08 Feb - 
10 reasons to watch UFC 234, where middleweights matter most

The UFC pays a visit to Australia on Saturday for its first pay-per-view card of 2019. In the main event, Robert Whittaker puts his middleweight title on the line against Kelvin Gastelum.

The matchup between two past winners of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality show is Whittaker’s first official title defense. His initial attempt was supposed to take place at UFC 225. His opponent in that matchup, Yoel Romero, failed to hit championship weight. The fight took place as scheduled but as a non-title bout. Whittaker prevailed after five hard-fought rounds, winning a split decision.

In the co-main event, former middleweight champion Anderson Silva returns to action after a 728-day layoff. Silva faces a man who was not even signed with the UFC when he last fought. That man, Israel Adesanya, made his UFC debut in February 2018. Adesanya went 4-0 last year and earned himself MMAjunkie’s “Newcomer of the Year” award for 2018.

UFC 234 takes place at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne. The main card airs on pay-per-view following prelims on ESPN and UFC Fight Pass.

Here are 10 reasons to watch the event.

1. Moves paid off big time

Did a move to middleweight save Whittaker’s career? That’s a difficult question to answer, but the move has undoubtedly paid dividends for the 28-year-old. After a 3-2 run at 170 pounds, Whittaker moved up to middleweight and hasn’t lost since. He’s 8-0 in the division, won seven fight night bonuses during that span (five of which have come in his four most recent fights) and, oh yeah, he’s the champion. Not surprisingly, Whittaker is the No. 1 ranked fighter in the USA TODAY Sports/MMAjunkie MMA middleweight rankings and No. 9 in the pound-for-pound rankings.

The same could be said of Gastelum. He had a hard time making welterweight during his early years with the UFC, but once he settled in at middleweight in 2016, things started to gel for the 27-year-old. Since he made the permanent move to the division, he’s gone 3-1 (with one no-contest) and is coming off wins over Michael Bisping and Ronaldo Souza. Gastelum is the No. 7 ranked middleweight.

Whittaker (20-4 MMA, 11-2 UFC) is the favorite in this fight because of his well rounded game, but that doesn’t mean the champ is taking Gastelum (15-3 MMA, 10-3 UFC) lightly.

“I respect his abilities,” Whittaker told MMAjunkie at a recent open workout. “He’s a dangerous fighter. He’s going to come in there hungry, with nothing to lose. That’s one of the most dangerous combinations. I’m giving him the respect he deserves.”

As for Gastelum, his best chance seems to be catching the champ with a big left hand. Something Gastelum is confident he will do early in the fight.

“I feel like if I put my hands on anybody, I can put the lights out on anybody in the world,” Gastelum told MMAjunkie. “I’m very well prepared for this fight. But at the same time, I’m prepared for a 25-minute war. I say that I’m going to knock him out in the first round, but that’s just me in my head. That’s just the scenario I see playing out in my head. But obviously, I could be wrong. It could be a 25-minute war, which I’m ready for.”

2. Not just the old vs. the new

As a society, it seems as if we are always searching for “The Next” something or other. So it was not a surprise when folks started referring to Adesanya (15-0 MMA, 4-0 UFC) as the next Silva (34-8 MMA, 17-4 UFC).

The UFC, an organization that has never been known for its nuanced marketing, got in on the act during the “UFC 234: Mirror Match” promotional video. During that spot, Daniel Cormier can be heard saying that Silva is going to face “a younger version of himself” in Adesanya. The problem with that approach is its laziness. The new vs. the old doesn’t paint a full picture. Sure, it’s better than the “two tall guys” approach to promotion, but it’s still lacking.

Silva is arguably the greatest fighter in MMA history. When he was in his prime he had an otherworldly ability to figure out his opponent in the early going of the first round. Once Silva’s brain performed whatever supernatural analysis it needed in the opening moments of those fights, you could see something change in Silva and from that point on, you knew the fight was his.

Now in the twilight of his career, we haven’t seen that from the former middleweight champion in some time. If the 43-year-old Silva, who is the No. 10 ranked 185-pounder, can still be that fighter, Adesanya is the type of opponent who could bring that out of him.

As for Adesanya, who is ranked No. 8 in the middleweight division, there are still a lot of questions he has to answer. The 29-year-old is coming off a year in which he went 4-0 with the UFC and earned three “Performance of the Night” bonuses. He’s 15-0 with 13 knockout wins and has an impressive kickboxing record to go with his MMA stats. But the fact remains that he has only been a full-time MMA fighter for less than two years (his last kickboxing bout came in March 2017), which means we don’t know the ceiling for Adesanya. As impressive as his run has been he might just be scratching the surface. On the flip side, he might have already reached the pinnacle of his career. With such a high profile fight on his hands, this could the matchup where we get a better understating of what the future holds for Adesanya.