UFC 234 is constructed like a boxing card: two big fights at the top and a bunch of batting. Unless you’re an incorrigible MMA diehard, you’ve probably never heard of Wuliji “The Beastmaster” Buren, who will kick off the prelims from Melbourne, Australia on Saturday. Nor of Kai Kara-France, a flyweight who will fight live on ESPN here in the U.S.. Interestingly, Kara-France doesn’t have a nickname so much as a command: “Don’t Blink.” (Even more interesting: He hasn’t knocked anybody out in his last four fights).
Is it a shallow card? UFC president Dana White always likes to say that you can’t judge an event until it plays out, which is a hypemonger’s way of saying, “Gimme your money before you judge it.” The truth is, Rani Yahya’s fight with Ricky Simon—which is the swing bout on the pay-per-view main card—may end up being a barn burner, but Saturday night’s PPV is all about the two big attractions: the middleweight title fight between Robert Whittaker and Kelvin Gastelum and the legacy baton-pass between Anderson Silva and Israel Adesanya. If the UFC can convert a few woodwork figures into real-life human beings along the way, all the better.
But this event is also an opportunity for the UFC to caffeinate the slouching middleweight ranks and create a springboard for a Big Public Demand. That is, get the much-adored Adesanya across in a big-time way and make it so he looks like the inevitable challenger for the winner of Gastelum-Whittaker. If Adesanya can get a title shot, middleweight will get a shot in the arm. If Adesanya becomes a champion in 2019? He very well could be the biggest figure in the UFC by the end of the year.
That’s the setup, and here’s a breakdown of the action and implications:
Round 1: Reminder: “Bobby Knuckles” Is Still Scary AF
For many years, the beast in waiting at middleweight was Yoel Romero—a preternatural Cuban muscle slab who always seemed to Hulk smash whoever the UFC threw at him before shouting out Jesus. He could manhandle lithe-footed strikers with his Olympic caliber wrestling, or … he could just land huge shots, the kind that send shockwaves up through the cheap seats. He did that against Luke Rockhold and—this is where it gets unnerving—he gave him a rather intimate kiss while Rockhold was still very much concussed and vulnerable.
Nobody wanted to face Romero, who has won all eight of his fights since coming over from Strikeforce. Even at 40 years old, he scared just about everyone. That is, until Robert Whittaker came along.
In 2017, Australia’s own Whittaker had quietly amassed seven straight wins, including a TKO of the other bogeyman at the time, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza. That was a nice notch, but getting slung in there with a Thing-looking figure like Romero—in what became an interim title fight—was something different. UFC 213 was either going to be Whittaker’s moment of truth or his moment of exposure. Most thought he was about to come crashing back down to earth.
Instead Whittaker stood in there and traded with Romero, thwarted takedown attempts, and slammed home shots on the separations. It was like watching the quiet kid standing up to the bully on the playground. And not just standing up to him, but punishing him. You got the feeling that to beat Whittaker, you’d have to kill him.
He won a unanimous decision. What was even more impressive, in what was supposed to be his first title defense at UFC 225, Whittaker was forced into a rematch with Romero, and he never once complained. Even when Romero missed weight to make the bout a nontitle fight, Whittaker dutifully accepted. Then he went out there and duplicated his effort, this time winning via split-decision in what many considered 2018’s fight of the year.
Now Whittaker has—very matter-of-factly—won nine straight bouts, and is making his first official title defense in his home country. The crowd will be on his side in Australia, and he’ll finally get the hero’s welcome he deserves. If there was ever anybody who could ruin a party like that, it would have to be somebody who loves ruining parties. Somebody like …
Well, Kelvin Gastelum.
Round 2: The Challenger Is a Tank Stuffed Into a Human Shell
Let’s put it this way: Kelvin Gastelum is built like a cartoon muscle shark, like a goddamn distortion in a fun-house mirror. He is humorlessly compact. He’s short by middleweight standards, standing just 5-foot-9, but there is untold power being transferred from his legs up through his punches. He isn’t gangly with his 71-inch reach (there are plenty of bantamweights with longer arms), but he hits hard, and he’s as unbudgeable as a sequoia when it comes right down to it.
