Fightful/Talking MMA Pick Em' For UFC 234

We'd like to welcome you to our event pick em'. I know this has been a tradition in the Talking MMA community, and one we look to continue here at Fightful.

We'll be doing these for main card UFC fights, and maybe for pro wrestling events as well. If there are any changes I need to make to better accommodate the Talking MMA group, don't hesitate to let me know.

At the top of the page is our Fightful MMA Podcast preview of the event, and you can subscribe to our MMA & Boxing Channel at this link. I'll also be going live right after the show for a review! You can make predictions all the way up until the main card is starting!

Here is the UFC 234 main card lineup:

UFC Middleweight Title Fight
Robert Whittaker (20-4) (c) vs. Kelvin Gastelum (15-3, 1NC)

Israel Adesanya (15-0) vs. Anderson Silva (34-8, 1NC)

Rani Yahya (26-9, 1NC) vs. Ricky Simon (14-1)

Montana De La Rosa (9-4) vs. Nadia Kassem (5-0)

Jim Crute (9-0) vs. Sam Alvey (33-11, 1NC)

UFC 234 Main Card Breadown

Robert Whittaker (20-4) (c) vs. Kelvin Gastelum (15-3, 1NC)

For the main event we have two former welterweights clashing for the middleweight title. Is this the first title fight in the UFC between fighters that moved up from a lighter division? Despite that distinction for both fighters, they seem to fit into the division a bit differently; while Whittaker has filled out physically and appears to be a legitimate middleweight, Gastelum still looks like a blown up welterweight and has seen considerable success from a combination of speed, tenacity, durability, and faded competition. You have to wonder how he'd do back at 170 if he could keep his weight under control.

In terms of analysis, I have to say that in breaking this down I'm actually more confident in my pick, which is kinda rare. There is some reason to doubt both fighters. With Whittaker, it's his history of injuries since winning hte title (this very bout has been postponed until now because of a Whittaker injury) as well as the two wars he went through with Yoel Romero, where he was badly hurt in both fights. For Gastelum, it's a bit more complicated. I've always been high on Gastelum, and saw the potential in him to become a champion. I use the past tense "saw" a bit incorrectly because I do still see some potential there, but not nearly as much. My problem with Gastelum is that he's very naturally and physically talented, but he doesn't seem to improve technically or tactically. He seems to go into fights without a solid gameplan and just coast on his talent, athleticism, and ability to out-pace his opponents. On the feet I make a light comparison to Sara McMann in that a while back he showed a really nice, snappy one-two that made me very optimistic about his striking progression, only to discover that they don't develop much more past it. When you look at both of their fights, a solid one-two is really the only notable thing about their stand up.

That's not to say he can't have great success with his tool set, but my problem is comparing him to Whittaker. Whittaker is much more than a one-two, and has a diverse array of strikes. Gastelum is quick and athletic; Whittaker is also quick just as, if not more athletic. They can both push the pace, but Whittaker does it with better footwork and set ups. They've both proven tough, but Whittaker has done it at a higher level. When Whittaker fought Romero, the latter's speed, explosiveness, and unpredictability caused a lot of issues, but he still came out the winner (albeit narrowly) in both instances. Gastelum as explosive, quick, or unpredictable as Romero is.

Ultimately, I just think Whittaker is the better fighter. That hasn't stopped the lesser fighter on paper from finding an open window to a finish and taking it, but I think the cards are stacked against Gastelum from a stylistic standpoint. He constantly walked into shots from a tired Jacare Souza even late into their fight to land his own (and I actually thought Souza won the fight), and I don't think he'll be able to rely on his grit so much against a craftier striker in Whittaker who won't provide anything near the stationary target he's used to. Whittaker has been hurt in recent fights and Gastelum hits hard, so the question of his chin does linger, but I can't factor that in unless it actually shows to be true. I think Whittaker wins this, and Gastelum's tough as hell so it'll probably be by decision, but a late TKO wouldn't shock me.

Israel Adesanya (15-0) vs. Anderson Silva (34-8, 1NC)

Let's call this what it is: a showcase fight designed for Adesanya to get some shine off a big name opponent. Just over the past year, Adesanya has gone from a prospect that I wasn't too sure about when it came to his potential success in MMA to someone I think has a very good chance to become champion no matter who wins the main event following this fight. His UFC debut saw him taken down and controlled for a round before finding a finish, prompting some concern over his defensive wrestling; a concern that was quickly and increasingly squashed over his next few fights. His improvement has been exponential in defensive wrestling and grappling, which just makes his phenomenal striking that much more dangerous.

In Silva he faces a once dominant force that has been faded by age and accumulated damage. While definitely not as over the hill as a Chuck Liddell or even Fedor Emelianenko, the Silva of old seems to be gone, save for a few flashes here and there. Simply put, it's hard to trust a Silva who was rendered tentative by a Derek Brunson who was clearly intimidated by him on the feet (and was gifted a decision for his efforts), was roundly outworked by Michael Bisping minute-to-minute, and who was outdone by Nick Diaz in the clinch to handle a prospect the likes of Adesanya.

