Kelvin Gastelum is at a crossroads.
The youngest Ultimate Fighter winner ever, a blue-chip welterweight prospect, an interim title challenger, and now a high-level gatekeeper. All before the age of 30.
Outside of a quick submission loss to Jack Hermansson, Gastelum has rarely been blown out of the water in his fights (in fact, no middleweight has given current champion Israel Adesanya a tougher challenge), but he has lost four of his past five and those are the facts as he heads into Saturday’s UFC Vegas 34 main event at UFC APEX in Las Vegas.
A return to the 170-pound division seems all but impossible for Gastelum, who actually needed two attempts to successfully make weight for tonight’s middleweight headliner. But should he lose again, what direction is there to go in? Would the UFC consider releasing a consummate company man that is still a stiff test for anyone in his division?
None of that is of any concern to Jared Cannonier. Like Gastelum, Cannonier is coming off of a loss to Robert Whittaker, but he’s been on the path to a title shot since sparking Hermansson at UFC Copenhagen. A win on Saturday doesn’t get Cannonier or Gastelum much closer to a title shot, but a loss could knock one of them out of the contenders’ orbit.
In other main card action, veteran lightweight Clay Guida makes his 31st UFC appearance when he fights Olympian Mark O. Madsen, Chase Sherman fights Parker Porter in what should be a fun heavyweight tilt, Trevin Jones takes on short-notice newcomer Saidyokub Kakhramonov, lightweights Vinc Pichel and Austin Hubbard face off, and Alexandre Pantoja looks to set up a third fight with flyweight champion Brandon Moreno when he takes on Brandon Royval.
What: UFC Vegas 34
Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas
Jared Cannonier vs. Kelvin Gastelum
At middleweight, Kelvin Gastelum has often had to deal with a size disadvantage and that’s definitely going to be the case when he stands across from Jared Cannonier.
Cannonier is a former heavyweight who is absolutely shredded at 185 pounds. He hasn’t lost much power dropping two divisions; in fact, his added speed is one reason he’s so rapidly climbed through the middleweight ranks. He can’t match the quickness of Gastelum, but given his power advantage, he doesn’t have to.
We’ll see if Gastelum employs more of his grappling in this matchup, though he’s rarely used his wrestling as a means of dominating his foes. It’s helped him to dictate where fights go, win clinch battles, and disrupt rhythm with takedowns. However, it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to just take Cannonier down and hold him there. Draining his gas tank with grinding work against the fence could pay off in the long run though.
I’m actually confident that Cannonier can go a hard five rounds, especially if he’s the one doing the damage early on. And while I don’t expect him to put down the hard-headed Gastelum, I think he wins a comfortable decision in what should be an entertaining scrap.
Clay Guida vs. Mark O. Madsen
Mark O. Madsen has awesome wrestling, a “duh” statement if there ever was one given the numerous medals—including a silver from the Rio Olympics—he has on his mantle. It’s going to take all of that expertise to slow down the wily Clay Guida.
Since his UFC debut 15 years ago (!), Guida pretty much hasn’t stopped moving and it’s led him to a lot of success. An excursion down to 145 pounds didn’t go too well as jumped in when the division was starting to boom, leading him to lose fights against the likes of Brian Ortega, Dennis Bermudez, and Chad Mendes, and while he wasn’t a fish out of water down there, it wasn’t an ideal situation for him to thrive in either.
At lightweight is where Guida’s relentless spirit has truly been a gift and he’s going to give Madsen a challenge he’s never seen before. Madsen will toss Guida around early, for sure, but he’s going to have to deal with a lot of scrambling and some unpredictable striking. Unlike Cannonier, I don’t have as much faith in Madsen’s gas tank yet. Keep in mind he’s just a couple of months shy of his 37th birthday and he has a lot of combat sports mileage on him.
Screw it, I’m going out on a ledge here and predicting that this one goes to the third round, where Guida finds a way to reach down deep and steal a win with a surprise submission.