I think on fight night he weighs something like 1,000 pounds.
Before he was a fighter, Tim Kennedy was a special-ops ranger in the Army, a human kill machine who prided himself on cardio and grit. He looked like an action figure come to life. And he competed ceaselessly in MMA, as if cage fighting were nothing more than a game of courage and survival—a natural extension of soldiering. Yet when he fought Gastelum at UFC 206, it was like watching a man come to grips with his limitations. Gastelum battered Kennedy. He wore him down and made life hell for 12 minutes and 45 seconds, before Kennedy—bedraggled and lifeless—succumbed to punches.
Kennedy never fought again.
Still, Gastelum has had a weird career. He won The Ultimate Fighter on the season that Uriah Hall got press for sending his victims away in ambulances. Gastelum beat Hall in the finale and promptly switched gears to become a welterweight. He had nothing but success there, but he kept missing weight. The UFC all but forced his move to middleweight, which Gastelum, at first, sulked over. Then he just started wrecking shop, taking out the A-side draws. The UFC paired him with Vitor Belfort, and the then-25-year-old Gastelum ruthlessly made him into a punching bag. (Marijuana metabolites discovered in his system afterward converted that win into a “no-contest”).
Gastelum lost to Chris Weidman in July 2017, but made up for it by destroying another icon—this time former champion Michael Bisping—in China. Bisping, like Kennedy, never fought again.
In Gastelum’s most recent bout, against “Jacare” Souza, he just fought mean. He fought stubborn, and opportunistic, and heavy. He turned it on when he had to and eked out a split-decision. Perhaps people are sleeping on Gastelum because he didn’t flourish in his penultimate fight before Whittaker. Gastelum is nearly a 2-to-1 underdog.
Here’s the thing about Gastelum against Whittaker: It’s an MMA aficionado’s special. Both are relatively quiet marauders who go about slaying the game’s big names, but they are in their respective primes and hungry. This will be a showcase for Whittaker, who is set to fight at home for the first time as a champion, as well as Gastelum, who is fighting not only to ruin another feel-good moment, but to finally convince people he’s for real. It’s—somewhat literally—the unstoppable force against the unmovable object.
For those reasons, it’s a sleeper for Fight of the Year. Better yet, there could be a challenger in the wings.
Round 3: Is It Izzy Time? “The Last Stylebender” Takes Center Stage.
There are plenty of fight folks who see UFC 234 as Israel Adesanya’s card, in the same way they saw UFC Fight Night 26: Shogun vs. Sonnen as Conor McGregor’s card. Adesanya is the star feature, just as McGregor was that night in Boston. When guys have the “it” factor, things are telegraphed by the exhilaration in the air, and that exhilaration comes from the thrill of being in on it as it happens.
Still, Adesanya’s pending stardom isn’t the only thing that’s telegraphed. So is the idea behind matching him against Anderson Silva, who for so long as the middleweight champion gave UFC PPVs their original swagger with his gyrations, in-fight theatrics, and overall dominance. The enduring sense of Silva’s brand is what’s being transferred here.
Quite simply: This is a classic changing-of-the-guard fight. The idea is that Adesanya beats the now-43-year-old Silva, they shake hands afterward, and the mojo shifts to the new generation, making Adesanya the next must-see star to emerge in a sea of run-of-the-mill thrill seekers.
Adesanya is primed for the spot. He’s a legitimate striker with a refined sense of distance, with a knack for sensing blood in the water. When he fought Derek Brunson at UFC 230 in November, Brunson tried to slow the fight down, to grind early and take away Adesanya’s dynamism. It didn’t work. As soon as there was enough space to operate, he struck. As stars do, when Adesanya saw that he’d hurt Brunson, he made the finish a thing of aesthetic beauty. With the precision of a surgeon, he finished Brunson methodically.
