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Was Kelvin Gastelum ever a big name? Not to be disrespectful, but the UFC had him headlining Fight Night cards in his past two appearances, despite having a recent lengthy losing stretch. For whatever reason, the UFC has been reluctant to drop his level of competition. Yes, his performance against Israel Adesanya four years ago was great, but it’s never a good sign when what might end up being his career highlight is a loss. His road to get to that fight consisted of him beating a bunch of fighters past their prime. It doesn’t help he’s the 1 in Darren Till’s rough 1-5 slump he’s in.
We’re about to find out a LOT about Gastelum as the UFC finally appears to be presenting him with a more appropriate opponent than what he had been facing at UFC 287. In fact, it’s plausible he’s on the chopping block. We’re also about to find out just how much fire Michelle Waterson-Gomez still has in her belly. Believe it or not, it’s been a decade since she claimed the Invicta atomweight championship. In the fight game, a decade is a long time. UFC 287 isn’t the deepest PPV, but it’s deep enough that even casual viewers should recognize a name or two on the televised prelims.
For the early prelims preview, click here.
UFC 287 ESPN Prelims Preview
Kelvin Gastelum vs. Chris Curtis, Middleweight
I’ve already touched on the rough spot Gastelum has been on, but didn’t go into all the details. For instance, Gastelum has only won a single contest in his last six contests, Ian Heinisch being the only win. Throw in that he’s been on the sidelines for 20 months, largely due to an ACL tear, and it’s a wonder anyone would think we’ll ever see the version of Gastelum that put a scare into Adesanya ever again.
Then again, perhaps Curtis’ path can provide hope for Gastelum at UFC 287. Over a three month stretch in 2019, Curtis lost three consecutive fights at the age of 32. Since that time, Curtis has rattled off nine wins in ten appearances. Gastelum is presently 31 with a comparable amount of fights under his belt to where Curtis was at that time. It’s even plausible being forced to the sidelines is good for him as Gastelum’s hard-charging style has little regard for evading his opposition’s offense. A change in camps should be a nice shakeup for Gastelum as well. Perhaps Gastelum recovering his previous form isn’t so far-fetched.
All that said, Curtis has proven himself to be one of the more technical strikers on the roster. Sure, Curtis doesn’t have overwhelming natural power, but he has enough that he can put anyone to sleep with his supreme form. It often takes Curtis some time to absorb the requisite information he needs to find the killshot he’s known to find. That creates issues as he absorbed a lot of punishment in several of his fights before finding the right opening. At 35, it’s fair to question how many performances he still has in the tank where he absorbs large amounts of strikes, even if he’s not absorbing clean shots.
Make no mistake, Gastelum will be landing his share of offense at UFC 287. Though he is deservedly known as a brawler, Gastelum is a more savvy striker than he is given credit for. His distance management in particular is underrated. That said, he’s not going to out-technique Curtis. However, given his iron chin, deep gas tank, and willingness to let his hands go, he could very well outpoint Curtis. As skilled of a striker as Curtis is, he rarely looks to push the action, relying almost strictly on counters. Plus, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility Gastelum falls back to his wrestling.
It would make sense for Gastelum to use his wrestling given Curtis is one of the few opponents who isn’t significantly bigger than Gastelum, both being smaller members of the division. That said, it could be a moot point, even if Gastelum does try to fall back on his base. Curtis’ takedown defense has been rock solid thus far. Regardless, I expect the threat of takedowns should open things up for Gastelum some. At the very least, given both are southpaws, Gastelum should have the leg kicks for the taking, something Curtis tends to ignore.
My first instinct was to pick Curtis. He’s more technical, not coming off an injury, and has momentum on his side. All that said, he’s been losing several of his fights before turning the table with a KO out of nowhere. How much longer can he employ a strategy of eating plenty of damage before turning things around? Curtis is no spring chicken, even if he has proven to be largely durable throughout his career. Even if he can endure the beating, Gastelum is likely to outwork him should the fight go the distance.
Ultimately, Gastelum’s chin has been notoriously tough to crack, never having been stopped by strikes in his career. There’s a big part of me that believes I’m going to regret picking Gastelum as I’m not positive he responds well to the knee surgery. Plus, he’s got a lot of hard miles on his body too. There’s just as many signs pointing to him rebounding as there are to him faltering. It’s a tough pick, but I’ll go with the younger fighter. Gastelum via decision
Michelle Waterson-Gomez vs. Luana Pinheiro, Women’s Strawweight
It’s about time the UFC stopped trying to pair Waterson-Gomez against the top of the division. Having lost four of her last five, it couldn’t be more clear she doesn’t belong with the divisional elite. Not that losses to Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Carla Esparza, Marina Rodriguez, and Amanda Lemos are anything to be ashamed of, but it does present a clear ceiling. That Waterson-Gomez is now 37 only makes the ceiling that much lower.