Parker Porter vs. Chase Sherman
I still don’t know what to expect from Parker Porter, but I understand why this fight is on the main card. These big boys are going to stand and throw.
Chase Sherman has a monster chin, which hasn’t always been a good thing for him as he’s frequently eschewed fundamental defense in favor of just wading through punches to land his own. That’s exactly the kind of action Porter is looking for. He’ll want to stay in striking distance and kickbox until either he or Sherman falls.
Mark this one down as the most unpredictable fight on the main card as either guy could land a KO shot in the first round or it could turn into a sloppy, three-round slugfest. I’ll lean towards Sherman who is both younger and also more experienced at a high level, though I don’t feel confident about it in the slightest.
Vinc Pichel vs. Austin Hubbard
This is some sharp matchmaking here, with the always game Vinc Pichel being offered as a gauge for the talented, but inconsistent Austin Hubbard. At his best, Hubbard is a potent offensive fighter, he just hasn’t always been able to implement his game plan and he has significant holes in his defense. Hubbard is what one would call in football a strong “downhill runner” in that once he finds an opening he’s as good as any fighter at dealing damage and putting on the pressure. The problems arise when he can’t manufacture that opening.
Pichel is the quintessential crafty veteran with the kind of functional athleticism that allows him to give his opponents a lot of different looks. He can stay low and tight while looking to counter or use a lot of lateral movement to make himself less predictable. I don’t know if Hubbard has an answer for all of that.
The youth of Hubbard can’t be discounted (he’s nine years younger than Pichel), so if he comes out firing maybe he can stuff Pichel before he gets out of the gates. As it is, I like Pichel’s chances of making Hubbard fight his fight and continuing his win streak.
Trevin Jones vs. Saidyokub Kakhramonov
Trevin Jones is a solid all-around fighter, another quality competitor in the ever-deepening bantamweight division. Normally, I’d be concerned about him taking this fight on less than 10 days’ notice, but considering his opponent Saidyokub Kakhramonov is stepping in on less than one week’s notice, their level of preparation should be just about even.
This is one of those neat mutant matchups that originally started off as something else entirely (Jones is taking the place of Jesse Strader, Kakhramonov of Mana Martinez) and rather than re-book the original fight they somehow ended up finding replacements for both competitors. I love when that happens.
The other cool thing about this fight is that Kakhramonov gets to make his UFC debut after coming up the hard way. He was booked as a sacrificial lamb for top prospect Umar Nurmagomedov when the PFL was working to showcase Nurmagomedov, but Kakhramonov’s last two wins have shown his potential as he’s knocked out Askar Askar and Tycen Lynn. The former he beat in 39 seconds, the latter he defeated for a vacant CFFC title.
Kakhramonov fights with a ton of swagger and it will be fun to see the contrast between his free-swinging standup and Jones’ more disciplined, occasionally stiff, striking style. Jones should be more inclined to mix in some wrestling, with Kakhramonov usually shooting in only after he’s had the chance to throw heavy leather.
These are two talents to keep an eye on and I think it’s Jones who ekes out the decision on this day.
Alexandre Pantoja vs. Brandon Royval
What an awesome fight to kick off the main card.
Brandon Royval is spectacularly aggressive, living up to his “Raw Dawg” nickname as he sinks his proverbial teeth into his foes with a mixture of non-stop pressure and skillful wrestling. If the UFC is planning to put Alexandra Pantoja into position to beat Brandon Moreno a third time (including a submission win over Moreno in an exhibition bout on The Ultimate Fighter 24), they’ve put a heck of a speed bump in his path.
I still like Pantoja to win this one, even if it won’t be easy. He’s an excellent grappler, which should help him to neutralize Royval and threaten with submissions. On the feet, Pantoja should have the clear advantage in technique and power. It’s all just a matter of keeping Royval off of him for 15 minutes.
Pantoja is too smart to be overwhelmed, even by someone as ferocious as Royval. He’s going to sting Royval on the feet and after Royval panic shoots one time too many, Pantoja will snag a submission.