UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker will look to defend his title for the first time when he faces Kelvin Gastelum this weekend in Melbourne, Australia. While the fighters have some of the same attributes and qualities, there are slight differences in their styles and skills. The following statistical categories highlight those differences and could identify the determining factor in Saturday night's UFC 234 main event.
Last fight for each man
Whittaker had been set to defend his title for the first time against Yoel Romero at UFC 225 in June. However, the challenger missed weight, and the main event became a nontitle bout. Nevertheless, Whittaker took home the split-decision victory, outlanding Romero 128-111 on significant strikes. It was by no means an easy fight. In the process, the two combined for the most significant strikes landed in a five-round UFC middleweight fight.
Gastelum's previous outing came a month earlier at UFC 224, where he staged a come-from-behind victory after a rough start against Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza. In the first round, Souza outlanded him 21-7 in significant strikes, secured full mount and nearly finished the fight with an armbar. Over the next two rounds, Gastelum edged Jacare 46-43 on significant strikes, along with a knockdown, to complete the comeback.
One thing Whittaker and Gastelum have in common is a long layoff. Following last year's fights, the two competed against each other as coaches on "The Ultimate Fighter." Saturday will mark 245 days for Whittaker and 273 days for Gastelum since their most recent fights.
When it comes to striking differential (measured by significant strikes landed per minute minus significant strikes absorbed per minute), Whittaker and Gastelum have similar career numbers. Whittaker's measure stands at plus-1.18, while Gastelum's is at plus-0.99. Both are slightly above average for ranked middleweights (plus-0.91).
However, those differentials are the result of much different striking methods. Whittaker lands 4.82 significant strikes per minute, which is the second-highest rate among ranked middleweights, behind only Paulo Costa (8.83), while Gastelum lands 3.86. Defensively, the challenger is much more successful. He absorbs 2.87 significant strikes per minute, which is moderately above average for ranked middleweights (2.81). In terms of this metric, Whittaker has the third-worst rate among the same group, as he absorbs 3.65 per minute.
The pair's divergent striking styles present an interesting contrast. If the bout turns into a high-paced battle, it should favor Whittaker, while Gastelum might have the edge in a more tactical and guarded affair.
In his UFC career, Whittaker has successfully pushed the pace and forced his opponents to compete in his type of fight. He accomplished this through his striking output, with 11.85 significant strikes per minute. He lands only 40 percent of those attempts, but his activity overcomes the lack of precision. Gastelum lands at a higher percentage, 43 percent, but he attempts only 8.83 significant strikes per minute.
Attempting a large quantity of strikes opens Whittaker up for reprisals, which at least partially explains his below-average strike absorption. However, it is also forces opponents to fight on his terms. If Gastelum hopes to slow the pace of the fight and pick his spots, Whittaker's striking persistence poses a problem.
If Gastelum has trouble with Whittaker's pace, he could try to take the fight to the mat. The Arizona resident comes from a wrestling background and won a state championship in high school. Early in his UFC career, he relied heavily on his takedown ability. He averaged 1.32 takedowns per 15 minutes of fight time through his first eight fights. However, he has attempted only one takedown in his past five fights, and his career takedown rate has fallen to 0.82 per 15 minutes.
Whittaker has landed only four takedowns in his 13-fight UFC career, but he has worked diligently on improving his wrestling. Offensively, he still likes to land strikes on the feet, and he uses his wrestling in reverse to keep fights standing. In the UFC, he has successfully stopped 84 percent of his opponents' takedown attempts. In his two fights against Romero, he allowed seven takedowns, but the Olympic silver medalist in freestyle wrestling needed 28 attempts to earn them.
Even if Gastelum does manage to put Whittaker on the ground, he has historically not been a particularly effective ground striker. Only 10 percent of his significant strikes landed in UFC action have come on the ground. On top of that, Whittaker has defended himself well on the floor; of all the shots he has absorbed, only 6 percent have been significant ground strikes.
While Whittaker might have the advantage when it comes to throwing and landing strikes, Gastelum has the power advantage. Both Gastelum (0.82) and Whittaker (0.75) have similar numbers in terms of knockdowns per 15 minutes of fight time, but Gastelum's power numbers have improved significantly. Through his first seven UFC fights, Gastelum landed only one knockdown. However, he has landed eight in his past seven fights. During that stretch, his knockdowns-per-15-minute rate stands at 1.37.
For most of his career, Whittaker has proven to be durable. He suffered only two knockdowns through his first 12 UFC fights. However, in his fight against Romero, he was dropped twice. He managed to make the final bell and take the decision, but he will need to find a way to avoid similar power shots against Gastelum. Otherwise, the challenger might find a path to victory.