By Ike Feldman
The UFC returns to Melbourne, Australia, this weekend for UFC 234, an event that promises a potential "passing of the torch" moment across the top two fights.
Before Robert Whittaker of New Zealand puts his UFC middleweight title on the line against Kelvin Gastelum in the main event on Saturday night (Sunday local time), Anderson Silva -- a popular pick as the greatest MMA fighter of all time -- will try to expand upon his legacy and earn another title shot.
How do you define greatness? Is it simply based on stats or records, or does it go by the eye test? Anderson Silva’s fighting prime, during which the Brazilian achieved the longest win streak in UFC history (16), obliterates the eye test and sets the standard for knockout artistry in MMA.
The 43-year-old Silva (34-8), even in winning only one of his past six fights (and serving a suspension due to a positive test for PEDs), never has looked frazzled by the name or caliber of his opponent and often exudes a sense of controlled chaos as he lowers his hands and dodges punches like a character in "The Matrix" -- or the MMA version of Muhammad Ali. No fighter has dared to replicate the game Silva invites all of his opponents to play. Until now.
Israel Adesanya, a 29-year-old phenom from Nigeria, is coming for Silva’s mantle as the greatest striker in the middleweight division. Adesanya (15-0) is one of UFC’s most hyped young stars, having climbed the middleweight rankings by combining a sharp-witted personality with vicious striking. Many MMA pundits, myself included, had Adesanya as the runner-up for 2018 Fighter of the Year after he went 4-0. Only the double-champ, Daniel Cormier, had a more accomplished 2018, going 3-0 while winning belts in multiple divisions.
Adesanya burst onto the scene when he methodically picked apart Rob Wilkinson for a second-round TKO in his UFC debut at UFC 221 in February 2018. Adesanya then rattled off three more wins to earn this shot at Silva, a fighter he’s idolized and often is compared to. Adesanya has been very vocal in stating he’s not “Silva 2.0” and is his own brand of striker.
UFC likes to throw a whole bunch of stuff (fighters) at the wall (big fights) and see what sticks (winning those big fights). Darren Till and Brian Ortega were confident, undefeated fighters being groomed for stardom until they walked into main events at UFC 228 and UFC 231, respectively, and walked out with their first pro losses.
Can Adesanya avoid a similar fate? Adesanya has passed all his tests -- from fighting at Madison Square Garden to putting on a five-round main event rout on national TV -- with flying colors. His fight against Silva is a much different scenario than Till and Ortega faced, but the spotlight will be just as bright and the pressure will be just as high.
The most intriguing aspect of UFC 234’s co-main event is the reward being dangled in front of Adesanya and Silva: The winner has been guaranteed a title shot against the winner of the main event. Will we see Silva turn back the clock and make history, or will Adesanya enter the UFC’s lineage of great strikers?
Silva can’t develop better reflexes or more punching power, but he is a student of the game and will be well-prepared for the younger Adesanya. A counter-striker such as Silva will relish engaging with another striker, rather than an opponent who’s looking to dive for his knees and wrestle for 15 minutes. But Silva’s tentativeness could cost him in the end. If Adesanya is overwhelmed by the crowd or Silva's presence, fighting a counter-striker can allow him time to find his rhythm and turn those nerves into points.
Prediction: Adesanya via decision
Robert Whittaker (20-4) vs. Kelvin Gastelum (15-3)
The co-main event eclipses the main event here, but the final fight absolutely should delight the crowd as two dangerous-striking technicians square off. Whittaker-Gastelum is a clash of Karate kickboxing versus heavy-handed boxing. Expect Whittaker to stay mobile and at range, using leg kicks to set up head kicks. Gastelum, the challenger from California, will look to walk through Whittaker's feints and setups to land something significant to end the fight early. Gastelum is gifted with timing and a heavy left hand that’s been so valuable in his past six fights (4-1 with one no-contest). Whittaker’s will to fight through punishment may be unmatched. The champ has won back-to-back five-round wars, suffering injuries and coming back to win in both. The UFC 234 card as a whole is lacking in terms of name recognition, but the top two fights will determine the next chapter in a storied division that’s been led by Silva since 2006.
Prediction: Whittaker via decision