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UFC 234 main event breakdown: Robert Whittaker vs. Kelvin Gastelum

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

It seems fitting that as Robert Whittaker approaches his latest title defense, he is overshadowed by a bigger personality on the card, even while in the country he calls home. Fellow middleweight Israel Adesanya is a megawatt character with flashy talent, and many are closely tracking his ascension. Meanwhile, Whittaker goes quietly about his business as being the best 185-pounder in the world. At least for now.

After two consecutive victories over Yoel Romero, Whittaker shifts to a new opponent in Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 234 with the goal of bolstering his reign.

Gastelum, a former welterweight, has carried his power over into his new division, a feature that remains possibly the most recognized element of his game. Gastelum remains a meat-and-potatoes fighter who concentrates on the basics and excels at them. He has good boxing (a 43 percent accuracy rate), heavy hands (a 9:1 UFC career knockdown ratio), and makes up for the size differential with speed and craftiness. Gastelum likes to literally bounce into his attacks. He moves on the balls of his feet, alternating the tempo on his entries by bouncing forward and backward before launching an attack.

He is particularly fond of the right jab/straight left combination, a boxing fundamental that he has ridden to much success, including knockdowns of Michael Bisping, Vitor Belfort and Chris Weidman. One wrinkle he likes to add to it is turning the right hand into a hybrid jab/hook as he steps outside of his opponent’s lead foot, as he did against Bisping. He’ll also double up on it, as he did against Belfort, throwing a true jab in the first go-round before switching to the hybrid hook in the second, scoring the knockdown.

Gastelum embraces the idea of pressure and volume. He lands an average of 3.82 strikes per minute, per FightMetric, and consistently works to back up his opponent and box him into a more confined space where his strikes have a better chance of connecting. Despite his size and wingspan limitations— he’s only 5-foot-9 with a 71-inch reach — Gastelum has an excellent grasp of distance control and often forces opponents to overextend as they throw punches, leaving them out of position defensively and prone to his heavy counters.

Gastelum has strong wrestling fundamentals and an attacking jiu-jitsu game that, when engaged, seems to mirror his killer instinct on his feet. Certainly, he prefers ground strikes first, but as he showed when he choked out Jake Ellenberger a few years ago, he can be opportunistic.

Against Whittaker, opportunities seem hard to come by. Like Gastelum, Whittaker seemed to hit his stride when he abandoned the idea of being a welterweight and said good bye to the stress of a serious weight cut.

It paid immediate dividends in his performance as exemplified by his enviable stamina. According to FightMetric, Whittaker lands 4.82 strikes per minute, which is tops among active UFC middleweights. Most fighters simply can’t keep up with that type of output and become defensively compromised in the effort before falling behind on the scorecards. It has to feel something like drowning in quicksand.

If Gastelum’s anchor is his command of basics, Whittaker’s lies in his balance, both literally and figuratively.

Whittaker’s striking style is grounded in traditional martial arts such as karate, where fundamentals such as balance and form are frequently preached. This is steeped in his game, as he rarely finds himself in a misaligned position. Given that Gastelum tries to force such missteps, this is a piece that bears watching.

He takes that same philosophy all throughout his game, as he is quite well-rounded, has a great fight IQ, and excellent decision-making skills in the heat of battle.

His striking game is rather tricky. He often leads with a back-leg teep to the opponent’s mid-section. That tactic serves two purposes: first, it disrupts any of his opponent’s forward momentum, but it also sets up high kicks later on. It was that very sequence that set up his finish of Ronaldo Souza in August 2017.

Whittaker has a nasty left hook that he often snaps off as the finishing strike in a sequence. He throws it with a high and looping arc, one that often bypasses his opponents’ guards and lands unimpeded. He’s used it to great effect against opponents including Souza, Derek Brunson and Romero.

Whittaker’s striking style varies tempo and angle. He is fond of feints as a disruption method, and does not adhere to conventional fight rhythms. Fighters commonly mention getting into the “flow” of a fight; that essentially means that they come to have an understanding of each other’s speed and movements. However, his offbeat timing limits that feeling of comfort, and is equally capable of sudden bursts or pullbacks. He excels in those small transition moments, creating angles on which to capitalize, then stepping out, then capitalizing with a counter against an onrushing foe.

Whittaker also boasts a stellar wrestling game. Despite little background in the sport as a youth, his diligence in the discipline has paid off, as he boasts excellent all-around skills, as evidenced by his performances against the former Olympian Romero. Whittaker was good enough to win the Australian National Wrestling Championships while in 2017 while still competing in the UFC.

These are two middleweights with smashing power and solid all-around games. In looking for differentiators between them, Whittaker’s volume and guile seem to stand out. His is a game that is crafted with both strength and finesse, and his ability to alternate between them gives his key strategic advantages. With Adesanya lurking in the background, the pick is for Whittaker to outlast Gastelum in a decision and set up an anticipated thriller.

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