Gastelum, who has only won once since current middleweight king, Israel Adesanya, defeated him in a five-round war back in April 2019 for the interim title.
For the uninitiated, Michael Bisping defeated Luke Rockhold by first-round KO and defended the belt against Dan Henderson in 2016. Afterward, he was unable to make his second defense against Yoel Romero. Top contender Robert Whittaker defeated Romero for the interim strap in July of 2017. Bisping returned to fight Georges St. Pierre in Nov. of 2017, losing by RNC, while Whittaker remained interim champ. St. Pierre, much to the ire of Dana White, immediately vacated the title, citing ulcerative colitis, and never returned to the octagon. “Bobby Knuckles” was subsequently promoted to undisputed champion as a result, but never got the chance to defend his title due to medical issues. Meanwhile, Gastelum had firmly cemented himself as a contender, having defeated Johny Hendricks, Tim Kennedy, Vitor Belfort, Michael Bisping, and Ronaldo Souza within the same time period. After Whittaker and Gastelum served as coaches on TUF 28, Gastelum was scheduled to challenge for the title at UFC 234 in Feb. 2019. Unfortunately, news broke out a few hours before the bout that Whittaker withdrew due to an abdominal hernia. Gastelum then fought Adesanya for the interim belt in April 2019, where he lost 48-46 on all the judges’ scorecards. He took Israel further than any other middleweight has since, in a fight that many called the fight of the decade.
In the other half of the main event, Cannonier has been considered by many to be the dark horse of the middleweight division. Having gone 3-4-0 at light-heavyweight in the UFC, Cannonier committed to moving down to 185 in 2018. Since then, his only loss has come to Whittaker in a No. 1 contender fight at UFC 254. Cannonier will be hoping to cement himself as the No. 2 contender with a win over Gastelum. Impressive wins over Anderson Silva and Jack Hermansson have proven that he can play with the big boys in the division.
Fighter Profile: Kelvin Gastelum (16-7, 11-7 UFC)
Born in San Jose, California, in 1991, Gastelum was raised in Arizona by Mexican parents. Having won a Division III AIA state wrestling title at Cibola High School, Gastelum went to North Idaho College, where he was ranked fifth in the country (NJCAA), before deciding to commit to competing in MMA. Here, he amassed a 5-0 record with a 100% finish rate, before competing in TUF 17: Team Jones vs Team Sonnen. Gastelum was the last pick for Team Sonnen after defeating Kito Andrews by decision. Gastelum would then finish his next three opponents in the house within two rounds, before facing teammate Uriah Hall in the Ultimate Fighter 17 Finale. At 21 years old, Gastelum became the youngest TUF winner. After receiving the UFC contract, Gastelum decided to move down to Welterweight, where he remained undefeated until losing to future Welterweight Champ, Tyron Woodley. Gastelum however, had missed weight twice at 170, including against T-Wood, so Dana ordered that he move back to Middleweight.
Fighter Profile: Jared Cannonier (13-5, 6-5 UFC)
Eight years Gastelum’s senior, Cannonier was born in Dallas, Texas, in 1984. He began training MMA as a pastime, and to learn ‘the proper way to fight,’ while working as an airway transportation system specialist for the FAA. After winning his first two fights in 2011 by KO, he made his professional debut in Alaska, amassing a record of 7-0. He signed as a heavyweight for the UFC in 2014, where he went 1-1 before dropping to LHW, and subsequently to middleweight, where he seems to have found his home.
In terms of height, there is not much disparity between the 5’11 Cannonier and 5’9 Gastelum, but when one looks at the reach advantage that Cannonier has, it can’t help but evoke memories of Adesanya vs Gastelum. Cannonier has a full six-inch advantage over Gastelum’s 71.5-inch reach.
However, the natural middleweight Gastelum has two advantages come Saturday: Firstly, he’s a natural middleweight, so he will be planning on weighing in and competing at what is basically his walk-around weight after a minimal cut, meaning he is fresher. Moreover, he’s almost certainly better prepared for a 25-minute war. On the other hand, Cannonier faces a decent cut down to 185, with his natural weight probably closer to LHW and MW. Cannonier has also never gone past the third round in the UFC, whereas Gastelum has gone the full 25 twice since April 2019. This added experience with the championship rounds may make the difference for Gastelum.
Gastelum’s other advantage is his wrestling pedigree. Despite both men having a combined 15 KO/TKO victories, Cannonier hasn’t had a submission win since he fought in Alaska before joining the UFC. Gastelum has also not had a recent submission victory in the UFC, but from the Adesanya fight, we know that he is more than capable of grappling with a larger opponent, and Cannonier would be foolish to not be prepared for Gastelum trying to get inside his guard to take him to the ground, tire him out, and then go for the finish. Cannonier’s most likely path to success is most certainly in trying to keep Gastelum at range, picking him off with leg kicks, and then going for a finish. However, Gastelum is dangerous everywhere, and you would be hard-pressed to think of another middleweight with as much heart as Kelvin Gastelum.