At first glance, Robert Whittaker vs. Kelvin Gastelum is an odd title fight.
The challenger holds a 5-1 record at middleweight, but most of those wins came against rickety husks of ex-legends. He starched an aging Michael Bisping and outpointed Jacare Souza, but found himself choked out by Chris Weidman. But Yoel Romero tried and failed twice to take the title and Jacare already has one loss to the champion. So, by default almost, Gastelum finds himself fighting for a title.
And we should all be very excited. Believe it or not, this is a dream fight.
Battle of the boxers
Every MMA fighter can punch, but very few can box.
Getting your fist from point A to point B barely scratches the surface. The best boxers understood when to throw a punch and when to hold back. Their feints vary in distance and speed as they orchestrate their opponent’s dance. As you’d expect, good boxers (even by MMA standards) are few and far between.
This fight gifts us with two.
There are times that champion Whittaker can appear downright sloppy. He’ll chase with alternating punches, shifting stances while running forward. Random haymakers always make an appearance. But the fancy highlights obscure some truly sublime hands.
If an opponent reacts too hard to Whittaker’s long jab, he won’t just feint; he’ll change it up like a baseball pitcher. He’ll just cock his jab, weight for his opponent to flinch and then fire it through the resulting gap. If it weren’t so strategically sound, you’d think Whittaker wanted to embarrass them. He’s masterful of feinting his opponent’s head into the place he wants it to be for his razor left hook.
Having a left hook as a money punch is impressive, considering Whittaker is an orthodox fighter.
In contrast, so much of Gastelum’s offense revolves around his 1-2 that his boxing can look downright rudimentary. But it’s the foibles in those two simple punches which set him apart from his peers.
Gastelum will feint his jab just enough for an opponent to lower their guard before firing it for real. Like professional boxers, Gastelum will step to one side of his opponent’s lead foot to change the angle of his left cross. Step inside and the cross will fly down the center line, splitting the guard. Step outside and the left will arc past the guard. Gastelum highlights are full of bamboozled opponents eating flush left hands, their defensive shell rendered a colander by a half step. That’s when he isn’t mixing in a slapping left hook or uppercut.
Never back down
Quick! When was the last time Robert Whittaker or Kelvin Gastelum was involved in a boring fight?
Gastelum is like that one friend we all hate; if you get the better of him in a fight, there’ll be another exchange coming very soon. One of the reasons so many of his opponents gas is that they stop fighting only when Gastelum decides to stop. Meanwhile, Whittaker thrives on pace. He loves punches in bunches and, if he can’t get near, is more than happy to fire kicks up the middle or to the head. And his left hook and uppercuts keep advancing opponents in check.
If there are lulls in the action, it is because such carnage preceded it that neither fighter can walk forward. Otherwise, someone will be throwing something.
Benefits of weight
While the trend varies across divisions, the average UFC fighter has gotten huge. The UFC’s lightweight division illustrates this trend most acutely, with top lightweights nearing 6-feet tall. Anderson Silva’s title reign ended at the hands of Chris Weidman, who stood 6-foot-2 with a 78-inch reach. Luke Rockhold took the belt from him and towered at 6-foot-3 with a 77.5-inch reach. Michael Bisping was the shortest among them but still stood 6-foot-1 with a 75.5-inch reach.
In the modern UFC, Whittaker barely reaches 6-foot and his reach is a couple inches short of the average as well. Gastelum seems downright hilarious, clocking in at 5-foot-9 with a 71.5-inch reach. You have to wonder why they’d leave welterweight behind when their frames would be competitive there.
But both men maximize the benefits of not cutting weight.
For starters, middleweight Whittaker and Gastelum possess the cardio for a five-round fight. Despite their active fighting styles, both men can shake off clean haymakers. At middleweight, Whittaker recovered from multiple massive punches from Yoel Romero when he went down from a single clean counter from Stephen Thompson at welterweight.
Whittaker is still the prohibitive favorite; his game is more complete and he has more experience on the big stage. But Gastelum has only gotten better with each fight and will take it to Whittaker. Through retirements and losses of higher profile fighters, MMA fans have unintentionally received their dream fight.
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