Prime Picks: UFC on ESPN 22 ‘Whittaker vs. Gastelum’

By: Jay Pettry
Apr 16, 2021

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The Ultimate Fighting Championship for this most part scheduled this ESPN event this way. Although its original headliner shifted when Paulo Costa suffered an illness, this was largely a one-fight event on the ESPN network from the get-go. It sees a plethora of fighters coming into their bouts with .500 UFC records or worse. Despite the lack of riches from a matchmaking sense, there are still ways to come out with a profit in the UFC on ESPN 22 edition of Prime Picks.

Robert Whittaker (-250)

In some ways, the transformation of this headliner from Whittaker-Costa to Whittaker-Kelvin Gastelum is an improvement, as the two middleweights share history as opposing coaches on Season 28 of “The Ultimate Fighter.” These two were originally slated to run it for the title at UFC 234, only for emergency surgery to result for Whittaker, forcing the then-champion out of the match. The promotion wisely put this matchup back together when Costa fell out of this fight, and it is compelling for many reasons. Even though Whittaker is a fairly significant -250 betting favorite, this may be about the perfect line on this matchup based on the skills and the styles the two present. There is money to be made on Whittaker, even with this line, because it appears to be his fight to win across the board.

Gastelum, winner of Season 17 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” has been fairly inconsistent since suffering his first loss at welterweight to Tyron Woodley where he missed weight tremendously. Although he made his promotional debut at 185 pounds, he shifted back and forth between this division and welterweight while he tried to find himself. Since formally returning to middleweight against Tim Kennedy in 2016, Gastelum has maintained a .500 record with impressive wins and unspirited defeats. Gastelum snapped his first-ever losing skid in February by capturing a decision over Ian Heinisch to stay in contention, and this is once more a leap up in competition based on recent lackluster performances. Against Heinisch, Gastelum reminded the division of his wrestling chops and punching power, although he has long been able to crack. This is where he will be most dangerous against Whittaker, and “Bobby Knuckles” cannot get careless.

Whittaker’s stock tumbled more than most when Israel Adesanya laid waste to him at the end of 2019. Two Top 10 wins over Darren Till and Jared Cannonier eventually led him to this match, but he is no less dangerous than he was when making his title run. Whether dipping down to sneak up a head kick or mixing in takedowns to catch Till unaware, his varied skillset gives him a great deal to work with against his former coaching rival. Whittaker’s kicks are devastating high and low, but he will need to disguise them and not simply throw naked kicks and allow for counters. Even when Whittaker takes damage, his recoverability is nigh-unbeatable, and only kickboxers Stephen Thompson and Adesanya were able to put him away. The cardio advantage is drastically in favor of Whittaker—look no further than the coaches’ race on “The Ultimate Fighter,” where Whittaker ran the laps in the dead of a Las Vegas summer while Gastelum heaved—and the longer this fight goes, the more likely Whittaker will cruise. Tying into this play for the high favorite are two options: Fight Goes to Decision at -130 or Whittaker Wins by Decision at +150 depending on how you think this match plays out.

Drakkar Klose (+100)

The return to lightweight for Jeremy Stephens might be a lose-lose for the longtime vet, as he moves back up in weight to face a dangerous but unranked Klose. It could spell the end of Stephens’ UFC tenure with a loss. Stephens’ first 14 UFC appearances came at 155 pounds, and he dropped down to featherweight from 2013 to 2020 to reinvent his career. Despite this, Stephens still has yet to win a fight since 2018, and with that, comes a shaken confidence. Always a brawler, Stephens will go toe-to-toe with an opponent who can crack in Klose, but he may take the path of least resistance instead of throwing hands with a vaunted knockout artist like “Lil’ Heathen.” If Stephens can keep this fight standing, he will have the edge, but Klose can rack up control time with the best of them with his wrestling chops.

