For the second consecutive weekend, the UFC’s middleweight division takes center stage. A pair of top-10 ranked fighters square off in the main event of UFC Fight Night: Whittaker vs. Gastelum.
Former champion Robert Whittaker bounced back after losing his title in 2019 by going 2-0 in 2020. He picked up decision victories over Darren Till and Jared Cannonier, and he will look to continue his streak into 2021 with his headlining affair against Kelvin Gastelum. Gastelum ended a three-fight skid when he defeated Ian Heinisch earlier in the year. A victory over Whittaker would go a long way toward Gastelum earning another shot against current champion Israel Adesanya after the pair battled in 2019’s “Fight of the Year.”
The co-headlining bout is a lightweight contest between longtime featherweight contender Jeremy Stephens and Drakkar Klose. Stephens makes the move up to 155 pounds after missing weight in his last outing and struggling recently at featherweight, where he went 0-4 with one no-contest over his last five bouts. Klose is another fighter looking to right the ship. He fell to Beneil Dariush in his last UFC appearance.
Heavyweights take the stage halfway through the main card when former champion Andrei Arlovski meets Chase Sherman. “Pitbull” had shown fans yet another resurgence by winning two straight contests before succumbing to a Tom Aspinall submission his last time out. Sherman is on a four-fight winning streak that includes a TKO victory in his return to the UFC after a three-fight stint outside of the organization.
Hard-hitting Abdul Razak Alhassan returns to the cage on a two-fight skid he hopes to snap when he meets Jacob Malkoun in a middleweight affair. The main card also features a lightweight contest between Luis “Violent Bob Ross” Pena and Alexander Munoz, plus a battle between featherweight prospects Ricardo Ramos and Bill “Senor Perfecto” Algeo.
For the last time before the promotion starts hosting events in arenas with capacity crowds, the company hosts this show in the UFC Apex in Las Vegas. The prelims air on ESPN and ESPN+ at 7 p.m. ET, followed by the main card at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the action this week as they go Toe-to-Toe.
Kelvin Gastelum was scheduled to meet Robert Whittaker once before, with the middleweight title on the line. When Whittaker was forced out of that bout, Gastelum instead fought for interim gold against Israel Adesanya in what would turn out to be the start of a three-fight skid for The Ultimate Fighter alum. Will Gastelum gain a small bit of redemption here against Whittaker?
Sumian: At one point in time, there was a strong case that Whittaker and Gastelum were the two best middleweights in the world. Their cancelled 2019 meeting was to be the deciding factor on who would reign supreme. Unfortunately, Whittaker was forced to pull out with multiple health issues, and Gastelum ended up on the wrong side of arguably the greatest fight of the year against Izzy. Nevertheless, both men are still ranked in the top 10 of the division with Whittaker firmly established at No. 1 and Gastelum checking in at No. 8 after his impressive rebound win over Ian Heinisch.
Despite the skid he’s endured, Gastelum has remained one of the best middleweights in the UFC. His battles with Adesanya and Darren Till were close fights, and his submission loss to Jack Hermansson was a combination of bad luck and poor decision-making. However, the former TUF winner returned to the win column with a safe and convincing decision victory over the surging Henisch. This win reminded fans of how consistent and well rounded Gastelum can be when he is on his game.
Gastelum’s offense is as well rounded as it comes. This is apparent from his 3.64 significant strikes and 1.22 takedowns per 15 minutes of action. He is particularly good at mixing his striking with his offensive grappling, which has translated into six knockout victories and four submission wins. His ability to hop in and out of the pocket while delivering powerful, calculated strikes makes him a dangerous foe for any middleweight despite his general trend of giving up a significant reach advantage. If Gastelum is able to defeat Whittaker in convincing fashion, then he might be one bout away from earning a rematch with the champion. The only problem? He must defeat the top middleweight contender who has looked better than ever since losing the title.
Whittaker is the most well-rounded and conditioned middleweight out there today, plain and simple. The former champ has turned in some of the most memorable bouts the division has seen, including two “Rocky-esque” five-rounders with Yoel Romero. Throughout his career, Whittaker has displayed a level of toughness, tenacity and determination that don’t necessarily match his personality or public image. However, at heart, the New Zealander is a true competitor who is extremely focused on returning to glory.
Whittaker’s mix of powerful striking, offensive grappling, constant movement, and frustrating pressure can give any middleweight a run for their money. Whittaker’s comeback knockout victory over Derek Brunson really displayed his toughness and willingness to dig deep. He has also defeated the likes of Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, the aforementioned Romero (twice), Jared Cannonier and Till. He’s fresh off two wins and likely only one victory away from a rematch with Adesanya.
