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Hot Tweets: UFC Vegas 34, Kelvin Gastelum at middleweight, and can Kayla Harrison beat Cris Cyborg?

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Aside from the return of the greatest show in MMA history, it’s been relatively quiet this week in MMA. The PFL continues to march towards the finals of their various tournaments with Kayla Harrison obliterating everyone, Bellator . . . had a card, and of course, the UFC returns this weekend with yet another Fight Night event. So let’s talk about all these things plus, Jon Jones.

Jared Cannonier vs. Kelvin Gastelum

Nope. There is a zero percent chance that Gastelum gets released with a loss this weekend, nor should he be. Yes, he’ll be 1-5 in his last six but just look at who he has fought. There is no shame in losing to Israel Adesanya (in one of the five best fights of all-time) and Robert Whittaker, nor is getting caught by Jack Hermansson or, if it happens, losing to Jared Cannonier. The Darren Till loss isn’t great but still, we’re talking about the best of the best and most middleweights would have the exact same record against that slate of competition.

There’s also the fact to consider that for all his faults, Gastelum is still only 29 years old and, more importantly, seems to be a company guy. He’s been more than willing to step in on short notice to help the UFC out and, in fact, that’s what he’s doing this weekend as well. The UFC doesn’t generally reward fighters with bigger paydays, but they do tend to have a soft spot as far as roster construction goes for guys who say “Yes” when Sean Shelby picks up the the phone.

But even though there is no risk of unemployment for Gastelum, that doesn’t mean there aren’t stakes for KG in this fight. No fighter wants to go 1-5 and a loss to Cannonier, as explicable as it may be, raises the very real question of whether he is anything more than a gatekeeper to the top-10.

Again, Gastelum has fought a who’s who of the division but he’s also lost to every good fighter he has faced. If you go back through his resume, there are remarkably few wins of real merit on it. Yes, he beat Jacare Souza (barely) but Jacare was old and half the fighter he once was. Same for Michael Bisping and Vitor Belfort and Tim Kennedy and Johny Hendricks. Before that he had wins over Nate Marquardt and Jake Ellenberger, both men who weren’t exactly at the peak of their powers either. Legitimately, Gastelum’s best win in context is probably Ian Heinisch, the same dude who just got blown out by Nassourdine Imavov. Frankly, that is not a resume that deserves a ranking and it certainly doesn’t deserve him being talked about as a possible future title contender.

Plain and simple, Gastelum may not need to win tonight for his job security, but he does need to win tonight if he has any title aspirations at 185.

Kelvin Gastelum on a diet

Yes. Absolutely. The fact that he hasn’t is one of the more maddening and yet respectable things in the sport.

Look, I’m not a doctor but I feel confident in saying that Gastelum is not a middleweight. Yes, he has a wide frame but there are several welterweights who are larger than he is and honestly, some lightweights who can give him a run as well. If you put him in the cage with Michael Chiesa, Gastelum is going to be the smaller man and Chiesa just moved up from lightweight. Similarly, if he fought someone like former middleweight Anthony Smith it would look like David vs. Goliath. And it’s not like Gastelum is some absolutely shredded middleweight, a la, Luke Rockhold where you genuinely question how he makes the limit.

The thing is, Gastelum doesn’t want to live the very demanding lifestyle that it requires to make a weight class when you’re on the bigger side of it. Hell, he doesn’t even want to live the lifestyle that will have him make 185 cleanly as he needed additional time to make the limit yesterday. But even dating back to his Ultimate Fighter days the guys in the house all mocked him for eating like a 12-year-old left to his own devices and that same ethos seems to be with him. He likes fighting and is pretty good at it but he doesn’t want to sacrifice other aspects of his life and honestly, I can respect that. It’s a much more reasonable way to approach the sport, but let’s be honest about what is going on here. Jose Aldo played hell making 145 for years despite not being especially big at the weight. Then he knuckled down, got a nutritionist and now he’s reinventing himself in his late 30s. Gastelum could make 170 if he wanted to, he just doesn’t.

The problem for Gastelum is that if he wants to make a title run, it will have to happen at 170. He’s either too small or not good enough at middleweight (as outlined above) and I would argue those two things are related. Sure, Gastelum has had success at 185 but that success has either come against old guys who were more susceptible to his power or against guys on the smaller side of 185. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the best performance of Gastelum’s career came against a guy who routinely weighs in well under 185 (Adesanya). On equal physical terms with people, Gastelum is a handful to deal with but often, he’s fighting at a clear disadvantage.

If Gastelum wins tonight, he will once again be a top middleweight contender, given Cannonier’s ranking but a loss would possibly be better for him as it might actually force him to reevaluate his career and drop down to the weight class where he has the best chance of winning a title.

The people’s main event

Alexandre Pantoja vs. Brandon Royval is the best fight of the weekend by a country mile. It’s not even close to being close. The fact that this fight is buried on the main card is one of the more disrespectful things that has happened in recent memory. Clay Guida vs. Mark O. Madsen, that’s your co-main? Seriously?

Aside from the fact that by the UFC’s own rankings this is the best fight of the weekend (No. 3 vs. No. 6 as opposed to No. 3 vs. No. 9 in the main event) this fight is guaranteed to be dope as hell. Despite being 17 years into his fighting career, Pantoja is still lighting the world on fire and Royval does not know how to be boring. In his three UFC fights, he’s had two Fight of the Nights and then got stopped by the current champion in a great scrap as well. Plus, if Pantoja wins he can start calling for a title shot since he has a win over Brandon Moreno! This fight is the most exciting fight this weekend in basically every sense of the word.

