UFC on ESPN 22: Whittaker vs. Gastelum Preview

Top-ranked UFC middleweight contender Robert Whittaker will look to defend his spot in the division on Saturday night, fighting Kelvin Gastelum in the main event of a UFC “Fight Night” card from the UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA.

Here’s a preview of the card.

Click here to skip to a preview of the main card.

Preliminary Card (7:00PM EDT / 4:00PM PDT) (ESPN / TSN 5)

UFC’s preliminary card lost a fight Friday, as “weight management issues” took Zarah Fairn out of a bout against Josiane Nunes. The show is set to be 11 bouts in total now.

Bout 1: Tony Gravely (20-6) vs. Anthony Birchak (15-7) (Bantamweight)

Experienced bantamweights Tony Gravely and Anthony Birchak will square off in the opening bout of the card.

Gravely scored his first UFC win in November, fighting to a split decision against Geraldo de Freitas. The former CES Bantamweight Champion lost his UFC debut earlier in the year, getting submitted by Brett Johns.

Birchak started his second UFC run in November, taking a short notice bout against Gustavo Lopez. Birchak lost the fight within a round, getting submitted with a rear naked choke. The fight was his first in the UFC after a six-fight run in other promotions. Birchak now returns on Saturday looking for his first UFC win in his ongoing stint with the promotion.

Birchak was set to fight Johnny Eduardo last month, although that fight was cancelled on short notice due to visa issues.

Bout 2: Austin Hubbard (12-5) vs. Dakota Bush (8-2) (Lightweight)

Short-notice fighter Dakota Bush will get his UFC debut on the prelims against Austin Hubbard. Bush is stepping in for undefeated lightweight Natan Levy, who announced his withdrawal from the fight last week due to injury.

Bush enters the UFC after a seven-fight run in regional MMA promotion LFA. His last fight was a quick victory, as he stopped Austin Clem within a minute with punches in January.

Hubbard took a loss in his last showing, getting submitted by Joe Solecki with a rear naked choke in August.

Bout 3: Gerald Meerschaert (31-14) vs. Bartosz Fabinski (15-4) (Middleweight)

Middleweight veteran Gerald Meerschaert will attempt to snap a two-fight skid when facing Bartosz Fabinski on Saturday. Meerschaert has been finished quickly in his last two fights, getting stopped within a round last year by Ian Heinisch and Khamzat Chimaev.

Fabinski is also coming back from a first-round loss, as he was submitted by Andre Muniz via armbar in September.

Bout 4: Jessica Penne (12-5) vs. Lupita Godinez (5-0) (Strawweight)

Jessica Penne will return to the cage for the first time in nearly four years when fighting UFC newcomer Lupita Godinez.

Penne last fought in April of 2017, where she lost to Danielle Taylor in what was her fourth UFC bout at the time. Penne has been forced out of the cage since then, as injuries and battles with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency have stopped her from fighting.

Penne was first set to fight Hannah Goldy on Saturday, although she got an opponent change after Goldy withdrew from the fight. Godinez became a regional champion in her last fight, scoring a decision victory against Vanessa Demopoulos last year to earn the LFA Strawweight Championship.

Bout 5: Alexander Romanov (13-0) vs. Juan Espino (10-1) (Heavyweight)

Two successful heavyweights with a resume of finishes in Alexander Romanov and Juan Espino will compete on the prelims. Romanov has protected his UFC undefeated record since entering the UFC last year. Romanov scored two submission wins last year, stopping Roque Martinez and Marcos Rogerio de Lima within two-or-less rounds.

Espino, winner in Season 28 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” made his return to the cage in September, competing for the first time since 2018. The fight, which was against Jeff Hughes, ended within a round due to submission, earning Espino his second win in the UFC.

Bout 6: Tracy Cortez (8-1) vs. Justine Kish (7-3) (Flyweight)

Rising flyweight Tracy Cortez will face Justine Kish in the final bout on the preliminary card.

Cortez has seen success in the UFC since getting signed to the promotion through TV show “Dana White’s Contender Series.” Her UFC debut was in late 2019, where she fought to a decision win over Vanessa Melo. Her last bout was in October, which saw her defeat short-notice opponent Stephanie Egger on scorecards.