All that said, her UFC 287 opponent in Pinheiro represents a BIG step down from the talents Waterson-Gomez has been facing. Pinheiro’s most impressive opponent thus far is either Randa Markos or Sam Hughes, depending on one’s opinion. Either of them are a far cry from any of the names listed earlier. That isn’t to say the UFC is out of their mind in making this contest as it doesn’t take a lot of footage to recognize the talent level of the 29-year-old Brazilian.
Pinheiro’s striking is exceptionally technical, no surprise given she’s been under the tutelage of Andre Pederneiras, Jose Aldo’s longtime coach. It isn’t just her striking either as she has picked up more of her wins via submission than any other way. There are still questions about her wrestling, but that may not matter given her slick judo skills. All the tools are there in terms of athleticism and training. However, there are still major questions about her will.
In her lone UFC win, Pinheiro gave up the final round as her conditioning stalled out. No surprise for a Nova Uniao fighter. More concerning, Pinheiro’s UFC debut saw her win via eating an illegal upkick, requiring her to be carried out of the cage when many believed the injury wasn’t that severe. I’m not here to state one way or another just how bad Pinheiro’s injury in that contest was. All I’m stating is there are many who doubt her heart following that victory and it’s reasonable to give credence to those concerns.
Even if Pinheiro’s heart isn’t an issue, Waterson-Gomez is going to be difficult for her to eek out a win. Owner of one of the most eclectic kicking arsenals in the division, Waterson-Gomez tends to keep her opponents on the outside with front and side kicks. Should Pinheiro catch her kicks and take her down, Waterson-Gomez’s grappling is easily the most underrated aspect of her arsenal. While she has only secured a single submission in her lengthy UFC run, she does typically end up exercising long periods of control in most of her contests.
Waterson-Gomez does appear to have lost about a half a step in terms of her speed. Despite that, she’s still one of the better athletes in the division. I’d still give Pinheiro the edge in that field, but not so much that she’ll be able to run over Waterson-Gomez. However, the biggest X-factor isn’t Pinheiro’s heart; it’s Waterson-Gomez’s. She’s indicated the end of her career could be nearer than most would expect given she is unlikely to be competing with the best the division has to offer anymore. If her motivation isn’t there, she could come out flat.
If Waterson-Gomez doesn’t have the fire anymore, Pinheiro is likely to secure the biggest win of her career at UFC 287. It won’t matter if Waterson-Gomez has improved her fight IQ over the years. She could still have enough in the tank to teach the less experienced Pinheiro a lesson or two. What sways me to Pinheiro is Waterson-Gomez’s bread and butter head-and-arm throw isn’t likely to work against the Brazilian, leaving Waterson-Gomez likely operating on a single dimension. Pinheiro via decision
Gerald Meerschaert vs. Joe Pyfer, Middleweight
Meerschaert is an enigma. Given how his durability comes and goes, it’s always a difficult proposition to predict how one of his fights goes. If his chin holds up, Meerschaert is one of the most experienced fighters on the roster who knows all the tricks of the trade. The record holder for the most submission victories in the middleweight division in UFC history, the guillotine is his specialty, but hardly the only sub in his arsenal. Nobody will mistake Meerschaert for a member of the Glory roster, but he’s not helpless on the feet either.
Given the inexperience of Pyfer, it’s easy to see the 26-year-old falling into one of Meerschaert’s savvy traps at UFC 287. Then again, Pyfer is strong as an ox and hits plenty hard too. Hard enough that there will be zero shock to see him put Meerschaert to sleep early. However, for whatever reason, most of Meerschaert’s losses come in the opening round. Provided the fight goes beyond the first round – something Pyfer doesn’t have a lot of experience with – it feels likely Meerschaert will add another submission to his resume at UFC 287. Meerschaert via submission of RD2
Karl Williams vs. Chase Sherman, Heavyweight
Chris Barnett was originally scheduled to face Sherman, but an injury kicked him out of the contest about a week before the event, leaving Williams the opportunity to pick up his second UFC win on short notice. Williams impressed with his wrestling and control against Lukasz Brzeski, throwing the Pole around like a rag doll at times. He’d better hope to turn the fight with Sherman into a wrestling match as Williams is still raw on the feet.
Not that there aren’t tools for Williams to develop, but Sherman is far more polished on the feet and can push a hard pace. Then again, that’s a striking pace. Williams is unlikely to allow it to be a striking affair and wrestling/grappling tends to gas one faster than striking. In other words, I don’t expect Sherman’s gas tank to hold up at UFC 287. Sherman is better than his 4-10 UFC record, but there is a reason that’s his record. Given Sherman lacks one-punch power, a Williams victory feels like a likely outcome, but I wouldn’t put money on it at the available odds. Williams via TKO of RD3
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