Had this fight taken place back in 2018 when originally booked, Gastelum would have pulled off the slight upset and finished Whittaker via strikes in the middle rounds. However, that would have been against a hobbled, unhealthy Whittaker whose numerous injuries and health issues had plagued his title reign. Since losing the title, “Bobby Knuckles” has looked rejuvenated and better than ever. This fight will be competitive from the get-go and will not end in a finish. Instead, Whittaker will dance around Gastelum and use his superior footwork to offload numerous jabs and leg kicks. Meanwhile, Gastelum will struggle to mount any offense. Whittaker will claim the unanimous decision after battering Gastelum for five straight rounds and earn his long-awaited rematch with Adesanya.
Petela: Both of these men had very close yet altogether uninspiring fights with the aforementioned Till. Whittaker came out on top, whereas Gastelum fell short. This fight will look fairly similar to both of those contests, with neither man selling out with a surge of over-aggression. This bout will be contested at an incredibly high level, and any lack of action will be due to the amount of respect they have for each other’s skills.
The last thing either man wants to do is force an extended exchange and run the risk of taking a fight-changing punch. These two fighters are among the best in the world at recovering once they’ve been injured, and the wars they have both had prove as much. It’s unfair to question either man’s durability, but eventually those wars take a toll. It often happens in the blink of an eye, too. With both men being aware of their opponent’s striking prowess, this fight will be a slow-paced and methodical one throughout.
Ultimately, Gastelum will have his hand raised at the end of the 25 minutes. He will show that he has the slightly better footwork. He’ll be able to get in and out of punching range efficiently enough to show the judges that the two men are engaging on his terms and that he gives more damage than he takes.
A Gastelum victory will really shake up the middleweight division. Whittaker would have the inside track at a title shot with a win, but the UFC would be hard-pressed to award Gastelum that same opportunity only two fights removed from a three-fight skid. It might even provide recent winners Marvin Vettori and the aforementioned Brunson an opportunity to face off in a title eliminator.
Jeremy Stephens has not won a fight since 2018. Does that change when he clashes with Drakkar Klose?
Petela: No. If you look at each man’s last fight, this contest has fireworks written all over it. They both wound up on the wrong end of knockout losses, but they delivered entertaining wars up until that point.
This really has been “Lil Heathen’s” style for his entire career, and it’s why he has come up short in big spots. Now, with his back up against the wall and coming in on a five-fight winless streak, he’ll be going for broke even more than he usually does. Unfortunately, this will cause him to leave himself vulnerable and take a shot on the chin that he just can’t shake off.
Stephens is only 34 years old, but this will be his 48th pro fight. All those battles, not to mention the unknown amount of gym wars over the years, have taken their toll. He is getting close to the end of the road, and an emphatic loss to Klose will move him one big step closer to retirement.
Stephens is not the kind of guy the UFC will necessarily want to cut. His action-packed style is one the company prefers, but his days of being considered a legitimate title contender have sadly passed him by.
Sumian: We have seen Stephens in this position before. The former top-ranked featherweight has suffered multiple losing streaks throughout his historic UFC career that dates back to May 2007. Whenever he seems “done,” though, he snaps his skid with an unexpected victory and lands right back in the mix.
The biggest difference this time is his age and the wear and tear on his body. “Lil Heathen” has delivered some of the most incredible knockouts in featherweight history, but he has also suffered some fairly devastating losses, including an elbow knockout courtesy of Calvin Kattar in his most recent UFC bout.
Klose is as game as they come. He was on an impressive winning streak before suffering a knockout loss to Beneil Dariush after having hurt Dariush first.
This bout has “Fight of the Night” written all over it. It will likely end in a very vicious knockout. Despite all signs pointing to Klose coming out the victor, don’t be shocked if we witness one more classic Stephens moment and quite possibly the last victory of his UFC career. Despite never reaching star-level popularity, Stephens is one of the most memorable and entertaining UFC fighters in history and will undoubtedly be worthy of Hall of Fame recognition when his career does end.
Josiane Nunes and Lupita Godinez — do we need to know these names?
Sumian: The combined resume of these debuting fighters includes a five- and six-fight winning streaks, one undefeated record, and an overall 12-1 combined record. As a result, there should definitely be some noise here.
Nunes makes her Octagon debut after compiling a 7-1 record, including six wins via knockout. The women’s bantamweight prospect is a high-level striker who utilizes forward pressure and overwhelms her opponent with powerful flurries while looking for the knockout. The Brazilian has shown to be susceptible to the takedown, though. She makes her debut against Zarah Fairn, whose UFC campaign consists of back-to-back losses to Megan Anderson and Felicia Spencer. Nunes will send Fairn packing via first-round knockout.
Canada’s Godinez holds a clean 5-0 mark. She makes her debut against veteran Jessica Penne in a women’s strawweight clash. Godinez is a tenacious competitor who is more than willing to stand and trade blows in the pocket. Her powerful frame and fluid striking make her a dangerous opponent for any who are tempted to stand with her. Penne will likely work to get the bout to the ground, where she will be able to utilize her superior grappling. However, if Godinez is able to keep this fight on the feet, then it will only be a matter of time before she stuns Penne and earns her first UFC victory.
