UFC 234: Whittaker vs. Gastelum Picks
UFC 234: Whittaker vs. Gastelum Picks
When: Saturday, February 10, 2019
Where: Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne, Australia
Robert Whittaker defends his UFC Middleweight Title against Kelvin Gastelum in the UFC 234 main event. This fight will take place in Melbourne but will air in primetime in the USA. Whittaker, fighting in his homeland, was named full-fledged champion with Georges St. Pierre stepping aside and on the basis of two wins over Yoel Romero. Whittaker, 28, has established himself as one of the best in the UFC—a vastly-improved fighter who has taken over since rising from 170 pounds. In Gastelum, 27, Whittaker will be facing a very talented and rising commodity that has also looked a lot better since moving up from welterweight. Who will get the upper hand in this one?
Robert Whittaker, 20-4 (9 KOs, 5 Submissions), (-255) vs. Kelvin Gastelum, 15-3 (6 KOs, 4 Submissions), (+215)
Robert Whittaker’s UFC Middleweight Title defense against Kelvin Gastelum is a superb main event in UFC 234, a fight that lends itself to any number of different breakdowns. The champion Whittaker is riding high on the crest of 9 straight victories. The last two coming against feared Yoel Romero lends an air of legitimacy to his current ascent. But with wins over Jacare and ex-champ Michael Bisping, Gastelum has distinguished himself as a true-blue threat. He is very nice with his hands, rounded out by other skills that make him a real force.
The locale of this fight is notable—in Whittaker’s homeland, which is halfway around the world from Gastelum’s home-base. But the fight coming in the morning somehow makes it less of an edge for the champion, even more so when considering Gastelum’s road-resume. With seven fights outside the U.S., Gastelum has fought in China, Brazil, Canada, and Mexico. And he has been successful, so if it’s an advantage for Whittaker, it’s not by a lot. This fight will come down to skills, not geography.
Each man has the common trait of having risen from 170 and having thrived as a result. Whittaker was weight-drained at 170, and his energy and overall vitality have increased exponentially since the rise in weight. The results speak for themselves, as he has run roughshod over an impressive roster of 185-pound opposition—the two wins over Romero, Uriah Hall, Derek Brunson, and Jacare. Gastelum, meanwhile, has had his share of triumphs and failures in his MMA career. He took a few losses, had weight issues, and a failed a test for marijuana that overturned a win over Vitor Belfort. And his run at 185 pounds has had its rockier moments, including a submission loss to Chris Weidman.
Both men are smallish middleweights, a little on the squat side. Whittaker has a few inches of “height and reach” on the challenger. They are roughly the same age, as well. Both fighters made their bones on The Ultimate Fighter, each winning their seasons. And while both men are well-versed in other aspects of the sport, they rely heavily on strikes and are both very nice with their hands. Both men are at the top of a very competitive division.
While Whittaker has seen a spotless road of wins since rising to 185, Gastelum hasn’t quite peaked in the same fashion. At the end of the day, with all respect to Gastelum’s rise to contender status, he hasn’t managed the same level of success—yet. At 27 and with some rocky passages to this point, those types of setbacks are in many ways typical in the career-trajectory of a fighter, even a championship-level one. He is still just 27 after all, having come into the fold not long after his 20th birthday. Not that his shortcomings shouldn’t be acknowledged, obviously, but some of the mistakes he has made and the issues he had are part of the growing process. And only the ex-champ Weidman has been able to decisively beat him, as his other losses are by split decision.
Whittaker doesn’t exactly come into this fight on a crescendo, with just one fight last year. He saw another fight fall out due to a difficult staph infection. Whittaker has impressed with his heavy hands, as he can do damage with a variety of punches. His last setback was in 2014 at 170 pounds to a dangerous fighter in Wonderboy Thompson. There isn’t much to criticize since that fight, as he has shown he can end a bout violently, while also having the staying power to win a five-round fight. Conversely, Gastelum has been 5 rounds just once, in a loss to Neil Magny over three years ago.
I’m not entirely sold that Whittaker will be able to surface in time for this fight at a full 100%. He only had one fight last year, seven months ago in a war against Romero where he broke his hand. With that being his second struggle with the mighty Cuban, one wonders if the wear and tear will start to resonate. It’s just that his road to this spot has been a more punishing one than Gastelum’s path. By the same token, where would Gastelum stand after two fights with Romero? Could he even beat Romero, much less twice? Granted, styles make fights, but even that might not help Gastelum. A fighter who relies a lot on his hands, he’s running into a reigning champion who might have a heavier punch and a crisper overall boxing style.
A lot of this analysis is mooted by the fact that you’re talking about a champion versus a challenger. Naturally, the champion is going to have the more-sterling resume. But in the last handful of years, Whittaker has been able to reach a higher plateau of fighting. You can look at the skills, potential, and any number of other variables to handicap a fight. But you can’t overlook a fighter’s simple ability to deliver in a pinch. In that regard, Whittaker stands out as the more-bankable choice.
When looking at both fighter’s recent history, a lot evens out. Then one reflects to Weidman’s win over Gastelum, where the challenger looked lost on the ground and a bit out of his element. Whittaker destroyed Jacare in memorable fashion, while Gastelum labored to a split decision. In total, Whittaker has been able to establish more separation between himself and his foes. Gastelum has been in a lot of close ones. He sometimes fights down to the level of competition, but fighters like that can also rise to the level of a better fighter.
At the end of the day, there are a few facts that are hard to ignore. I feel Whittaker’s maturation into a middleweight was more organic than that of Gastelum, who would maybe still be at 170 with more discipline. That could qualify as speculation, but I don’t think it’s unfair to say Whittaker has been the more professional of the two in his career. As the two careers of these fighters intersect, I see the timing favoring Whittaker. I’m going with the champion in this one.
My Pick to Win: I’m betting on Robert Whittaker at -255 betting odds at BetOnline for their higher limits. What Gastelum does best in an area where he is outshined by Whittaker, which is boxing. With greater experience and more bankability in these 5-round spots, I see it being enough to get Whittaker to the finish line at least a nose ahead.