TNT Sports Reload - Episode 11Sep 26
The UFC’s 185lb division continues to shake out this weekend with a seismic showdown between two of the most intriguing fighters on the middleweight roster.
Hosted once again at the UFC APEX, Robert Whittaker tops the bill in what he hopes will be the final fight before securing a long-awaited rematch against his successor to the throne, Israel Adesanya, with victory over Kelvin Gastelum.
Paulo Costa had been set to make his first appearance since losing to Adesanya in September as the other half of this weekend’s main event but when the Brazilian withdrew last month through illness, Gastelum seized his opportunity for a chance to rebound back into the title frame.
Elsewhere on the card, lightweight fan favourites Jeremy Stephens and Drakkar Klose should provide the fireworks in a thrilling co-main event with both men desperate to get back in the win column to resurrect their 145lb careers.
With that, plus much more to look forward to, we’ve picked out the five key storylines heading into UFC Fight Night: Whittaker vs Gastelum.
Izzy’s next assignment
In the early hours of Sunday morning, the next middleweight title contender is likely to have made himself known with everything riding on Robert Whittaker’s fate in the main event against Kelvin Gastelum.
With victories over Darren Till and Jared Cannonier, the Aussie brawler already believes he has done enough to earn a rematch against Adesanya but must prove himself worthy in one last substantial test against the rebuilding Gastelum.
Gastelum ended a miserable trio of defeats that saw him go winless for more than 30 months when he decisively beat Ian Heinisch on the scorecards last time out and will hope that win helps mark a turnaround in fortunes for a career threatening major derailment.
The American powerhouse took Adesanya through five rounds of hell during one of the greatest ever UFC title fights at UFC 236 but came up just short following a pulsating final five minutes.
But even in the event of victory over ‘The Reaper’ on Saturday night, Gastelum probably won’t be fast-tracked into a rematch of his own with Adesanya given his poor form of late.
However, it could open the door for Marvin Vettori to secure the Adesanya rematch he has been desperate to run back since losing to the middleweight champ in 2018.
‘The Italian Dream’ called for a maiden title shot following his dominant five round win over Kevin Holland last weekend which underlined his significant improvement since that first fight against Adesanya.
However, for all his dominance, Vettori failed to produce a performance to make the fight game sit up and take notice, leaving Whittaker as likely the next man up in Adesanya’s crosshairs.
Gastelum the gambler
Kelvin Gastelum must be thanking his lucky stars for such an opportunity falling into his lap this weekend.
The 29-year-old reversed years of worrying decline with a much-needed win over Ian Heinisch last time out in a performance that was efficient, if lacking a little of the pop that first made Gastelum such an exciting addition to the middleweight division.
It looked as though it could be a long road back to the top for the American wrestling standout but when Paulo Costa ruled himself out of the fight, Gastelum stepped up to secure the fast-track back to the big time.
It was a smart move for the Kings MMA man who appears to have little to lose and everything to gain against the number one contender in the division.
The two men had been set to fight at UFC 234 in February 2019 only for the fight to be cancelled at a few hours’ notice when Whittaker was hospitalised with an abdominal hernia and a collapsed bowel.
For his part, Whittaker is under no illusion about the challenge awaiting him on Saturday night, describing Gastelum in complementary terms.
“This fight, I have to be smart about it, he's a top level fighter,” Whittaker said.
“He's had a rough couple of years but he's a top, top level fighter. I think he's one of the more dangerous middleweights."
A true warrior in action
Jeremy Stephens returns to the Octagon to make his first appearance for almost a year when he faces Drakkar Klose on Saturday night.
The 34-year-old had been set to fight Britain’s Arnold Allen last year before injury forced his withdrawal from the contest and Stephens will be desperate to lace up his gloves once again.
Currently riding a tough five-fight winless streak – granted one of which was a 15 second no-contest after he was poked in the eye against Yair Rodriguez – it’s not been easy of late for Stephens.
The long-time lightweight contender had pieced together arguably the most impressive run of his tenure in the promotion back in 2018 but a first round TKO loss to Jose Aldo uprooted his dreams of landing a shot at the 145lb title.
While it would be easy to take one look at Stephens’ record since and write the Alliance MMA star off as past his best, that would do a disservice to one of the UFC’s toughest and most loyal warriors.
Since joining the promotion, Stephens has made 33 appearance inside the Octagon, facing six current or former champions along the way.
A performance bonus magnet, his aggressive, hard-hitting style has won him legions of fans over the years and plenty would be delighted to see him return to form against Drakkar Klose on Saturday night.
If you’re looking anywhere for a potential Fight of the Night candidate, look no further than Abdul Razak Alhassan’s return to middleweight against UFC newcomer Jacob Malkoun.
Having missed weight on his last two welterweight assignments, the 35-year-old appears to have wisely returned to the 185lb division and will hope a return to form comes with it.
The Ghanaian was on a hot streak of 4-1, with all his wins coming by first round knockout, before losing his last two to Mounir Lazzez – a Fight of the Night winner – and Khaos Williams.
Now pitted against Australia’s Malkoun, who’s first UFC assignment saw him stopped in the first round at UFC 254, we could see a spectacular stoppage to mark Alhassan’s resurgence in the 185lb division.
Wave goodbye to the UFC APEX! (For now...)
This weekend’s fight card could be the last show of the UFC’s uninterrupted tenure at it’s Las Vegas headquarters... we hope!
Next weekend, UFC fans will return to arenas for the first time in more than a year as a sold out crowd packs into the Wystar Memorial Arena in Jacksonville to watch UFC 261: Usman vs Masvidal 2.
The UFC APEX has served us well over the past year, the intensity of a much smaller cage providing the platform for some of the most entertaining scraps we have seen in years.
From Dustin Poirier vs Dan Hooker to Josh Emmett vs Shane Burgos, fans have been treated to some classics from the fight capital and we will be sad to see it go.
But with the roar of spectators now a distant memory, we couldn’t be more excited for fans to get back and provide the soundtrack to some more unforgettable UFC moments to come.