UFC Vegas 24: Robert Whittaker eases past Kelvin Gastelum, eyes Adesanya next

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - APRIL 17: (R-L) Robert Whittaker of Australia kicks Kelvin Gastelum in a middleweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on April 17, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

During a middleweight matchup three years in the making, Robert Whittaker handily beat a durable Kelvin Gastelum on the judges’ scorecards, once again retaining his #1 ranking while making his case indisputable to finally rematch champion Israel Adesanya later this year.

Wonderful Whittaker leaves Gastelum in his wake

Whittaker had 50-45 scores across the three judge panel against a spirited Gastelum effort

50-45, 50-45, 50-45: Robert Whittaker defeats Kelvin Gastelum via unanimous decision

Gastelum started purposefully in the opening exchanges, but his enthusiasm was swiftly curbed as Whittaker went to work as he always promises to do.

On two occasions in quick succession, the former 185lb champion landed nice combinations – a left hook and right-footed high kick which hurt Gastelum enough to erase that encouraging start.

He completed a takedown shortly afterwards and made sure to finish round one in full control as the urgency from Kelvin’s corner continued increasing with each passing round. They knew how important this matchup was, as far as the 29-year-old’s championship ambitions are concerned.

As if he, or the viewing audience, needed a reminder of the stakes: the cameras panned to Marvin Vettori (#3) watching his teammate Octagonside, having done his job well last weekend.

Vettori has long called for an Adesanya rematch and was closer to victory than Bobby Knuckles, though his resume isn’t exactly comparable – something this latest display also emphasised.

Gastelum wasn’t feinting enough or keeping Whittaker guessing whenever he charged forward to close the distance, so found himself eating multiple shots as the head strikes absorbed counter was at 33 through 10 minutes, already wearing the damage to his face and down two rounds too.

Although they exchanged hard shots at times in round three, Whittaker never looked threatened and unloaded with painful leg kicks that Gastelum couldn’t mask despite his best poker face.

His boxing combinations were crisp, continuing to pick him apart and while Kelvin’s durability cannot be questioned, there was a sense of inevitability that a stoppage could be on the cards.

Gastelum had wobbly legs and was absorbing more damage to boot, as Whittaker interchanged high and low kicks while showcasing his quick hands and counters whenever they came in close.

Gastelum’s problem?

He was still interchanging too much, not doing enough feinting or counters, and Whittaker’s speed advantage helped dictate the bulk of their exchanges in the pocket while also being able to frequently manoevure into favourable positions, making him miss.

It’s one thing to see what someone’s doing wrong, and another to adapt accordingly. Right on cue – Gastelum finally secured his first takedown (1 of 5 attempts) but it was short-lived as The Reaper powered back up off the fence quickly. Seeing such a quick getup felt demoralising.

Round five had arrived and Gastelum needed a finish if he was to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but besides a spirited blitz early on, Whittaker was dictating proceedings.

He set up his offense with subtle cues, whether it was side-to-side movement to keep Gastelum guessing or timing his takedowns perfectly (4 complete on 7 attempts).

He secured two single-leg takedowns and despite being comfortably ahead on the scorecards, still tried securing a finish as Gastelum fought off what would’ve been a submission attempt.

Gastelum landed 70 of his 218 strikes attempted over 25 minutes – an average of 2.8 per minute

Whittaker-Gastelum strike totals
R1: 33-8
R2: 44-16
R3: 38-20
R4: 33-13
R5: 21-13 —
Whittaker: 169 of 303 attempted, 56% success — Gastelum: 70 of 218 strikes, 32% success

Gastelum believed he’d grown a lot and experienced somewhat of a career restart after his most recent win at Ian Heinisch’s expense in February, but despite the forward-thinking approach, he was firmly second best during a stylistic matchup he had confidence in beforehand.

Sure Kelvin’s durability was admirable, but Whittaker was far superior by contrast and produced an even better all-round display than against Darren Till and Jared Cannonier last year.

Paulo Costa (#2) pulled out through illness, but Whittaker wasn’t prepared to take him lightly – especially with a considerable rankings drop by comparison.

He covered his bases, was prepared for resilience and toughness, and delivered as expected against a short-notice opponent who had plenty to gain by producing a statement victory here.

