After his loss to Nigerian-born Kiwi Israel Adesanya in October 2019, expatriate Māori Robert Whittaker [23-5] has been on the journey back to champion status in the UFC Middleweight division.
Riding the momentum of victories over Darren Till and Jared Cannonier since that fateful loss, Australian resident 'The Reaper' was poised to face Brazillian Paulo Costa, who was coming off his failed title shot attempt to 'The Last Stylebender' last September.
But a month ago Costa had to be replaced due to illness. That replacement is eighth-ranked Kelvin Gastelum.
It all goes down this weekend! Credit source: Facebook/UFC
Their matchup has been two years in the making. Although the two middleweights were supposed to clash in February 2019, Whittaker was forced to withdraw just hours before for emergency surgery for a collapsed bowel and internal hernia.
The match then became Gastelum [17-6, 1 NC] vs Adesanya to crown an interim middleweight champion, which Adesanya won after an exceptionally powerful fiver-round bout with the American. He would eventually go on to beat Whittaker to unify the titles and become the undisputed champion.
Kelvin brings the fight to Izzy! Credit: Facebook/UFC
"Our paths cross again"
In a press conference, Whittaker says although he and Gastelum were supposed to fight two years before, he wasn't entirely disappointed it didn't happen then but is happy that it finally comes to fruition this weekend.
'The Reaper is ready. Credit : YouTube/UFC
"The thing is that I'm a very different beast from back then. From a technical point of view, I'm a much more complete athlete, and the mental game has never been better."
When asked if a win over Gastelum means he will take a title shot next, "Bobby Knuckles" says "Who knows? Maybe I'll surprise everybody, we'll wait and see."
Reinforcing his focus on Gastelum he says, "My calendar and scheduling only goes up to Saturday [US time] because it's gonna be a hard fight and I can't look past him."
'Is your mind present?'
Ever since his loss to Adesanya in 2019, Gastelum hasn't had the best of track records. The American lost two more fights consecutively and eventually bounced back with a win but mentally he was fighting a losing battle.
In an interview with Redlands Daily Facts, he said, "You go through motions of the day, go through motions of practice but it’s important to know how much your mind is involved in that. You might be present at practice physically but is your mind present? A lot of times that wasn’t the case."
Taking Whittaker on after only four week's notice meant Kelvin was ready to take back control of his mind, instead of his mind controlling him.
“I’ve had to dig real freaking deep to find that inspiration to go train but deep, deep, deep down in my heart, I believed that I still have it. I still have the skills, I still have the will to do this."
Kelvin oozes excitement and confidence to the media. Credit source: YouTube/UFC
Speaking in a press conference with other media, Gastelum said he believes the victor of this fight will be next in line to rumble a second time with Adesanya.
"I get the win, I get my hand raised, and I get the chance to fight for the title next."
He also expects the fight to be highly skilled.
"These are two guys that are entering their prime. He is highly skilled, I believe I have the skills to match it, or be even better, so the fight fans are in for a nice fight."
Their main event rumble will happen on Sunday, April 18 [NZ time], live on ESPN and UFC Fight Pass.