It has taken practically a herculean effort to put Stephens away with strikes over the years. Yves Edwards first cracked his chin in 2012 with a brutal right-hand counter; Jose Aldo short-circuited him with a body kick and follow-up punches in 2018; and Calvin Kattar shut the lights out with terrifying elbows in Stephens’ last bout. Klose has not shown to have quite that punching power, although in his last outing, he hurt Beneil Dariush badly before the Kings MMA rep rallied and lanced Klose with a lethal left hand. Barring that strike, Klose had never been finished, but Stephens will definitely put his chin to the test. In what might turn into a question of what Stephens has left in the tank, the fight mileage of “Lil’ Heathen” is rapidly catching up to him, even at only 34 years of age. Klose has the ability to take Stephens out of his brawling best by threatening and landing takedowns repeatedly. It is this grappling aspect that gives the slight underdog a slight edge, but he will need to keep his head on a swivel. Stephens will not go down easy.

Andrei Arlovski (-120)

The stat of the week recently discussed how Jim Miller holds the UFC’s record for the most bouts with 37. It may be surprising to some that even though Arlovski left the UFC from 2008 to 2014, he far and away holds the UFC heavyweight record with appearances with 35. The former champ, who has transformed his game more times than most, has settled into a role as an effective boxer who can counter and give foes pause, but he does not keep the destructive power of the past. As such, his last six victories dating back to 2015 have come on the scorecards. The Belarussian faces a far younger adversary who prefers to knock out or get knocked out, as Chase Sherman has seen 18 of his 21 fights end by knockout. The accurate, effective boxing should spell the difference for the former champ, as long as he does not get caught.

After leaving the UFC, “The Vanilla Gorilla” joined the bareknuckle circuit with a thrilling battle with Sam Shewmaker. Taking the title from Arnold Adams in his next bout, he suffered a subsequent loss to Joey Beltran in 2019. Unfortunately for Sherman, he was largely outboxed in two of those three matches—in a sport that exclusively uses boxing and does not permit leg kicks or elbows. He has fast hands and displays clubbing if not one-hitter-quitter power, as his finishes have largely come in MMA from an accumulation of damage. The Arlovski of old would feast on the takedown defense of the Mississippi native, but it has been a few years since Arlovski landed one. Instead, in what should be a largely stand-up affair, Arlovski’s sharper striking can make the difference. As a bonus, Fight Goes to Decision at -135 is perfectly palatable, unless you believe that Sherman will crack his chin. Sherman wins by TKO/KO is a solid +255 should you expect this to happen.

Juan Espino (+120)

In what should be a mighty match of strength-versus-power, Espino will tangle with unbeaten Alexander Romanov in a battle between two heavyweights on the rise. Through the undefeated Romanov’s career, all of his career bouts have ended inside the distance. Romanov can oftentimes pull off so-called “big man” submissions, like the forearm choke or a neck crank, where he just looks to pop his foe’s head off like a pez dispenser. His game is quite reckless, and “King Kong” very nearly gassed himself in his promotional debut against Roque Martinez after spamming suplexes and high-amplitude slams. While he did ragdoll his opponent, there is a level of competition he will reach where that no longer works. Espino should prove to be that foil. As a Senegalese laamb wrestling champ—the vaunted “Reug Reug” Oumar Kane is another practitioner in the art—he has the ability to turn the tables on his powerful foe.

Espino is also of the “big man” submission skillset, although he can line up straight armlocks and roll for chokes, as well. His return for the first time since winning Season 28 of “The Ultimate Fighter”—the season that Whittaker and Gastelum coached—saw him hit a scarf hold on Jeff Hughes where he tossed Hughes around like a toy before getting the tap. Both men have had the luxury of facing men where their grappling is far superior, so they can largely walk through them. It may come to a shock when one grabs hold of the other and cannot toss them like a sack of potatoes, as the other is able to gain their footing and counter the position. Romanov has several advantages in this contest. He is 10 years younger, likely will have a small but noticeable weight advantage and is raw but comically strong. With this level of explosiveness on display, Espino has historically shown that he can take a fight into deep waters in a way that Romanov has not yet been able to do. The cage floor will be put to the test when these two heavyweights rumble, and the specifically trained wrestler should have the advantage.

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