She now fights Kish, who is a six-fight UFC vet. Kish has struggled recently, having won only two of her last five bouts. Kish was stopped for the first time in her pro career in September, getting submitted with a rear naked choke from Sabina Mazo.

Cortez slightly missed weight for the bout, coming in half-a-pound over the non-championship flyweight limit on Friday.

Main Card (10:00PM EDT / 7:00PM PDT) (ESPN / TSN 5)

Bout 7: Luis Pena (8-3) vs. Alex Munoz (6-1) (Lightweight)

Looking to bounce back from losing his UFC debut last year, Alex Munoz will fight Luis Pena in the opening bout of the main card. Munoz had a big challenge in his first UFC fight, facing Nasrat Haqparast. Munoz went three rounds with Haqparast, losing on scorecards afterwards. He had earned six wins on the regional scene prior to then.

Pena also took a loss in his last bout, as Khama Worthy caught him with a guillotine choke last year.

Bout 8: Abdul Razak Alhassan (10-3) vs. Jacob Malkoun (4-1) (Middleweight)

Both attempting to return to the win column, middleweights Abdul Razak Alhassan and Jacob Malkoun have been paired for the main card.

Malkoun lost his UFC debut in quick time in the fall, getting stopped in just 18 seconds by Phil Hawes at UFC 254. Malkoun walked into the fight after attaining four consecutive wins as a pro.

Alhassan has lost two bouts since returning to action last year. His last loss, like Malkoun’s last showing, was a quick one. Alhassan lasted 30 seconds in November, as Khaos Williams landed a right hand that scored him a knockout.

Bout 9: Andrei Arlovski (30-20) vs. Chase Sherman (15-6) (Heavyweight)

Chase Sherman’s plans for Saturday night are not what they were originally scheduled to be. Sherman was first set to fight Parker Porter, although he needed a new opponent after Porter departed the bout. Who better to replace him than 34-fight UFC veteran Andrei Arlovski.

Arlovski had built up momentum in 2020, scoring two decision wins. That momentum was stopped in February, as Tom Aspinall submitted him in the second round of a bout with a rear naked choke.

Sherman made his return to the UFC in May of last year, stopping Ike Villanueva in the second round of a fight. The bout was Sherman’s first in the promotion after a run on the regional scene and a few bare-knuckle boxing fights.

Bout 10: Drakkar Klose (11-2-1) vs. Jeremy Stephens (28-18) (Lightweight)

Looking for his first win in six fights, UFC veteran Jeremy Stephens will meet Drakkar Klose in the co-main event of the card.

Stephens has been an active member of the UFC roster for over a decade, having first joined in 2007. The 34-year-old is currently going through the longest losing streak of his career, as he has lost four of his last five bouts, leaving him winless since 2018. His last fight was at UFC’s first event amid the COVID-19 pandemic in May, where Calvin Kattar stopped him in the second round with an elbow to the head.

Klose has a few things in common with Stephens. His last fight saw him on the receiving end of a highlight reel loss, and Saturday’s fight will be his first in a long time. Klose last fought in March of 2020, where a back-and-forth battle finished with him getting stopped in the second round by Beneil Dariush. The loss concluded a three-fight streak of wins that Klose had built up in the UFC.

Bout 11: Robert Whittaker (22-5) vs. Kelvin Gastelum (17-6) (Middleweight)

If the middleweight division had to select their next title challenger right at this moment, it would be Robert Whittaker. However, the promotion isn’t selecting their next challenger right now. Divisional champ Israel Adesanya isn’t booked for a fight currently, and he just recently fought against 205-pound champ Jan Blachowicz. Nonetheless, the point is, Whittaker is the top fighter in the division right now that isn’t the champion.

That status will be defended by Whittaker on Saturday when he fights Kelvin Gastelum in what could be a five-round fight. Gastelum took the fight on somewhat short notice, as it was reported in mid-March that he would step in to replace Paulo Costa.

Gastelum snapped a three-fight losing streak just two months back, defeating Ian Heinisch on scorecards. It’s worth noting that Gastelum’s losses came against big names in the division, including Israel Adesanya, Darren Till and Jack Hermansson.

Whittaker, a former champion, has had picked up two high-profile wins since losing his belt to Adesanya in 2019. Putting together two stellar performances, Whittaker won a bout over Jared Cannonier and a five-round fight against Darren Till last year. A win on Saturday would officially bring that momentum into 2021.

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