During his post-fight press conference, he said:

“It’s just another one [win] in the pile, a hard fight, went the distance and they suck – fighting 25 minutes against a dude that won’t go away, have to keep hitting and hits like a truck the entire time… it sucks, but this is what I do, how I earn a living and who I am.”

He suggested New Zealand in September as a location and rough date, while also adding:

“If you beat them all, you’re at the top. There is no fight that makes sense for me other than that title shot.”

His improvements are sure to make the Adesanya rematch more compelling viewing, as the pair seem a class above the rest of the middleweight division.

Rest of four-fight main card

Arlovski still going strong

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - APRIL 17: In this handout photo, (R-L) Andrei Arlovski of Belarus punches Chase Sherman in a heavyweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on April 17, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Arlovski was under pressure in round one but bounced back expertly, like the true veteran he is

29-28, 29-28, 29-28: Andrei Arlovski beats Chase Sherman via unanimous decision

As the original co-main event at lightweight between Jeremy Stephens and Drakkar Klose was pulled just hours beforehand, this served as the replacement.

After Tom Aspinall’s impressive submission win over him in February, it was easy to somewhat forget about Andrei Arlovski and the post-lockdown body of work he was building beforehand.

Two decision wins over Philipe Lins and Tanner Boser, both essentially rising contenders who were expecting to beat him, that he outstruck and outsmarted like the true veteran he is.

Chase Sherman, in his second UFC stint, found himself in a similar position – a win over someone with Arlovski’s resume and legendary prestige would do wonders for his career going forward.

Perhaps that’s why, despite being agitated at the 42-year-old’s reluctance to stand and bang with him, he asked the former heavyweight champion to sign his fight gloves afterwards.

Arlovski outstruck him (109-99) and landed more significant shots (105-88) over three rounds, which might’ve seemed surprising upon reflection if you just watched the first few minutes.

Sherman was aggressive, pushing the pace and visibly hurt Arlovski as round one was drawing to a close. Surely he’d continue with more of the same?

Not quite. Arlovski didn’t let him: landing jab combinations and finding his striking range with more efficiency in round two before controlling him across the fence.

Round three, and Arlovski’s cardio was key as he circled wisely, picked his moments to attack and continued hurting Sherman with more jabs as well as leg kicks. Judging by Sherman’s aforementioned verbal frustration, he knew the former champ had done enough now to prevail.

In his post-fight interview, Arlovski thanked the UFC for giving him “another tough kid” in Sherman – having come in as a short-notice replacement for Parker Porter, Sherman’s original opponent. He wants a few more years and remains an effective gatekeeper at heavyweight.

Whittaker’s teammate Malkoun with a foreshadowing display

Malkoun kept Alhassan at an arm’s length throughout while frustrating him with wrestling

30-27, 30-27, 30-27: Jacob Malkoun beats Abdul Razak Alhassan via unanimous decision

With his teammate Whittaker watching backstage, Australian middleweight Malkoun returned to winning ways – six months after being starched in just 18 seconds against Phil Hawes at UFC 254.

Much had been said about Alhassan’s knockout power, though a fair criticism was levelled at the Ghanaian – if the fight goes longer than a round, he’ll lose.

That was again the case here, making a return to middleweight after successive welterweight misses during his previous two post-lockdown defeats to Mounir Lazzez and Khaos Williams.

Malkoun was evasive when he needed to be, keeping him at distance until he felt comfortable enough engaging and importantly, doing his utmost to wear on the 35-year-old.

It was a tactic that worked wonders, as he raced to three early takedowns and continued to frustrate Alhassan by wrestling him to ground wherever possible. After all, the knockout threat is significantly diminished when your opponent is too busy worrying about frequently getting up.

He completed eight of 24 takedown attempts (33%), a commendable effort as Alhassan couldn’t adjust nor maintain separation long enough to keep the fight at range – Malkoun stuck to the gameplan and wrestled well, coming dangerously close to a submission victory in round two.

Whittaker passionately applauded his training partner’s display in the back, as Malkoun showed he – and Australians as a whole – could wrestle, before Rob produced some of his own later on.

Split decision galore, as cortez and pena prevail on scorecards

Cortez (on top, in black) proved too much for Kish to handle, despite enduring a strong R3 showing

29-28, 28-29, 29-28: Tracy Cortez defeats Justine Kish via split decision

In a catchweight bout at 126.5lbs, Tracy Cortez (9-1) continued her winning streak during a flyweight return that got off to a rocky start after narrowly missing weight on the scales.

