Regardless of the paths they’ve taken, Gastelum and Adesanya will meet in the Octagon on April 13 at UFC 236 in Atlanta with the winner claiming a vacant interim middleweight championship. It’s a scenario that has unfolded in the wake of undisputed champion Robert Whittaker suffering an untimely injury just hours before he was supposed to defend his title against Gastelum at UFC 234 in Melbourne, Australia, this past February.
Gastelum earned that spot on the strength of wins over longtime contender Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, former UFC middleweight champion Michael Bisping, former UFC light heavyweight champion Vitor Belfort (a result that was later overturned to a no contest when Gastelum tested positive for marijuana), and two-time Strikeforce title contender Tim Kennedy. In his last fight at 170 pounds, Gastelum also defeated former UFC welterweight champion Johnny Hendricks.
At a media lunch in Los Angeles on Thursday, Gastelum was asked if he thought Adesanya had done enough to deserve his title opportunity and he feels that “The Last Stylebender” falls short when comparing resumes.
“I don’t think so. I don’t think he’s been through the fire that I’ve been through,” Gastelum said. “He hasn’t fought the quality of opponents that I have.
“Obviously, he’s fought some great fighters, but the top five guys, anyone of those top five guys can be the champion, and I don’t think he’s fought those kind of guys.”
What Adesanya has done is won all five of his UFC fights so far, bringing his pro record to an unblemished 16-0. A standout kickboxer, Adesanya has impressed on the biggest stage in MMA, recording highlight-reel finishes of Derek Brunson and Rob Wilkinson, and taking a convincing unanimous decision against middleweight legend Anderson Silva in what became the de facto UFC 234 main event.
That was a star turn for the fast-rising Adesanya and he made it known that he didn’t think too highly of Gastelum, who was sitting cageside with a championship belt on his shoulder that he had been carrying around Rod Laver Arena to indicate that he felt he was ‘the champ’ with Whittaker unable to defend.
“He said, ‘Kelvin, put that belt down,’ or something,” Gastelum said. “I just smiled. My point was to make noise and Sunday morning, everybody was talking about it and that was ultimately my goal.”
It was clear that Gastelum and Adesanya were in each other’s sights, and it wasn’t long before they were officially matched up and with UFC gold on the line. Gastelum said he hasn’t put too much time into scouting Adesanya outside of his recent fights with Silva and Brunson, but he isn’t discounting the Nigerian-born New Zealander’s skill set.
When the two face off, Adesanya will have a considerable height and reach advantage and while conventional wisdom may dictate that Gastelum should use his potent wrestling to defuse Adesdanya’s striking game, Gastelum isn’t going to rely on that one aspect of his game.
“I don’t think that’s his only weakness,” Gastelum said of Adesanya’s grappling. “I saw some things that I know I can exploit and take advantage of. I feel like my disadvantage I’ve learned to make it into an advantage.
“My height, I’m able to get under guys real easy, I’ve learned how to do that, and how to maintain my range despite my limited capabilities.”
In an instance of kismet that Gastelum is viewing as a sign that he will be favored come fight night, UFC 236 is taking place on April 13, exactly six years after Gastelum defeated Uriah Hall to win The Ultimate Fighter 17 and a contract with the UFC. Since then, he’s had peaks and valleys on his way to this title opportunity, and he looks back on them now as being necessary steps in his journey.
Whether his opponent deserves it or not, interim or otherwise, Gastelum knows that he’s ready to own a UFC belt.
“It’s for a world title, but at the same time it is kind of like a No. 1 contender’s spot, but with a little prize,” Gastelum said. “That’s kind of how I take it. It’s a little bittersweet that I’m not fighting for the undisputed title against Rob in Australia, but at the end of the day this has been the longest layoff of my career and I just wanted to get in there and fight. So I was like, ‘Give me a fight, man. Give me a fight and make it for a title.’”