On Saturday (Feb. 9.) night, the UFC will return to the land Down Under, as UFC 234 is set to take place live on pay-per-view from the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, Australia.
And in the main event, fans will be in for a treat, as Australian Robert “The Reaper” Whittaker (20-4) will once again put his middleweight title on the line against former The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) winner Kelvin Gastelum (15-3-1) in what’s primed to be an exciting bout between two of the division’s brightest young stars.
The 28-year-old Whittaker has established himself as one of the very best fighters in the world since moving up to 185 pounds in 2014. In fact, he hasn’t lost a bout since, winning eight consecutive fights in the weight class. That stretch includes back-to-back stoppage victories over Derek Brunson and Ronaldo Souza before two-straight victories over the excellent Yoel Romero.
Stylistically, Whittaker has developed into a brilliant striker. With a background in traditional martial arts, “The Reaper” uses tremendous speed and accuracy in addition to a unique form of movement to attack his opponents from a variety of angles.
But the defending champion has also shown a keen ability to mix it up, feinting and changing speeds to catch opponents off guard while incorporating a variety of strikes and a wide array of kicks. Whittaker may not be known as the heaviest hitter, but he has shown the ability to finish fights, as nine of his victories have come via T/KO.
It’s also important to note here that Whittaker has a tendency to keep his hands low and has eaten some big shots for his trouble.
Though known primarily as a striker, he’s continuously improved his grappling game over the years. For example, Whittaker’s proven to be quite difficult to takedown, using his speed, footwork and improved wrestling skills to evade attackers. In two fights against Romero, a former Olympian and one of the best pure wrestlers in the sport, Whittaker avoided a startling 21 of 28 takedowns.
So if the fight does indeed hit the canvas, Whittaker isn’t out of his element. A brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, the champion owns five submission victories to his name. And he’s only been submitted once.
Moving onto the challenger, the 27-year-old Gastelum has also seen success since returning to Middleweight. In 2016, he went 3-1-1, picking up stoppage victories over Tim Kennedy and Michael Bisping in addition to a decision victory over Souza. The no-contest was also originally a stoppage victory for Gastelum, as he finished Vitor Belfort, though it was overturned after he tested positive for Marijuana.
The Mexican-American comes from a wrestling base, as he was a high school state champion in Arizona. But he has since transformed into quite an effective striker under the tutelage of Rafael Cordeiro at King’s MMA.
A pressure-fighter, Gastelum, who fights out of the southpaw stance, isn’t afraid to stand in the pocket and mix it up. Possessing crisp boxing skills and a powerful left hand, the challenger has only improved in this department, now possessing polished footwork and a better use of angles. He’s also mixed more kicks into his attack.
In terms of grappling, Gastelum does indeed come from a wrestling base as previously mentioned, though he’s seemed to shy away from that aspect of his game in recent years, seemingly preferring to strike. However, he does have strong takedown skills should he decide to use them and, at times, he’s shown a strong ability to scramble during grappling exchanges.
In regards to submissions, Gastelum is a black belt in 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu and has four submission victories to his record. He was taken down and submitted by Chris Weidman in their 2017 meeting, though Whittaker isn’t likely to implement a similar game plan.
All told, this fight is difficult to call. Expect it to play out primarily on the feet with Gastelum pressuring Whittaker and landing a few heavy shots if Whittaker doesn’t keep his guard up.
Whittaker, however, is the more multifaceted striker. His speed and footwork will control the distance and pace of the fight allowing his wide arsenal of accurate attacks to pick Gastelum apart en route to a decision victory.