Aside from Pantoja-Royval, I’m gonna shoot you straight, this is not a good weekend for MMA. The Bellator and PFL cards this week were . . . let’s call them lackluster and aside from the two fights already discussed, this Fight Night is horrendous. One of the more fun games to play with UFC Fight Night cards is see how many people on them have Wikipedia pages and UFC Vegas 34 flunks this test spectacularly with only half of the fighters having Wikis. That’s a low, low bar to clear and this weekend the UFC torpedoed right underneath it.

But, if I have to point to some other bouts that are at least worthwhile, Mark O. Madsen is an Olympic silver medalist and that alone is worth watching. Vinc Pichel Austin Hubbard has some potential to be fun and Brian Kelleher is probably going to style on Domingo Pilarte. Oh, and William Knight and Fabio Cherant both look like superheroes. They don’t fight like superheroes but still, if we judged fights by how competitors looked walking to the cage, that’s the winner by a landslide.

Quick Tip

Mark O. Madsen won five silver medals on the world’s stage in Greco-Roman wrestling, including silver at the 2016 Olympics. He’s basically the Buffalo Bills of 74kg Greco-Roman wrestling and he is currently an undefeated MMA prospect. He will be fighting Clay Guida, a guy who is undeniably past his prime and in his prime was primarily known for his hair and for wrestle-boxing. Madsen can be found at only -155 in some places. I cannot for the life of me figure out this line.

Kayla Harrison

I’m not willing to say she couldn’t beat either Amanda Nunes or Cris Cyborg but I would consider both women heavy favorites over Kayla Harrison at this point. Don’t get me wrong, Harrison is dope and obviously has a knack for fighting but let’s pump the breaks on who she can beat because thus far, she hasn’t beaten anyone.

Unfortunately for Harrison, she currently competes in a division that doesn’t exist. Women’s lightweight simply doesn’t have more than a handful of fighters in it and, frankly, none of them are good. Now she’s going to make the drop to 145 in the future which helps but we all know that it’s not like women’s featherweight has a deep well of talent in it either. So this is one of those things where because of the nature of the division, Harrison isn’t fighting anyone who is good and likely won’t until such time as she does fight Cyborg, I’m guessing next year. That’s like going from fighting a Koala to fighting a Grizzly .

So could Harrison beat the likes of Nunes or Cyborg? Yes, she has talent and physicality and the hallmarks of a great fighter. She also has a skill set that would be particularly effective against both women. But there are so many unknowns about Harrison at this point that betting on her to do it would be foolhardy. We’ve never seen her really take a clean punch and certainly we haven’t seen her take them from hitters like Nunes and Cyborg. So basically, until such time as she actually fights one of them, I’m not going to say she’d beat them because both Nunes and Cyborg have proven their bona fides over the years and Harrison has still yet to earn those stripes.

The heavyweight title picture

The answer is both yes and no. Yes, because if Jones wants the fight and will agree to the UFC’s terms, he would 100000% leapfrog Gane for a title fight. No, because Jones isn’t going to do that.

Winning the heavyweight title does not mean all that much to Jon Jones. If he never fights again, his legacy in MMA is cemented and winning the heavyweight belt would really only be a confirmation of something many fans believed already, that he was the best fighter in the world (incidentally, I’m a Jon Jones hater and I recognize that the man would’ve handed Stipe his ass any time over the past five years basically). He’s not moving up to add to his legacy, he’s moving up for two reasons.

First, even the biggest Jones fanboy in the world has to admit that Jones was going to lose his title soon. Since his rematch with Alexander Gustafsson, Jones has not looked good. He clearly beat Anthony Smith but it was a real ugly win and then he arguably lost to a Thiago Santos who didn’t have functioning knees and should have lost to Dominick Reyes. That’s a downward trajectory and even though in a vacuum you’d pick Jones to beat anyone at 205, at some point the die roll won’t go his way. Moving up to heavyweight removes that possibility from the game and ensures he will go down as, at worst, the greatest light heavyweight of all time.

The second reason Jones is moving up, and arguably the more pressing one, is Jon Jones wants to get PAID. Despite being arguably the best fighter ever, Jones has not made the money you would assume that moniker would earn him and he wants to correct that. Defend his title against Jan Blachowicz or Glover Teixeira again isn’t going to get him that. It’s only at heavyweight that Jones can draw real interest in watching him fight. Unfortunately for him, the UFC seems to value that interest far lower than he does.

Ultimately, this whole thing has only one outcome: Jones will eventually fight for the heavyweight title but it’s not going to be this year and it may not even be next year because the UFC is not going to meet his number and he’s going to need a reason to settle for less. Right now, he doesn’t have one. Why fight Francis Ngannou, a guy who may well knock him out violently, when next year, maybe he’s fighting Stipe Miocic or Cyril Gane instead, both men who are much easier fights for him. Time is on Jones’ side here and he’s going to take full advantage of that, as well he should.

Thanks for reading this week, and thank you for everyone who sent in Tweets! Do you have any burning questions about things at least tacitly related to combat sports? Then you’re in luck, because you can send your Hot Tweets to me, @JedKMeshew and I will answer them! Doesn’t matter if they’re topical or insane. Get weird with it. Let’s have fun.

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