Petela: Nunes is not only a name fans should learn, but one they should be excited to see join the UFC roster and perform. She will be an instant star in the bantamweight division and quickly put some promotional veterans on notice. Nunes will deliver some highlight-reel knockouts while quickly emerging as a contender. She’s still a bit raw, but expect her to round out her skills rapidly.
Godinez is another fighter who will quickly find herself competing against the best the division has to offer. She is big for the weight class and can crack. She is in the unfortunate position of facing Penne, who despite a four-year layoff remains one of the best strawweights in the world. It’ll be a rocky start for Godinez, but she will rebound and make waves in her sophomore outing.
What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?
Petela: Justine Kish. Over her last four fights, she has just one victory. Prior to that stretch, she missed weight in a win over Ashley Yoder. Kish’s overall resume isn’t without impressive wins — she topped both Nina Nunes and Randa Markos — but those fights took place five and seven years ago, respectively.
The women’s flyweight division is notoriously shallow in talent, so Kish has likely had a longer leash than many other struggling veteran fighters. However, another loss this weekend will mark the end of the line. Her upcoming opponent, Tracy Cortez, has gone 2-0 since officially joining the UFC after being awarded a contract on Dana White’s Contender Series. Cortez will move to a perfect 3-0 with the promotion and effectively show Kish the door.
Sumian: Gerald Meerschaert. After turning in a very impressive performance against Deron Winn, Meerschaert has looked like a completely different fighter in knockout losses to Ian Heinisch and Khamzat Chimaev. Meerschaert is a towering and powerful middleweight who has a trend of not showing up in high-profile bouts. If he is to suffer his third knockout loss when he goes up against Bartosz Fabiński, then it could be enough to send him to a new home.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Sumian: Alexander Romanov and Juan Espino. These two heavyweights have combined for an impressive 23-1 record with 21 finishes. Both men pack sheer power and have a pattern of finishing their opponents swiftly and aggressively. This one is going to be fun for as long as it lasts.
Petela: Tony Gravely and Anthony Birchak. Frankly, neither man will climb to the top of the bantamweight division, but they match up well for a fan-friendly affair. Both combatants are relatively well rounded and can get the finish wherever the fight winds up. Birchak is the more credentialed grappler, though. This one will end with a submission win for Birchak, but not before several minutes of high intensity and a fun back-and-forth battle.
Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?
Petela: Alexander Romanov. All this Moldovan heavyweight does is finish fights: five by knockout, eight by submission, zero by decision. It was a technical submission via forearm choke in his last outing, and it earned him a post-fight bonus. Here, against Juan Espino, I expect him to pick up his sixth career knockout and another bonus.
Sumian: Abdul Razak Alhassan. Despite being in the midst of a two-figth skid, the highly skilled native of Ghanda has a knack for finding the chin of his opponent. He’ll get right on Sunday with a swift knockout of Jacob Malkoun to earn an extra paycheck.
Pair this card with…
Sumian: Redemption. This card should deliver multiple fighters who get back on track in their own respective ways. Robert Whittaker will punch his ticket to a rematch with Israel Adesanya and do his best to prove that he is now mentally and physically ready to perform to his fullest capability. Meanwhile, Jeremey Stephens, Adbul Razak Alhassan and Luis Pena will rebound from losses. This card will turn in some surprisingly fun bouts and a very entertaining co-main and main event.
Petela: Finally after one of the most ridiculous suspensions in MMA history, Jessica Penne is able to return to competition. That calls for celebration. Open up your wallet and shell out for a bottle of one of the world’s finest Scotches, Johnnie Walker Blue. At her peak, Penne was arguably one of the top three strawweights on the planet. The USADA suspension has caused her to miss four years at or near her prime. She’s now 38 years old, so she might not be fighting for much longer. However, her return certainly calls for a toast.
Main Card (ESPN and ESPN+, 10 p.m. ET)
MW: Robert Whittaker vs. Kelvin Gastelum
LW: Drakkar Klose vs. Jeremy Stephens
HW: Andrei Arlovski vs. Chase Sherman
MW: Abdul Razak Alhassan vs. Jacob Malkoun
LW: Luis Pena vs. Alex Munoz
FW: Ricardo Ramos vs. Bill Algeo
Preliminary Card (ESPN and ESPN+, 7 p.m. ET)
Women’s FlyW: Tracy Cortez vs. Justine Kish
HW: Alexander Romanov vs. Juan Espino
Women’s StrawW: Jessica Penne vs. Lupita Godinez
MW: Gerald Meerschaert vs. Bartosz Fabiński
Women’s BW: Zarah Fairn vs. Josiane Nunes
BW: Tony Gravely vs. Anthony Birchak
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