Now he’s 15-0 and 4-0 in the UFC. As a Nigerian-born fighter who now lives and trains in New Zealand, he will have a rabid fan base in Melbourne. The expectations for Adesanya are big. He is supposed to take out Silva in a way that emphasizes the idea of how good he is. Ideally, he beats Silva the way Silva beat Forrest Griffin back at UFC 101; that is, he bewitches the great master with movement and speed, and turns his hype into pandemonium. If Adesanya does that, the main event between Gastelum and Whittaker will feel like nothing more than an Adesanya sweepstakes.
Round 4: Does Anderson Silva Have Anything Left?
Dana White is smart enough to know how to manipulate old prides. He promised Anderson Silva—who through multiple suspensions and losses retains a sheen of mysticism in the fight world—a title fight if he can get by Adesanya. Silva bit. The rest of us came to view that promise as something like when Johnny Utah allowed Bodhi to go out to try himself against the giant waves of the 50-year storm.
Dana knows Silva’s not coming back.
Or at least he’d better hope not. For all of Silva’s prowess as a fighter, he has been a headache for the UFC in just about every other way. Back in the day, he wasn’t the easiest fighter to deal with in matchmaking. After testing positive for PEDs in his fight against Nick Diaz in 2015 and serving a suspension, he got hit again by USADA and shelved for another year for what was determined to be a contaminated supplement. It’s been one thing or another for the past few years.
He hasn’t made up for it with his performances, either. Since his ridiculous 17-0 run between 2006 and 2012, he has gone a very human 1-4-(1) since. The one victory—a decision over Brunson—was a bit of a snooze. The losses ranged from predictable (when he stepped in on short notice to fight Daniel Cormier at light heavyweight), to controversial (his fight with Michael Bisping), to the macabre and bizarre (his losses to Chris Weidman).
The best-case scenario is that he goes out and tries to fight like vintage Anderson Silva—the one Joe Rogan called a “symphony of violence”—and tries to take apart that whippersnapper Adesanya the best way he knows how. For years, when he sat on top, Silva would reply to the question of who he’d like to fight with the smart-ass answer, “my clone.”
Adesanya is the closest we’ve ever come to that clone. But though the two have similar plans of attack, the fight won’t have Silva looking in a mirror. Adesanya is 14 years younger than Silva, and—squint as you might—that’s the biggest factor in this fight.
Round 5: Best of the Rest
Nadia Kassem vs. Montana De La Rosa—Kassem looked great in her UFC debut against Alex Chambers 15 months ago, but an injury killed any momentum she had gained. Before she was in the UFC, Kassem was knocking everyone out all over Australia. She recorded four first-round knockouts, and looked primed to make a splash in the strawweight division. Now in the newly established women’s flyweight division, she gets her shot at an encore against De La Rosa, a contrasting submission specialist who’s breezed through her first couple of fights in the UFC. It’s the classic grappler-versus-striker setup that never gets old.
Lando Vannata vs. Marcos Rosa—Vannata is one of those guys the UFC brings in and has a hard time getting rid of. He lost his debut against Tony Ferguson but somehow won public affection by turning the fight into a full-on war. He ended up on SportsCenter with a spinning wheel kick to John Makdessi’s cranium, but it’s been tough sledding since. He’s gone 0-2-2 over his past four fights, and is—presumably—fighting for his roster spot against the UFC newcomer Rosa. If there’s anything more remarkable than Vannata’s no-questions-asked willingness to slug, it’s that he has two draws in the past year and change. Two draws. He’s just good enough to be reckoned with, but not good enough to close the deal.
Dong Hyun Ma vs. Devonte King—King made a splash on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series with a KO, and then followed that up with a 46-second KO of Julian Erosa at the UFC’s 25th anniversary show in Denver back in November. We know he has power. The Korean fighter Dong Hyun Ma has turned things around since losing his first couple of fights in the UFC and is now riding a three-fight win streak, capped with a gutty performance against Damien Brown. It’s not a glamorous fight by any means, but there’s a radar feel to this one. Both guys have created enough kindling to get a fire started with a good showing.