Less than 24 hours before he set to defend his UFC middleweight championship for the first time at UFC 234, Robert Whittaker was in emergency surgery to address an intestinal hernia and a twisted and collapsed bowel.

His scheduled opponent, former Ultimate Fighter reality show winner Kelvin Gastelum (15-3 MMA, 10-3 UFC), decided to keep himself in the spotlight despite his main event opportunity falling apart. Gastelum borrowed flyweight champion Henry Cejudo’s title belt, slung it over his shoulder and told anyone who would listen he was the new middleweight champ.

“This is my belt,” Gastelum told a crowd of reporters at the event in Melbourne. “I earned this. I showed up, traveled thousands and thousands of miles from home, made the weight. In my world, the wrestling world, if the guy shows up and makes the weight, for some reason cancels the bout, the guy forfeits the match. I win. I am the champion.”

The stunt was not warmly received by fans and fellow fighters, even drawing out MMA’s biggest star to comment.

“Why is that worm holding the 185lb belt?” former two-division champ Conor McGregor tweeted. “There are worms crawling on his skin! It was absolutely ludicrous to even consider allowing him to compete. Let alone now walk around the arena shaking our fans hands. Someone sort this, this instant. And sterilize that belt. Immediately.”

Israel Adesanya’s (16-0 MMA, 5-0 UFC) middleweight bout with MMA legend Anderson Silva was promoted to the main event of UFC 234 following Whittaker’s surgery. Adesanya defeated the game but overmatched former 2,457-day middleweight champ to score the biggest win of his career.

Moments after the fight, Adesanya turned his attention to Gastelum at cageside. “Kelvin, put that belt down,” he said. “Seriously.”

Adesanya would continue to address the belt situation during the post-fight press conference.

“This ain’t wrestling, this ain’t high school wrestling,” Adesanya said. “This is MMA. This is the UFC. Those rules don’t apply here. But, let me see, he has a point. He does have a point but I think sit it out, fight Rob (Whittaker) and the winner can fight me.”

Adesanya’s proposed plan of a Gastelum/Whittaker championship winner facing him in the next title fight was not to be.

Instead, the Nigerian-born fighter was being pitched a short-turnaround fight against Gastelum for the interim middleweight championship at UFC 236 on April 13 at State Farm Arena in Atlanta.

“Before I left Melbourne, within two days they offered me this fight, and I said, ‘Just let me breathe for a second, let me get out of Melbourne and just chill,’” Adesanya said at a press conference ahead of UFC 236. “I think within the next day I was like, ‘Yup, sign me up. I’ll do the fight.’ Interim or not interim, at the end of the day we had a deal.”

While the UFC 236 fight will be Adesanya’s sixth trip to the Octagon in just 14 months, Gastelum has only fought once since November 2018. The dip in inactivity was a big motivating factor for Gastelum also agreeing to the bout despite an almost ironic disappointment in the fight not being for the “real belt”.

“It’s for a world title but at the same time it is kind of like a number one contender spot with a little prize,” Gastelum said during a media luncheon ahead of this Saturday’s event. “That’s kind of how I think. It’s a little bittersweet that I’m not fighting for the undisputed title against Rob in Australia. At the end of the day, this has been the longest layoff of my career and I just wanted to get in there and fight.”

Gastelum also said he doesn’t feel Adesanya has properly worked his way to a title shot in his brief UFC career despite a #5 spot in the UFC middleweight rankings.

“I don’t think he’s been through the fire that I’ve been through,” Gastelum said. “He hasn’t fought the quality of opponents that I have.

“Obviously, he’s fought some great fighters, but the top five guys, anyone of those top five guys can be the champion, and I don’t think he’s fought those kind of guys.”

Adesanya has won every fight in his professional career, and the name value of each win has increased with each trip to the Octagon, culminating in the decision win over Silva.

Win after win, fight seemingly on top of fight, Adesanya has established a momentum unlike anyone in the UFC. And he seems to believe that’s a force strong enough to lead him to the interim championship.

“Momentum’s a powerful force, and it keeps on rolling,” Adesanya said at the pre-event press conference. “I’m going to roll over Kelvin.”

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