The rival of Australian UFC superstar Robert Whittaker has declared himself as the new middleweight champion after their highly anticipated showdown was called off.
The match up between Whittaker and US opponent Kelvin Gastelum was scheduled to be the main event of the sold-out UFC 234 at Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena on Sunday.
But Whittaker was rushed to hospital for emergency surgery on a hernia and collapsed bowel the night before his title defence and biggest fight of his life.
UFC boss Dana White and Whittaker’s management have since said the consequences could been fatal had the bout gone ahead as planned.
Despite the dire warning, a triumphant Gastelum made a grand entrance to the UFC 234 arena carrying the title belt and proclaiming himself as the new champion ‘for sure’.
‘It’s my belt and I’ve earned this, you know what I mean,’ he told reporters.
‘I showed up, travelled thousands of miles across the world to be here, made the weight, showed up on fight day. In my world, if a guy for whatever reason forfeits, that makes me the champion.’
Gastelum’s opponent Aussie middleweight titleholder Robert Whittaker (pictured) could have died had his UFC 234 gone ahead in Melbourne on Sunday
Kelvin Gastelum declared himself at the new UFC middleweight champion on Sunday
Despite copping backlash on social media from fans for showing disrespect to Whittaker, Gastelum declared wouldn’t be going home empty handed.
‘I made a promise to my people I was coming home with some hardware,’ Gastelum said as he touched his new belt.
Earlier, a disappointed Gastelum took to social media to express mixed feelings about his forfeited fight.
‘God has a reason for doing things and I firmly believe his plans are much bigger and better than I can even imagine. I’m so torn about this situation. A lifetime of pursuit to be able to reach this level and I hope none of these efforts will go in vain,’ he tweeted.
Robert Whittaker and Kelvin Gastelum faced off in Melbourne in the lead up to the fight
Gastelum later tweeted to wish his fierce rival a speedy recovery.
Whittaker will spend the next few days in hospital after he was rushed to hospital late Saturday night suffering from severe abdominal pain.
‘This is one of those freak accidents where the doctor said he’d literally never seen this type of injury in a young person,’ White told ESPN.
‘This usually only happens to old people. His bowel and his intestines poked through the hole and it didn’t happen yesterday after the [weigh-ins]. They think he had this problem and it’s been going in and out.’
Kelvin Gastelum (pictured) has declared himself as the new UFC middleweight champion
Kelvin Gastelum had mixed feelings about his showdown being called off
Whittaker’s management released a statement on Sunday afternoon to say he was recovering from dual surgery and was devastated to forfeit.
‘Rob will want to speak to his fans directly when he can,’ the statement read.
‘Up until five minutes before going into surgery, Rob was insisting he would fight, but advice was that a blow to his stomach could be fatal. Rob will come back stronger and ready for what is to come.’
Earlier on Saturday afternoon, Whittaker took to social media to say he was ready for his title defence on home soil.
‘Never been better prepared or more ready! BRING. IT. ON,’ Whittaker posted on Instagram.
The Kiwi-born Sydney-based star has been plagued with illness and injury in recent years
Disappointed fans commented on Whittaker’s post when the news broke on Sunday morning.
‘Pullout Merchant. Twice in own country. I understand it can happen but you would had symptoms earlier so i think it’s just a b******t excuse,’ one posted.
Another added: ‘Bro are you made of glass. Literally injured before and after every event.’
Others called him a coward over the late withdrawal.
Whittaker took to Instagram on Saturday to say he was ready to defend his title
Other fans jumped to Whittaker’s defence and wished him well in his recovery.
‘He’s one of the best champs, made it through with that thing in his abdomen the whole time. That’s a true warrior, good thing doctors picked up on it when they did,’ one posted.
Another added: ‘Get well soon champ. Gutted for you.’
With a record of 20 wins from 24 bouts, the Kiwi-born Sydney-based star hasn’t been beaten in five years.
According to a statement from his management, Robert Whittaker (pictured) insisted he would fight the next day just minutes before he was wheeled into emergency surgery
‘I travelled all the way across the world to be here, made the weight, showed up on fight day … where’s my opponent?,’ a disappointed Kelvin Gastelum (pictured)
However, he’s been plagued with injuries and illness in recent years.
A straph infection in his stomach forced Whittaker to pull out UFC 221 in Perth last year, which was also a title defence.
He was on the comeback after breaking his hand in an epic showdown with Yoel Romero last June.
The UFC has offered refunds to disappointed fans who had bought tickets to see Whittaker in action.
Whittaker attracted a huge crowd of Melbourne fans in the big build up to UFC 234
There was a mixed reactions from fans after Whittaker suddenly pulled out due to illness