Nonetheless, she earned almost six minutes of ground control time, landed 66 significant strikes and completed three takedowns en route to a split decision win over Justine Kish.

“I feel great, really good. I wanted to mix it up, was a little shocked that they gave her [a winning scorecard] was pretty confident I won two rounds.

I wanted to be well-rounded, not fight her fight, fight mine… whether it was striking, kicking, taking her to the ground. I do want to be active, stay in the flyweight division and make a name for myself.”

Now 1-4 in her last five fights, Justine acquitted herself well but absorbed the more impactful shots over three rounds while her takedown defence wasn’t good enough either (2/5 stuffed).

Following an extended layoff, Pena (left) returned to winning ways at Munoz’s expense

29-28, 28-29, 29-28: Luis Pena defeats Alexander Munoz via split decision

After suffering a third-round submission defeat by Kharma Worthy last summer, lightweight Luis Pena returned to winning ways and had to do it the hard way with a split decision result, outlasting Dana White’s Contender Series graduate Alexander Munoz to kick off the main card.

There was only an eight-strike differential between them (90-82), while Munoz completed four of his nine takedown attempts to boot. Was Violent Bob Ross worried about losing on the judges’ scorecards though? Not quite, if his post-fight interview is anything to go by.

“He did some good work but I was pretty confident, did what I wanted to, he got some takedowns that I shouldn’t have let him get… landed some calf kicks but no real damage or land anything that hurt me on the feet.”

He cited his long layoff – nine months since his last Octagon appearance – as one of the reasons why he started sluggishly, suggesting he’d like another matchup sooner rather than later in what critics argue is the promotion’s most competitive division to truly crack at the highest level.

Prelim results as penne returns, meerschaert makes history

Jessica Penne (left) celebrates as the final scorecard is read out – her first UFC win since 2014

Heavyweight prospect Alexander Romanov maintained his unbeaten record (14-0) but had a nervous wait on the judges’ scorecards, after being rendered unable to continue as Spain’s Juan Espino landed an accidental knee to the groin in the clinch against the cage early in round three.

Following a lengthy medical assessment and help from his Moldovan translator, Romanov confirmed his pain was such that he couldn’t stand up unassisted – let alone continue – so the fight would be judged on action to that point. Another split decision result: 29-28, 28-29, 29-28.

After a four-year layoff after struggles with USADA for drug suspensions, former women’s strawweight title challenger Jessica Penne snapped a three-match losing streak against short-notice opponent Lupita Godinez, who vacated her LFA strap to debut in the Octagon.

Ultimately she lost her perfect record (5-1) after a closely-fought encounter, which featured plenty of grappling exchanges and a few slams for good measure during an invaluable experience she’ll learn plenty from, being too comfortable to engage in the clinch with a veteran who, despite losing a significant chunk of her career, hasn’t lost a step in regards to fight IQ.

She lost via split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28) and unsurprisingly, Penne was emotional during her post-fight interview with Bisping.

“I don’t really have words, want to say thank you to my corner, everyone who kept cheering me on … I thought I got it [the decision] but you never know, it’s really nerveracking but put my heart and soul out there, I’m just really happy.”

After going just 91 seconds in his last two fights, suffering successive defeats against Ian Heinisch and Khamzat Chimaev last year, veteran middleweight Gerald Meerschaert had another early night – this time making history to stun Bartosz Fabinski in two minutes.

He earned the 24th submission win of his career and is now the division’s leader with six submission victories, surpassing welterweight contender Demian Maia and others besides.

Lightweight Austin Hubbard returned to winning ways with a decision win (29-28 x 3) over promotional debutant Dakota Bush, who went 5-2 in the LFA before his Octagon appearance.

After suffering a third-round submission defeat on his UFC debut last year, Contender Series alum Tony Gravely has strung together successive bantamweight wins and completed that feat with an impressive second-round stoppage here.

A sudden, but vicious left hook caught Anthony Birchak beautifully – before a subsequent hammerfist was the necessary finishing touch needed as referee Mark Smith swiftly interevened to wave off the contest in a brief but brutal start to the prelims on a 10-fight card. Watch it here:

Picture source: Getty Images

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