A major middleweight match-up over two years in the making is on the marquee as Robert Whittaker and Kelvin Gastelum finally go to war at UFC Vegas 24 on Saturday night (Sunday morning SA time), writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Two of the toughest lightweights on the roster will battle it out in a banging co-main event as Jeremy Stephens and Drakkar Klose collide at the UFC APEX, while former heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski will aim to turn back the clock as he clashes with Chase Sherman.
Meanwhile, Abdul Razak Alhassan and Jacob Malkoun will meet at 185 pounds, lightweights Luis Pena and Alexander Munoz will look to make their presence felt and Ricardo Ramos and Bill Algeo will bring frenetic energy in their featherweight fight.
MAIN CARD (From Sunday 4 AM SA Time):
Robert Whittaker v Kelvin Gastelum (Middleweight)
A twist of fate put these two top middleweights on different paths and a twist of fate has brought them back together. Whittaker (22-5) was set to defend his middleweight title against Gastelum (17-6-1NC) at UFC 234 in 2019 but was forced to withdraw on the day of the bout after suffering a hernia that hospitalised him the previous night.
This time around, Whittaker’s original opponent, Paulo Costa, was forced to pull out due to illness in mid-March, opening the door for Gastelum to finally test himself against the former 185-pound king. There might not be a belt on the line, but it’s a golden opportunity for the headliners to stake a claim for a rematch with reigning champion Israel Adesanya.
Gastelum succumbed to Adesanya in an all-time classic at UFC 236, which earned “The Last Stylebender” the interim title and sent Gastelum on a downward spiral. In his next fight, he suffered a split decision loss when he welcomed Darren Till to the middleweight division at UFC 244 and things went from bad to worse when he was submitted by Jack Hermansson in the opening round at UFC Fight Island 2.
The 29-year-old snapped his losing skid when he outpointed Ian Heinisch at UFC 258 in February. It was nothing to write home about – no statement to re-enter the title conversation – but lady luck has smiled on Gastelum and a win over Whittaker could catapult him above the seven men ranked above him.
Eight months after his scheduled title defence against Gastelum was scrapped, Whittaker lost the gold to Adesanya. That second-round knockout loss at UFC 243 was the Australian ace’s first in five years, during which he amassed a nine-fight win streak.
“The Reaper” rebounded last year with back-to-back wins over Till and Jared Cannonier to cement himself as the top-ranked contender in the middleweight division and it would be hard to deny him the next shot at the title if he gets past Gastelum, especially should he do so with style points.
Whittaker’s the epitome of a complete fighter and has no weaknesses. His defeat to Adesanya came down to the Nigerian-born superstar’s unrivalled counter-striking rather than a hole in Whittaker’s game. He’s a warrior in spirit like he showcased in the classic wars over the championship against Yoel Romero and a genius in terms of fight IQ.
Gastelum’s well-rounded as well but his tendency to get sucked into his opponent’s game cost him in his biggest bouts. It happened against Adesanya and again against Till. He’s a standout wrestler but because he can handle himself on the feet, he doesn’t utilise his grappling as much as he should.
The problem here is that Whittaker’s takedown defence is excellent (84%), so even if Gastelum decides to employ more wrestling, the former champion should be able to keep it standing. At 6’0″, Whittaker’s the taller fighter by three inches and will have a two-inch reach advantage, but he doesn’t just have the edge on paper.
He’s lightning-quick and has excellent footwork, which I believe will be decisive against the stocky, slower and less agile Gastelum. Like he showed in the war against Adesanya, Gastelum’s super tough. He’s never been knocked out, so I expect Whittaker will get his hand raised after five full and entertaining rounds.
Jeremy Stephens v Drakkar Klose (Lightweight)
Stephens (28-18) is a straight-up savage. He loves nothing more than to stand and bang and is usually the last man standing. One of the hardest-hitting featherweights in UFC history, 19 of his 28 wins are by KO, while he also has two wins by submission.
He’s been on the short end of the stick in recent years, though, a slide that started with a brutal body shot by ex-champion Jose Aldo that finished their high-stakes showdown in 2018. He’s lost all three of his fights since, including suffering a crushing defeat at the hands (and elbows) of Calvin Kattar last time out, which made our top 10 knockouts of 2020 list.
As a result, Stephens is moving up to lightweight for the first time in nine years and Klose, despite the dangers he poses, is the ideal opponent first up. He’s the same size as “Lil Heathen”, so the latter won’t have to deal with a significantly taller and rangier opponent and as one of the bulkier and more powerful 145 pounders, Stephens should measure up well in the strength department.
