This weekend, Robert Whittaker takes on Kelvin Gastelum in an important fight in the UFC middleweight title picture. Meanwhile, champion Israel Adesanya moved up in weight in his last fight and faced light-heavyweight kingpin Jan Błachowicz as he aimed to become a two-division titleholder. Adesanya was unsuccessful in his attempt. In the aftermath, he outlined his intention to return to middleweight and defend his title. But who will stand across from him in the cage?
Darren Till was scheduled to fight Marvin Vettori on April 10, but he had to pull out of the fight after he sustained a broken collarbone in training. Till was subsequently replaced by Kevin Holland, who stepped back into the Octagon on short notice just three weeks after he lost to Derek Brunson. Much like Brunson had done, Vettori exposed Holland’s below-par takedown defense and dominated the fight on the ground.
The 27-year-old Italian displayed impressive conditioning and an ability to adhere to a game plan for five rounds. Vettori managed to break the record for the most takedowns landed in a UFC middleweight bout (11) and eased his way to a unanimous-decision victory with 50-44 scores on all three judges’ scorecards.
Somewhat surprisingly, Vettori received fan backlash in spite of his dominant victory. He was criticized for the perceived boring nature of the contest and for failing to finish an opponent who took the fight on short notice and had just been dominated in his last bout. The UFC has made unpopular decisions before by giving title shots to fighters coming off losses and uneventful wins, therefore the company isn’t likely to be deterred from giving Vettori a championship opportunity if it feels that is the right choice.
In his post-fight interview, Vettori called for that shot at the belt. He and Adesanya met previously in April 2018 when the New Zealander secured the win by split decision. Vettori has since won five fights in a row, the longest streak of any top-10 UFC middleweight. In recent years, the Italian has been critical of Adesanya and believes that he won their first encounter. In turn, Adesanya dismissed Vettori as a possible challenger and laughed at his claim to victory in the first bout between the two men.
The aforementioned former champion Whittaker was booked against Paulo Costa for this weekend’s main event, but Costa was forced to withdraw from the fight due to illness and was replaced by Kelvin Gastelum. Since his title loss to Adesanya in October 2019, Whittaker has rebounded with victories over top contenders Till and Jared Cannonier. A win over Gastelum would usually make a title shot a foregone conclusion, but this doesn’t appear to be the case here.
After his loss to Błachowicz, Adesanya made it known that his preference would have been to fight Till. However, the Englishman’s withdrawal from his fight has scuppered Adesanya’s plan and made it unclear as to who will become the champion’s next opponent.
After Whittaker’s win over Cannonier in October, the Australian stated that he wanted to fight Adesanya again but was in no rush to do so, citing a desire for time off for Christmas and for the birth of his child in January. UFC President Dana White subsequently claimed that the Australian “didn’t want” the fight against Adesanya. The former champ responded in an interview and said that his words were misconstrued. Whittaker reiterated his desire to fight for the title.
Whittaker has previously spoken about how he struggled to deal with the pressure of being a champion and how he felt relieved once he had lost the title. White and the UFC seemed to view this as a general lack of enthusiasm on Whittaker’s part for a title shot. This could damage Whittaker’s chance at the opportunity to avenge his loss to Adesanya.
Adding further confusion to the title picture is the fact that Adesanya and his head coach, Eugene Bareman, have both been vocal about their preference for a fresh match-up. Their wish is unlikely to be fulfilled, because the three top contenders — Whittaker, Gastelum and Vettori — are all fighters that Adesanya has faced before. In this instance, the Nigerian-born fighter’s success might work against him. Adesanya has already beaten five of the current top-10 middleweights. His reluctance to take on fighters he has already defeated was one of the main factors in his decision to move up to light heavyweight in his last fight.
Adesanya’s lack of motivation to face Whittaker might also stem from the one-sided nature of their first bout, which took place at UFC 243. Whittaker fought an uncharacteristically reckless fight, lunging in toward Adesanya and constantly falling short of his target. He struggled to deal with Adesanya’s elusiveness and was knocked down at the end of the first round, where he appeared to have been saved by the bell. Whittaker continued to struggle in the second frame and ended up getting caught by Adesanya’s counters, which led to a knockout loss.