Adesanya has the sharper reflexes, is the taller, longer, quicker, more athletic fighter, and actually has a more nuanced process to his striking game at this juncture. Anderson typically struggles when his counterstriking game is met with counterstriking in opposition, but here I don't think it'll result in a boring fight that Anderson wins because Adesanya is so much better equipped to handle that fight than anyone Anderson has faced. It's hard to see this being anything but a bad night for Silva, and because Adesanya isn't a one-hitter-quitter type it'll probably be a prolonged beating before a merciful finish. I'll take Adesanya by 2nd round TKO. I have some probably unpopular opinions on Anderson Silva compared to the current crop of guys and Adesanya specifically, but I'll save those for the recap. And don't worry, even if Silva pulls off the upset I'll still throw them out there and take my medicine!

Rani Yahya (26-9, 1NC) vs. Ricky Simon (14-1)

I like Yahya in much the same way I like Demian Maia. He has a style that just shouldn't work, but it does because he's so damn effective in one area. Like Maia he isn't a great striker or wrestler, doesn't even have good cardio, and he knows it; so he finds anyway he can to get around those things and wrangle the fight to the ground as quickly as possible, where he is a downright killer. Once Yahya has an advantageous position on the ground, only the best defensive grapplers tend to survive, let alone have prolonged success. The man has somehow flown under the radar while amassing an 11-3 (1 NC) UFC record, with six of those win being by submission.

Simon is an offense-first, defense-never type of fighter, which granted him a bit of luck in his UFC debut, where was soundly outclassed by Merab Dvalishvili for the better part of three rounds before locking in a guillotine at the end of the fight. Merab was constantly moving and looked to survive until the final bell, but the referee ruled after the round that he was unconscious and awarded Simon a bizarre submission win. His next fight was an exciting clash with Montel Jackson where wrestling carried him to a decision win despite him fading down the stretch. Even so, Yahya still likely has the worse cardio of the two, but Simon's willingness to expend a lot of energy and engage on the mat makes me think that it's a matter of time before Yahya finds a submission. Simon is actually the slight favorite here, which I'm not sure I agree with, and as such I'll take Yahya by submission in the first half of the fight.

Montana De La Rosa (9-4) vs. Nadia Kassem (5-0)

De La Rosa is a solid talent in the division, and I feel like they're bringing her along well in the UFC so far after she got thrown in the deep end in LFC/LFA against rising prospects Mackenzie Dern and Cynthia Calvillo. Since then she's shown to be a talented grappler with decent wrestling, but her striking is still definitely a work in progress.

Kassem is still green, but an athletic and game striker. This was showcased in her UFC debut at 115 lbs against Alex Chambers, where she had plenty of issues early but gritted it out to take a well-earned decision victory. Chambers is a fine grappler and a veteran of the game, but is also a bit of a bottom-of-the-barrel strawweight in the UFC, so having issues with her isn't exactly a good sign. That was over a year ago so I would say that Kassem has had plenty of time to improve, but that year layoff is due to some interesting injuries, namely injuring her hand punching the side mirror of a car and more importantly, her back while trying to pop a wheelie on a kid's bike while playing with her nephew, which left her with bulging disks. Back injuries are no joke, and I imagine this past year hasn't been rife with fight training. It's also important to note that this is a division up from where she planned to make her debut, and even though she's yo-yoed between the two divisions throughout her short career, she doesn't appear to have added much muscle to fill herself out at 125. Between the layoff and what she displayed against Chambers, I think De La Rosa pretty much has this one in the bag, and shouldn't struggle too much to get things to the ground and score a submission in the first round.

Jim Crute (9-0) vs. Sam Alvey (33-11, 1NC)

All this time and Alvey is still just an odd nut to crack. He's pretty much a pale, smiling, ginger ball of takedown defense and a big lead right hook. There isn't much else to him at all, but he's parlayed that into a respectable UFC run. Alvey's fights mostly depend on his opponents; if they're active in attacking him chances are you'll see an exciting finish from somebody. If they aren't Alvey will pretty much just stand around hardly throwing, and things get painful to watch. Crute figures to provide the former. He's extremely aggressive and attacks tirelessly, which will either overwhelm Alvey or give him just the opening he needs to flatten him with a counter punch. In Crute's UFC debut he was countered pretty liberally by Paul Craig, which speaks volumes about his lack of defense. He can fall back on his wrestling, but as mentioned Alvey has pretty stout takedown defense. Crute's only 22 years old, so there's always the possibility that he's improved a decent amount in a couple months, but I'll put my money on Alvey to catch him coming in for a first round knockout.

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