. Sam Alvey has no problem dealing with fighters who look to push the pace and always finds a way to slow things down (occasionally to the chagrin of those in attendance). His left hand is a constant threat as well and Crute will have to be wary of it if he doesn’t want to see his 0 go.
This is one of those fights where the younger fighter is going to have to mature fast and show that he can adapt, especially if Alvey fights as safe as he usually does. Crute did a great job of out-grappling the submission-minded Paul Craig and he should be comfortable mucking things up with Alvey if need be.
Alvey is difficult to finish, but I see Crute having the edge in the standup and getting the better of the clinch work to earn a convincing decision win.