UFC 234 fight card -- Robert Whittaker vs. Kelvin Gastelum: Five storylines to watch
UFC heads down under for a critical middleweight title showdown, plus Israel Adesanya vs. Anderson Silva
With a pair of crucial middleweight bouts atop the card, UFC returns to Australia on Saturday promising thunder in the land down under at UFC 234. Rising star Robert Whittaker defends his 185-pound title against Kelvin Gastelum in the main event. Meanwhile, legendary former champion Anderson Silva faces the hottest prospect in the division in Israel Adesanya, with a title shot at stake for the winner.
That's not to say that this is a relatively deep card, however. In fact, it's completely top heavy. Still, let's take a closer look at the biggest storylines entering.
1. Robert Whittaker begins march towards stardom. A native of New Zealand who was raised in Australia, Whittaker returns home on Saturday in a headlining role that should serve as a litmus test for the UFC as to what it has commercially in this 28-year-old stud. Whittaker is fresh off a pair of hard-fought victories over Yoel Romero that helped raise his pound-for-pound credentials. Both fights, however, cost him a shot a momentum due to injuries that forced hiatuses of 11 and eight months, respectively, in the aftermath. The well-rounded and tough Whittaker enters on a nine-fight win streak and is unbeaten in the UFC since moving up to middleweight. He's also a sizable favorite over Gastelum, which means it will be interesting to see whether "Bobby Knuckles" can achieve the trifecta of winning dominantly, moving pay-per-view buys and hyping up a future all-Oceanic showdown with Adesanya (should he defeat Silva) that's in the discussion for most attractive fights the promotion could make. Should Whittaker accomplish all three, UFC would have no choice but to put the rocket pack of promotion behind him.
2. It's now or never for Kelvin Gastelum to achieve full potential. Even with the UFC's middleweight division currently undergoing a state of transition, hearing Gastelum named as Whittaker's next title challenger -- complete with a coaching spot on "The Ultimate Fighter" -- came as a surprise. His last four fights have served as a confusing microcosm of his roller coaster career. Gastelum knocked out an aging Vitor Belfort in 2017 only to lose the victory when he tested positive for marijuana metabolites. Four months later, he tapped out via arm-triangle choke to former champion Chris Weidman. His pair of victories which followed -- a knockout of Michael Bisping that never should've been sanctioned and a 2018 split-decision win over Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza -- failed to slam home the idea that he's deserving of a title shot. Prior to that, Gastelum's stubborn experiment as a welterweight netted him two defeats and constant issues making weight. Yet throughout all the chaos, Gastelum has routinely shown the same flashes of brilliance that won him the TUF middleweight tournament six years ago. Still just 27 and with very little pressure coming in as the decided underdog in his opponent's backyard, the table could be set perfectly for Gastelum to deliver the performance of his career. With UFC seemingly whetting their lips at the idea of a Whittaker-Adensanya fight later this year and the champion coming off injury, Gastelum may not ever get a chance as good as this to find out how good he can be.
3. Is Anderson Silva crazy or does he know something? There was a palpable shriek from hard-core mixed martial arts fans when it was announced that Silva, the beloved legend who is in the argument for G.O.A.T., accepted such a dangerous challenge against Adesanya, who has been labeled nothing short of a modern-day incarnation of the "Spider." The case against Silva is particularly damning. He's 43 and hasn't fought in two years. He's also 1-4 with a no contest since 2012. Even worse, his lone victory over Derek Brunson in 2017 was a disputed decision many felt he lost. Adesanya (15-0), meanwhile, faced Brunson in November and finished him in Round 1 with the sick precision of a predator playing with its prey before devouring it. On the surface, this has all the makings to end badly for Silva. Both fighters employ roughly the same style only the 29-year-old Adesanya, a former kickboxing star, is in his absolute prime. Yet when pressed into why he took the fight, Silva revealed he was promised a title shot by Dana White should he win. The decision certainly speaks to Silva's competitiveness and love for the sport, especially considering he recently said he has no plans to retire anytime soon. But unless he sees a glaring weakness in the dynamic Adesanya that can be exposed through timing and experience alone, it's hard to see a path to victory for Silva, who is not just facing the realities of a serious layoff, he has had trouble of late competing at a high pace for the full five minutes of a round.
4. Booking Silva provides UFC with the ultimate hedge bet. One has to give it up to UFC matchmakers on this one. Should all go as planned on Saturday, the fighter on the card with the greatest breakout star potential (Adesanya) gets an opportunity to be given the promotional rub from arguably the most beloved fighter in UFC history (Silva). Highlight-reel knockouts -- of which Adesanya has become a master in producing -- are one thing. But scoring the same type of finish against such a recognizable name and playing said highlight on ESPN's SportsCenter ad nauseam is a recipe for building a PPV star. Whether or not Adesanya is good enough to then capture the middleweight championship is irrelevant in light of building a must-see fight against the winner of Whittaker-Gastelum to determine the future of the division. But what if Adesanya isn't who we think he is? That's where the genius of this kind of matchmaking would come full bloom. UFC would be gifted with an emotional Silva victory that would grab the attention of casual fans considering his age and recent history. It would also set the stage for a PPV title about, likely against Whittaker, that gives yet another rising star a chance at an invaluable rub. UFC certainly can't script the outcome of fights but consider this a smart way to make sure the future at 185 pounds is incredibly bright, just the same.
5. Expect this to be the last time Israel Adesanya isn't in the main event. As mentioned above, he possesses the "human-highlight reel" gift of spontaneous artistry within the violent canvas of the Octagon. But Adesanya, a native of Nigeria who fights out of New Zealand, jumps off the screen even more when given a microphone. He's brash, controversial and intelligent. He also has a chance at being the biggest star of color UFC has ever known given his exciting style, intoxicating confidence and refusal to bend in the face of social norms and expectations. There have been many red-hot fighters over the years who seem ready for stardom. (Heck, there was even once a "Machida era" that seemed to end just as quickly as it began.) Very few of those fighters, however, have the mix of flash, poise, technique, boldness and vocal presence of Adesanya, who may provide flashes of Silva inside the cage but comes across more akin to Conor McGregor outside of it. Expect a victory on Saturday to announce "The Last Stylebender" as a full-time headliner from here on out.
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