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UFC Vegas 24 preview, ‘Whittaker vs Gastelum’ predictions

UFC Australia Media Opportunity Photo by Darrian Traynor for Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC

Former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) middleweight champion Robert Whittaker will look to keep himself atop the 185-pound leaderboard — where he currently sits at No. 1 — by turning away hot-and-cold division bruiser Kelvin Gastelum. They’ll do the deed in the UFC Vegas 24 five-round main event tomorrow night (Sat., April 17, 2021) inside the promotion’s APEX facility LIVE on both ESPN and ESPN+.

In the UFC Vegas 24 co-headliner, well traveled lightweight veteran Jeremy Stephens says goodbye to the featherweight division to make his return to 155 pounds. Waiting to greet him will be Michigan mauler Drakkar Klose, who like “Lil’ Heathen,” is on a mission to rebound from a knockout loss in his last defeat. Both combatants will be looking to shake things up in the Top 15 with a big performance this weekend in “Sin City.”

Before we dive into the main and co-main events, be sure to check out the UFC Vegas 24 preliminary card breakdown expertly deconstructed by effervescent analyst Patrick Stumberg here and here. Resident MMA champ Andrew Richardson did a special UFC Vegas 24 main card preview right here. For the latest “Whittaker vs. Gastelum” odds and betting lines be sure to check out all the updated numbers right here.

Let’s get to work ...

185 lbs.: Robert Whittaker vs. Kelvin Gastelum

Robert “The Reaper” Whittaker

Record: 22-5 | Age: 30 | Betting line: -260
Wins: 9 KO/TKO, 5 SUB, 8 DEC | Losses: 2 KO/TKO, 1 SUB, 2 DEC
Height: 6’0“ | Reach: 73” | Stance: Orthodox
Significant Strikes Landed Per Minute: 4.52 | Striking accuracy: 40%
Strikes Absorbed Per Minute: 3.44 | Striking Defense: 60%
Takedown Average: 0.43 (27% accuracy) | Takedown Defense: 84%
Current Ranking: No. 1 | Last fight: Unanimous decision win over Jared Cannonier

Kelvin Gastelum

Record: 16-6, 1 NC | Age: 29 | Betting line: +220
Wins: 6 KO/TKO, 4 SUB, 6 DEC | Losses: 0 KO/TKO, 2 SUB, 4 DEC
Height: 5’9“ | Reach: 71” | Stance: Southpaw
Significant Strikes Landed Per Minute: 3.64 | Striking accuracy: 43%
Strikes Absorbed Per Minute: 2.92 | Striking Defense: 59%
Takedown Average: 1.22 (39% accuracy) | Takedown Defense: 64%
Current Ranking: No. 8 | Last fight: Unanimous decision win over Ian Heinisch

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when Kelvin Gastelum was enjoying a very Rudy-esque run though the UFC middleweight division and that includes his unlikely win as part of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 17. But when you look back at the bouts that propelled him into a 185-pound interim title fight against Israel Adesanya at UFC 236 ... well, let’s just say there’s a tub of cream cheese in the back of my fridge that aged better than some of those wins. Gastelum has racked up 10 victories in the years following his TUF win over “Prime Time” and only two of those opponents — Ronaldo Souza and Ian Heinisch — are still competing for UFC. And no disrespect to either fighter but Souza is 41 and coming off three straight losses and Heinisch dropped three of his last four.

Not exactly the stuff of legend.

Robert Whittaker is ranked No. 1 in the world and sports a 10-1 record at middleweight with four knockouts and yet somehow feels miles away from another title shot. Probably because his loss to Adesanya was not competitive, though “The Reaper” did rebound with consecutive wins over Darren Till and Jared Cannonier, two very tough outs for any athlete. Perhaps now that “The Last Stylebender” has come back down to earth following a light heavyweight loss to Jan Blachowicz, Whittaker can make a case for a championship do-over. Putting the hurt on Gastelum would certainly go a long way in closing that deal, though he might face some competition from the streaking but wholly unspectacular Marvin Vettori, a top contender with a much better argument for rematching Adesanya. Whoever doesn’t draw the next title shot will hopefully get Paulo Costa instead, assuming “The Eraser” hasn’t rubbed out his spot in the mix by A) losing badly to Adesanya and B) bailing on his Whittaker showdown.