Klose is also coming off a knockout loss, having been stopped by Beneil Dariush, and this should be every bit as crazy of a clash as that brawl was last March. That loss snapped Klose’s three-fight win streak, but a win over his most high-profile opponent to date would be bigger than those previous three combined.
All six of his last wins came by decision, which coupled with Stephens’ toughness, suggest he’ll have to be on his game for the full 15 minutes to pull out the win. Stephens has fought the very best, including several former champions. That experience and his wicked punching power should be the pathway to victory over up-and-comer Klose.
Chase Sherman v Andrei Arlovski (Heavyweight)
How Sherman’s fortunes have changed! This time last year, he was stranded in the wilderness. Having been cut from the UFC in 2018, he found himself back in the minor leagues and even took the gloves off for two bare knuckle boxing fights. A hat-trick of first-round finishes earned him a second shot in the UFC and he announced his return with a second-round stoppage of Ike Villanueva last May.
“The Vanilla Gorilla” (15-6) was set to take on Parker Porter but with the latter forced out of the fight last week, Sherman has been gifted a massive opportunity with former heavyweight champion Arlovski (30-20) stepping in on short notice.
At 42, Arlovski’s not as fast and explosive as he was in his prime, but he remains a pedigreed puzzle that’s tough to solve. “Pitbull” won three of four, all by decision, prior to his submission loss to Tom Aspinall in February, but that shouldn’t be a problem this weekend as he faces an out-an-out striker in Sherman, who’s won 14 of his 15 fights by knockout.
Arlovski has 17 KOs to his credit but the last came all the way back in the wild slugfest against Travis Browne in 2015. He’s wily and will probably look to mix it up en route to another decision. However, this is the biggest opportunity of Sherman’s life, so I expect him to be at his sharpest.
A few years ago, Arlovski would’ve smoked Sherman. At this stage of their respective careers, the 31-year-old Sherman will have the speed and power advantage to stop the legend with strikes and that’s how I see this one ending.
Abdul Razak Alhassan v Jacob Malkoun (Middleweight)
Setbacks set up this middleweight match-up. Alhassan (10-3) has suffered back-to-back losses for the first time in his career. Prior to his 2020 troubles, “Judo Thunder” was riding a three-fight win streak, which included the pummelling of double-tough Niko Price.
Meanwhile, Malkoun’s dream of entering the Octagon turned into a nightmare last October. The Australian endured a disastrous debut as he was finished in just 18 seconds by Phil Hawes. Rubbing salt in the wounds was the fact that it was the first loss of the rising star’s career.
Despite his recent form, Alhassan is 4-3 in the UFC. He’s a proven commodity and a knockout artist of the highest order, with all 10 of the Ghanaian gladiator’s wins coming by first-round KO. Conversely, the jury’s still out on Malkoun’s aptitude to make the step-up to the UFC.
“Mamba” has decent striking (two KOs and two decisions) but it’s highly unlikely that he’ll be able to hang with hard-hitting Alhassan. I see Malkoun looking up at the lights pretty early.
Luis Pena v Alexander Munoz (Lightweight)
Both men will be looking to bounce back after coming up short last time out. Pena (8-3) was submitted by Khama Worthy last July, while Nasrat Haqparast ruined Munoz’s (6-1) UFC debut two months later, handing him the first loss of his career.
Pena’s one of the tallest lightweights you’ll ever see, towering over opponents at 6’3″. Munoz is 5’9″ and will have to get inside his lanky foe’s three-inch reach advantage. They have solid striking and two knockouts each but don’t expect one here. Pena has seen the third round in seven of his 10 fights, including the last six on the trot, while Munoz has gone the distance in his last four.
The difference in mindset is Pena’s ability to finish fights in the final round, having done so twice. The difference in skillset is Munoz utilises a lot of wrestling, which falls into Pena’s wheelhouse as half of his wins are by submission. With not only his natural advantages but greater accuracy on the feet as well, “Violent Bob Ross” should outpoint Munoz like Haqparast did.
Ricardo Ramos v Bill Algeo (Featherweight)
A striker versus grappler clash. Algeo (14-5) will look to treat Ramos (14-3) like his last opponent, Lerone Murphy, who stopped him with strikes in the first round last July. Prior to that, Ramos won two in a row. He’s not clueless in the striking department, but with slick jiu-jitsu and a 50% submission finish rate, the Brazilian – who’s 5-2 in the UFC – will look to take it to the ground early and often.
After losing to veteran Ricardo Lamas in his UFC debut, Algeo rebounded with a win over Spike Carlyle last November. “Senor Perfecto” loves a good old-fashioned fist fight. He’s a high-volume striker and more than happy to take one to give one if need be, but Ramos’ isn’t a suitable dance partner for such a scrap. Algeo has known takedown defence troubles, which Ramos will target to get back on track.