Robert Whittaker won’t say it, but others (rightly) said it for him. He should fight for another UFC championship now.
The former middleweight champion meets Kelvin Gastelum at the UFC Fight Night in Las Vegas on Saturday. That fight was supposed to take place in February 2019 – when Whittaker was still holding the belt – but it fell through the day of the event when Whittaker was hospitalized and needed emergency surgery.
Whittaker (23-5) versus Gastelum (17-6) is a stellar matchup at £ 185 and the sport is delighted about it – but it’s worth noting that Whittaker makes more.
He has won 11 of his last 12 bouts in the UFC, including two consecutive title bouts in five rounds against Yoel Romero. His only stumble was against Israel Adesanya, who is still the champion, in October 2019. Since that loss, he has decisively beaten Darren Till and Jared Cannonier, both of whom could have earned a title shot if they had beaten him.
This weekend, there is no question that Whittaker is number 1 in the division. However, the UFC did not recognize him as such. And Adesanya has never shown interest in a second fight.
Fortunately for Whittaker, he doesn’t care. He was never the type to call for a title shot, even when reporters basically told him to. He has said he would welcome a rematch with Adesanya, but he will not specifically pursue it. In the run-up to this fight against Gastelum, he has repeatedly said that his entire focus is on Saturday and that his calendar does not exist beyond that.
Whittaker’s mentality is an asset to the sport as we’re going to see a sensational five-round fight this weekend – one that would have been for a UFC championship two years ago.
We’re all happy to have this. But in a sport where title shots are sacred and there is such a big difference between being a champion and not, some in Whittaker’s position would never have entered the fight. So if he doesn’t get the title he deserves this weekend, we should at least recognize him as the # 1 unofficial contender.
By the numbers
798: Days it will have been Saturday since Whittaker and Gastelum were originally supposed to fight. Her middleweight title fight at UFC 234 on February 10, 2019 was canceled that morning after Whittaker was hospitalized for emergency surgery to treat an abdominal hernia and collapsed bowel.
10: Whittaker wins the middleweight division in the UFC, making him one of 12 fighters with double-digit wins in the division. Among the active 185 pounders, only Brad Tavares, 13, Derek Brunson, 13 and Chris Weidman, 11 have more UFC wins.
675: Major hits landed at Whittaker as the UFC middleweight division, fifth highest in the division’s history, behind Michael Bispings 1,384, Chris Camozzis 800, Anderson Silvas 770 and Tavares 753.
13: Knockdowns from Whittaker and Gastelum combined in the UFC middleweight division. Whittaker has seven, the fourth most popular among the active 185 pounders, and Gastelum is right behind with six.
7: Fight night bonuses for Whittaker (four for the fight of the night, three for the performance of the night) linking him to Weidman, Israel Adesanya and Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza for most active middleweights. Gastelum has earned four bonuses (three each for fight and performance of the night).
Sources: ESPN Stats & Information and UFC Stats
Five against five
The latest results from Robert Whittaker
Prize: Jared Cannonier (UD, October 24, 2020; see ESPN +)
Prize: Darren Till (UD, July 26, 2020; see ESPN +)
Loss: Israel Adesanya (KO2, October 6, 2019; see ESPN +)
Prize: Yoel Romero (SD, June 9, 2018)
Prize: Yoel Romero (UD, July 8, 2017)
The latest results from Kelvin Gastelum
Prize: Ian Heinisch (UD, February 13, 2021; see ESPN +)
Loss: Jack Hermansson (Sub1, Jul 19, 2020; see ESPN +)
Loss: Darren Till (SD, November 2, 2019; see ESPN +)
Loss: Israel Adesanya (UD, April 13, 2019; see ESPN +)
Victory: Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza (SD, May 12, 2018)
And the winner is …
“”[Whittaker] likes to get into a bit of firefight, “said Fight Ready pop trainer Eddie Cha.” I think he understands what it’s about; He’s likely next in line for a title shot. You’d think he’d follow a game plan and fight a little smarter and safer. “
Check out Here as Cha and other experts break down and predict a winner for the main event on Saturday.
How to watch the fights
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Saturday’s battle card
ESPN / ESPN Deportes / ESPN +, 10 p.m. ET
Robert Whittaker versus Kelvin Gastelum | medium weight
Jeremy Stephens versus Drakkar Klose | Light
Andrei Arlovski versus Chase Sherman | Heavyweight
Abdul Razak Alhassan versus Jacob Malkoun | medium weight
Luis Pena versus Alexander Muñoz | Light
ESPN / ESPN Deportes / ESPN +, 7 p.m. ET
Tracy Cortez versus Justine Kish | Women’s flyweight
Alexander Romanov versus Juan Espino | Heavyweight
Jessica Penne versus Lupita Godinez | Straw weight
Gerald Meerschaert versus Bartosz Fabinski | medium weight
Austin Hubbard versus Dakota Bush | Light
Zarah Fairn against Josiane Nunes | Women bantamweight
Tony Gravely versus Anthony Birchak | Men bantamweight
Five More Things to Know (from ESPN Stats & Information)
1. Jeremy Stephens will aim for his first win since 2018 when he takes on Drakkar Klose in the co-main event. It will be Stephen’s 34th UFC fight, the fourth most popular of all time. Jim Miller leads at 37, one more than Donald Cerrone. Andrei Arlovski will make his 35th appearance on Saturday.
2. Arlovski’s opponent, Chase Sherman, leads all active heavyweights with 6.02 significant hits per minute.
3. Luis Pena, who competes against Alexander Munoz, is third among the active lightweights in terms of both control time (45.8%) and top position (40.1%).
4th Tracy Cortez has won eight straight fights since her pro debut in 2017. She faces Justine Kish, who has lost three of her last four.
5. Alexander Romanov is 13-0, and all of those victories come home. His heavyweight opponent Juan Espino had a punch accuracy of 80% and a cut-off accuracy of 77% in his two UFC fights.
ESPN’s Jeff Wagenheim contributed to this bout preview.