Whittaker will instead face Gastelum and I just have a hard time mapping out a win for the Arizonan. Every fighter who’s tried to stand and trade with “The Reaper” — outside of Adesanya — has failed. Gastelum doesn't have the power of Yoel Romero or the finesse of Uriah Hall. He’s certainly a formidable wrestler, but so was Derek Brunson and he whiffed on all three takedown attempts. Still just 30 years old, it’s hard to build a case against the former champion simply because there’s no evidence to suggest Gastelum can succeed where the others have failed. Adesanya may just have Whittaker’s number or perhaps “The Reaper” had a bad day at the office, we don’t know for sure. What we do know for sure is that Gastelum was unable to parlay his early success into a middleweight title reign, coming up empty when it mattered most. With that in mind, don’t be surprised to find a similar outcome this weekend in “Sin City.”

Prediction: Whittaker def. Gastelum by unanimous decision

155 lbs.: Jeremy Stephens vs. Drakkar Klose

Jeremy “Lil’ Heathen” Stephens

Record: 28-18, 1 NC | Age: 34 | Betting line: -125
Wins: 19 KO/TKO, 2 SUB, 7 DEC | Losses: 3 KO/TKO, 3 SUB, 12 DEC
Height: 5’9“ | Reach: 71” | Stance: Orthodox
Significant Strikes Landed Per Minute: 3.18 | Striking accuracy: 40%
Strikes Absorbed Per Minute: 3.06 | Striking Defense: 58%
Takedown Average: 1.16 (38% accuracy) | Takedown Defense: 65%
Current Ranking: No. 10 | Last fight: Knockout loss to Calvin Kattar

Drakkar Klose

Record: 11-2-1 | Age: 33 | Betting line: +105
Wins: 4 KO/TKO, 0 SUB, 7 DEC | Losses: 1 KO/TKO, 0 SUB, 1 DEC
Height: 5’9“ | Reach: 70” | Stance: Orthodox
Significant Strikes Landed Per Minute: 3.89 | Striking accuracy: 53%
Strikes Absorbed Per Minute: 3.64 | Striking Defense: 53%
Takedown Average: 1.56 (30% accuracy) | Takedown Defense: 68%
Current Ranking: Unranked | Last fight: Knockout loss to Beneil Dariush

Longtime UFC veteran Jeremy Stephens has a losing record in the featherweight division and hasn’t won a fight in over three years, getting knocked out twice in his last four losses. And yet somehow “Lil’ Heathen” remains ranked in the Top 10 which means the 145-pound weight class is complete dogshit or the rankings panel is just mailing it in from week to week. I want to be optimistic and think Stephens will upright the ship by going back to the lightweight division, then I remember three consecutive losses was the reason he left in the first place. In addition, Stephens turns 35 next month and has accumulated the kind of damage you would expect from a combatant who’s competed in nearly 50 professional fights. Fans love his all-action style and his Rafael dos Anjos Shoryuken lives on in the highlight reel hall of fame, but the purpose of this column is to deconstruct his upcoming battle against Drakkar Klose and decide if “Lil’ Heathen” still has the chops to get it done.

I certainly think the matchmaking works in his favor. Klose signed with the promotion back in late 2016 and since then has done ... stuff. I’m trying to find something notable to mention but all five of his wins — and one of his losses — have come by way of decision. If you think all wins are equal then you don’t understand prize fighting because UFC is in the business of selling tickets, pay-per-views, and advertising. Klose did manage to finish a fight in his last trip to the cage. Unfortunately, it’s because Beneil Dariush knocked him out in the second round at UFC 248. Now he’s being paired with a fighter who likes to swing for the fences with every punch. If Klose plans to survive the blitzkrieg for all three rounds, he’ll have to emulate Frankie Edgar, who shut Stephens down for most of their 15-minute affair back in Nov. 2016. It’s certainly on the table. Klose has landed takedowns in five of his seven fights and Stephens was dragged to the floor in decision losses to Zabit Magomedsharipov and Renato Moicano.

This is not a difficult bout to analyze. Stephens will use his low kick to keep the range then drop bombs early and often. Klose can counter by luring “Lil’ Heathen” into a sloppy brawl and spend most of the fight counterpunching, though it’s a double-edged sword because one misstep takes him to Stretchertown. A couple of years ago I probably would have picked Stephens for the easy layup, but he’s looked like a shell of his former self in recent fights and I just don’t have the confidence to pick him on the chance one of his haymakers sneaks through. Expect Klose to fight smart and play matador for most of the fight because when it comes to win bonuses, winning ugly is still winning.

Prediction: Klose def. Stephens by unanimous decision will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Vegas 24 fight card tomorrow night, starting with the ESPN/ESPN+ preliminary card bouts at 7 p.m. ET, followed by the ESPN/ESPN+ main card start time at 10 p.m. ET.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC Vegas 24 news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here. For the complete “Whittaker vs. Gastelum” fight card and ESPN/ESPN+ lineup click here.

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