From their days in The Ultimate Fighter, Robert Whittaker and Kelvin Gastelum have come a long way to reach the world stage.
On February 10 at the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, Australia, the former Ultimate Fighter tournament winners headline UFC 234 for the undisputed world middleweight championship. A native of Sydney, Australia but born in South Auckland, New Zealand, Whittaker defends his 185-pound world title against the fourth-ranked middleweight contender Gastelum.
Currently on a nine-fight winning streak, Whittaker owns a mixed martial arts record of 20 victories with four losses. Gastelum holds a 15-3 slate.
Whittaker made his way to the UFC by winning the welterweight tournament of The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes in 2012. Gastelum, on the hand, emerged as victor amongst 13 other middleweight prospects in The Ultimate Fighter: Team Jones vs. Team Sonnen which ran in 2013.
In 2018, both fighters were selected as coaches for the 28th installment of TUF, which featured male and female mixed martial artists from the heavyweight and featherweight divisions, respectively.
Fast forward to 2019, Whittaker and Gastelum find themselves on a collision course for UFC gold.
Whittaker: Back on track
Nicknamed “The Reaper”, Whittaker was elevated from interim to undisputed middleweight champion in December 2017, succeeding two-division titlist and future Hall of Famer Georges St-Pierre.
Whittaker’s missed the first half of 2018 due to a staph infection, derailing his title run in the division which also crowned Rich Franklin, Anderson Silva and Michael Bisping among others as champions. In his return to the octagon in UFC 225, Whittaker eked out a split decision win over Cuban sensation Yoel Romero in an exhilarating non-title fight. It marked the second time that Whittaker showed his mastery over Romero, whom he defeated via unanimous decision in July 2017 for the interim world title.
Whittaker now aims for an injury-free campaign in the UFC in 2019, in possession of the middleweight hardware.
Gastelum: Ready for the big stage
Since his upset win over Uriah Hall in the finale of TUF 17, Gastelum has figured in 13 UFC matches. However, Gastelum’s run in the UFC has been riddled with controversies. Aside from weight issues, doping allegations have muddled the career of the 27-year old Gastelum. The San Jose, California-born mixed martial artist missed out on a clash with Anderson Silva on June 2017 for testing positive for Carboxy-THC – a substance banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency.
After a submission loss on 2017 to former middleweight champion Chris Weidman, Gastelum rebounded with two big victories to earn a shot at Whittaker. The Kings MMA standout knocked out Bisping in the first round of their UFC Fight Night clash in November 2017. Six months after their bout held in in Shanghai, China, “The Count” announced his retirement from the sport due to an eye injury sustained during his scrap with Gastelum.
On May 2018, Gastelum faced jiu-jitsu black belt Jacaré Souza in the main supporting bout of UFC 224 in Souza’s home country of Brazil. In a back-and-forth fight, Gastelum escaped with a split decision victory over the submission expert.
It wouldn’t be a walk in the park for the reigning champion. Gastelum has proven to be a tough puzzle to solve, even for the other middleweight title contenders. His chin will be put to the test against Whittaker’s powerful punches.
If the encounter goes the distance, the defending champion might get the upper hand. Whittaker has shown his ability to grind out victories from fights that go the full route.
One thing’s for sure: this title fight would be an exciting one, as both Whittaker and Gastelum have been awarded with Performance and Fight of the Night honors in the past.