UFC 234 Preview
By Alex Conway
UFC 234 from Melbourne, Australia will highlight not only the middleweight division but two budding stars from the Australia/New Zealand region that appear as if they are on a collision course in the not too distant future.
The main event features a middleweight title fight between champion Robert Whittaker and top contender Kelvin Gastelum. The co-main event is the real drawing power of the card and will have Israel Adesanya fighting Anderson Silva.
You could forgive fans for thinking this is a mini-tournament to determine not only who will end the night the champion but always who will fight for the belt next (sorry Jacare Souza).
Robert Whittaker vs. Kelvin Gastelum
Kelvin Gastelum is kind of a forgotten man in the promotional lead-up to this event. It isn’t often that pay-per-view sees a fight other than the main event get the most attention, but it really seems that Adesanya-Silva is the “people’s main event” and the title fight is only at the top because UFC policy dictates that it should be.
Factor in that Whittaker is a hometown fighter and Gastelum is a Mexican-American fighting in Australia and it’s easy to see why maybe he isn’t getting the love he probably deserves heading into his first UFC title shot.
Gastelum has big power in his hands and a quickness advantage over most middleweights. He’s undersized because he’s really a natural welterweight, but he’s found success because of his extremely fast hands that have only felt faster 15 pounds above the 170-pound welterweight limit.
He won’t find an opponent in Whittaker who is unfamiliar with his advantages though. Whittaker is also a former middleweight who moved up and found success at 185-pounds (obviously, he’s the champ). Whittaker isn’t undersized per se, but this will be the first fight in a while where he might be the more athletic fighter in a bout.
His last two fights were against Yoel Romero and before that Jacare Souza. Whittaker might be the most underrated champion in the UFC and although Gastelum packs a big punch, it won’t be anything Whittaker hasn’t seen before.
Romero is a better wrestler than Gastelum. Romero hits harder than Gastelum. Romero is trickier than Gastelum. He’s more athletic than Gastelum and Whittaker dealt with all of that over 10-rounds in back-to-back fights.
Whittaker did get tuned up the second time out against Romero and managed to survive, barely, so it wouldn’t be crazy to see Gastelum clip Whittaker and get the win. But I don’t see him out-grappling Whittaker, who has shown lights out takedown defense against Romero, Souza, and Derek Brunson and although he hasn’t had to show it, Whittaker is a decent grappler himself.
I also see Whittaker as the type of fighter who seems to get remarkable better in between fights. You can tell that he’s able to develop new tactics and techniques at a quicker than normal pace compared to his contemporaries. I think one of the biggest things working against him is prior ideas of who he was when he burst on the scene as a welterweight.
We saw him get knocked out against Stephen Thompson and decided he would be just another guy at 170-pounds.
But he’s been a dynamo at middleweight and I believe that run continues on Saturday night.
Israel Adesanya vs. Anderson Silva
This might be a hot take but Israel Adesanya isn’t the next Anderson Silva, and that isn’t meant as an insult at all.
It’s easy, and somewhat lazy, to draw the comparisons between the two. They both do fancy things on the feet and they both make striking look so effortless and smooth that it almost feels disrespectful what they are doing to their opponents.
But I don’t see Anderson Silva when I watch Adesanya fight. I see a guy who fights well from distance but also a guy who picks his shots and sits down on his punches a little bit more than the free-flowing Silva.
I also don’t see a ton of the antics that I think people normally associate with Silva from Adesanya. He doesn’t really showboat during the contest. He’s focused. He said after the Brunson fight that he “aims and fires” and this true. You can see his eyes completely focused in on his opponent at all times. You can see him gauging his target, loading the bullets into the gun and patiently waiting for the right time to snipe a kill shot.
Silva is more of an artist, and kind of an arrogant one at times. Outside of the cage and during interviews Silva can be super respectful with his words towards his opponents. He rarely engages in trash-talk and when he does, he does it in his own backhanded kind of way.
But inside the cage you can tell he takes inventory of everything anybody ever said about the fighter he’s fighting. You can tell when fans, or the media or fellow fighters have done something to get under Silva’s skin or when Silva thinks he has something to prove or believes a fight is beneath him.
Israel Adesanya isn’t someone who should be taken lightly, and Silva won’t, but don’t for a second think that Silva hasn’t taken it personally every time he’s heard someone insinuate that Adesanya is the next Silva, or that this fight was made so that the UFC could build Adesanya up off Silva’s name and legacy.
This is the type of fight where you might see the Silva you saw against Weidman the first time, or against Bisping, or Stephan Bonnar or Yushin Okami. You know, the guy who drops his hands and starts clowning.
And if he does that against Adesanya it will go horribly wrong for him.
Adesanya is faster, much faster than Silva at this point in their careers. Silva is 43-years old and hasn’t fought since February 2017. He’s had a little bit more pudge in the gut the last few times out and you despite the murky surroundings of his last PED issues, it’s still a factor to consider that maybe he had a little help during the twilight of his great UFC championship run where he was still mowing guys down in his late 30’s.
As exciting as this fight feels on paper, I think it will involve a lot of staring and a lot of clinching. Silva is really good at hand fighting and taking away his opponents ability to get a grip where they want, which helps him avoid big shots and takedowns. Adesanya has good clinching abilities so it’ll be interesting to see who wins that battle.
I also suspect that at distance both fighters will spend a lot of the 15-minutes trying to figure each other out and not become the first fighter to make a hasty mistake. A lot of people are predicting a gruesome night for Silva and believe Adesanya will knockout the legend.
He could, but Silva’s chin has actually been decent even at an advanced age. He took some shots against Brunson, ate a few against Bisping and kept going. He also recovered nicely in the second fight against Weidman when Weidman dropped him in the clinch.
When Silva broke his leg in the second round of that fight he appeared to have his wits about him. And the first fight he clowned himself right into a knockout loss more than Weidman really put it on him.
Still, I think this is Adesanya’s fight to lose. He’s got all the athletic advantages and is more than skilled enough to overcome any wily veteran savviness that Silva might throw at him.
I’m taking Adesanya in this one.