With both Adesanya and the UFC seemingly hesitant to give Whittaker another shot at the crown, he might need to not only beat Gastelum but do so in emphatic fashion. Although it is not in his nature, Whittaker might also need to deliver a strong call-out of Adesanya in his post-fight interview to persuade the champion to take the fight.
If Gastelum manages to get past Whittaker, then he could get another shot at UFC gold far quicker than he had expected. Gastelum was scheduled to fight Whittaker in February 2019 for the belt, but Whittaker was forced to pull out on the day of the fight due to a collapsed bowel that required emergency surgery. Gastelum fought Adesanya for the interim title in April 2019 in what would be considered the “Fight of the Year” and one of the best fights in the history of the sport. In spite of the significant height and reach deficit, the Arizona native managed to hurt Adesanya several times in the fight. After a gruelling five-round war, Adesanya prevailed via unanimous decision, but Gastelum emerged with his reputation vastly enhanced.
Gastelum lost to Till via split decision in November 2019 and was submitted in the first-round by Jack Hermansson in his next bout in July 2020. At this point, Gastelum’s career appeared to be at a crossroads and the top of the division looked a long distance away. The 29-year-old ended his three-fight skid with a solid yet unspectacular decision win over Ian Heinisch at UFC 258 in February. He didn’t show the slick striking that made his fight with Adesanya such a competitive battle, but he now finds himself possibly just one fight away from competing for the title.
A two-fight winning streak after losing three in a row wouldn’t usually warrant a title shot, but Gastelum’s willingness to step up on short notice might be rewarded. To this day, he has inflicted the most damage on Adesanya out of all of the New Zealander’s opponents in his UFC career. The epic nature of their first encounter could also play on the minds of the UFC matchmakers and give Gastelum the title shot that he has been desiring for so long. A victory over Whittaker, who is widely considered to be the current second-best middleweight, might hold greater weight than Vettori’s five-fight winning streak.
This weekend’s main event has incredibly high stakes for the middleweight title picture. If Whittaker is victorious, then he should be the front-runner to fight for the title. “The Reaper” would have worked his way back to the top by defeating three of the best contenders in the division. He would also be the biggest draw for the UFC in a fight against Adesanya in comparison to the aforementioned challengers. Whittaker and Adesanya’s first bout was contested in front of a UFC record crowd of 57,127 in Melbourne, Australia. This Trans-Tasman rivalry would undoubtedly once again draw a big crowd in the Australasian region and generate one of the largest gates in the history of MMA.
If Gastelum has his hand raised this weekend, the opportunity for the UFC to do a rematch of the Adesanya fight might be too good to turn down despite Vettori possessing a superior strength of schedule. Another interesting fact to consider is that Gastelum and Vettori are teammates. They both train at Kings MMA gym in Huntington Beach, Calif. In this case, there will inevitably have to be a compromise as both fighters look to fulfill their ambitions of becoming world champion.
Vettori has established himself in the title picture at middleweight, but he is yet to become a popular name in the consciousness of the MMA community, unlike Whittaker and Gastelum. The negative fan reaction he received following his last fight also suggests that there is little appetite to see him compete for the title right now. He will likely need to win one more fight to get his chance at the belt, possibly against a fellow top-five fighter such as Brunson. Despite this, he did take Adesanya to a split decision and more time has elapsed since his first fight with the champ compared to Whittaker and Gastelum. He has done everything needed to earn a title shot and arguably lost his chance to definitively become the No. 1 contender through no fault of his own when Till suffered an injury. The fact that Holland’s stock plummeted following his loss to Brunson might have contributed to the lack of credit being given to the Italian following his own win over the American. Vettori has seemed to irk Adesanya with his incessant trash-talking over the years and goading Adesanya into a fight may be his best strategy to get a title opportunity.
Adesanya has become one of the biggest superstars in the sport, and with this comes the agency to dictate the direction of his career. This was evident from his move to light heavyweight in his last bout and interest in a possible superfight with Jon Jones that has also been talked about in the past by UFC President Dana White. Whichever direction he chooses to go, “The Last Stylebender” is likely to be presented with the challenge of beating the same opponent for the second time.
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