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Robert Whittaker is brimming with confidence as he looks to take down another middleweight contender.
Whittaker (22-5 MMA, 13-3 UFC) meets Kelvin Gastelum in the main event of UFC on ESPN 22 on April 17, where he’ll look to cement himself as the No. 1 contender.
In his past two outings, Whittaker has beaten top contenders Darren Till and Jared Cannonier, but he’s yet to earn a title shot. However, the former middleweight champion is in a good place which he says, means trouble for Gastelum.
“I think I’m going to be too much for him,” Whittaker told MMA Junkie. “My striking is too crisp. I think it’s too fast. I think I’ve got too many weapons. He may try to take me down a couple of times, and I only think it’ll work to his detriment because it’s a five-round fight and wrestling takes it out of you.
“I think I put him away in the second. … All I know is I’m going to go into this fight the best Robert Whittaker I’ve been, and I’m going into this fight very happy – and a happy Rob is a very dangerous one.”
Whittaker was originally slated to face former title challenger Paulo Costa, but Costa withdrew due to illness. While Whittaker could have played the waiting game with middleweight champ Israel Adesanya now focusing on his division, he preferred to stay active.
“I was pretty dead set on competing at the date that was originally put down,” Whittaker said. “I’d gone through most of the camp. All the work was done. I had organized my whole life around that date. So to be able to still compete on that date – thankfully Gastelum stepped in, and I’m still able to do that. I’m very fortunate.
“I got upset at first. My OCD flared up, and I don’t like last-minute changes. But I started looking at the silver lining. I’m still very happy to fight at that date. All the work was done. I wanted to fight at that date. I wanted to get a fight in, and they’re all killers at the end of the day. It doesn’t really matter who it is that I’m fighting.”
Gastelum (16-6 MMA, 11-6 UFC) is a familiar face for Whittaker. The pair were scheduled to square off at UFC 234 in February 2019, but Whittaker was rushed to the hospital on the night of the fight due to emergency hernia surgery. So having already gone through a training camp for Gastelum before, Whittaker is confident in his preparation.
“Because I had been scheduled to fight him before, I had a lot of the work in the bank for him,” Whittaker said. “So I’m familiar with his fight style and his different habits. But also, I’ve fought a lot of southpaws. Till was a southpaw, so I was able to adjust relatively quickly.
“Honestly, there’s no fight I look forward to. There’s no fight I particularly want to run or anything like that. I’ll fight whoever I’m supposed to. Whoever they put into the ring with me, I’ll go at. I do feel like I owe him a fight because we were supposed to fight and it fell through, so the fact that we get to cross paths now is better late than never.”
Gastelum, who took Adesanya to the brink in a “Fight of the Year” contender in 2018, has been enduring a rough patch lately. He was able to snap a three-fight losing skid with a much needed win over Ian Heinisch at UFC 258, where he used his grappling to control the fight.
Despite it not being Gastelum’s finest showing, Whittaker thinks Gastelum’s mentality will have changed now that he’s back in the win column and he’ll be wary of that.
“Fights like that definitely take it out of you. So the war he had with Izzy – yeah, it takes it out of you,” Whittaker said. “You can’t have too many fights like that. I know first hand because it took it out of me. But he’s back in the winning column now, so his confidence is going to be higher than it has been and he’s going to come at me. He’s got nothing to lose, so I think it’ll be an interesting fight.
“Definitely, the styles make fights. He went into that fight with a game plan of wrestling and controlling the fight that way. I don’t think he’s going to be able to do that against me, so he’ll adjust. I’ll adjust and we’ll have to see what happens on the night.”