UFC

Gastelum: Unwanted to undaunted

Kelvin Gastelum interacts with media at the UFC Training Center
Kelvin Gastelum talks to media at the UFC Training Center in Las Vegas.
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A.J. Perez

A.J. Perez previously worked at USA Today, AOL and CBSSports.com, covering beats ranging from performance-enhancing drugs to the NHL. He has also been a finalist for an Associated Press Sports Editors award for investigative reporting. Follow him on Twitter.

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Kelvin Gastelum stood quietly and watched 12 others selected ahead of him as coaches Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen chose teams in “The Ultimate Fighter Season 17” premiere.

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He was Sonnen’s final selection and the second-to-last pick among the 14 fighters overall.

"I’m just trying to prove people wrong," Gastelum told FOXSports.com. "I wasn’t really thinking (about making the finals). I just went out there and fought."

With three consecutive submissions since the teams were chosen, Gastelum — the youngest competitor in TUF history — certainly has accomplished that. The 21-year-old from Yuma, Ariz., has one last obstacle: Uriah Hall in the championship match at The Ultimate Fighter finale at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas on Saturday.

Coverage begins on FX at 9 pm ET.

At 5-feet-9 and with a reach of 72 inches, Gastelum wasn’t a physical specimen compared to others in the TUF house. He was the shy one, toting a Bible and blushing when Ronda Rousey — who Gastelum said he liked — stopped by during training.

He wouldn’t even be the first TUF winner from his own high school. Season 8 winner Efrain Escudero attended Cibola High in Yuma, a school that also produced Season 9 participant Edgar Garcia.

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"I was in high school when Efrain won The Ultimate Fighter," Gastelum said. "I also looked up to Cain Velasquez. They’re all from Yuma. That’s how I was introduced to MMA."

Like Velazquez, Gastelum was a state wrestling champ. But unlike Velazquez, an All-American at Arizona State, Gastelum’s collegiate career consisted of just one year at North Idaho College.

"My mom was struggling financially," Gastelum said. "There was nobody to help her out."

So, Gastelum returned to Arizona and took a job at Sam’s Club. Before TUF, his biggest opportunity professionally came 2 1/2 years ago, when a friend said there was an opening at a bail bond company.

"His brother owns the company," Gastelum said. "He asked if I wanted the job. I said, 'Of course.' It was way better than working at Sam’s Club. I would probably still be working as a bail bondsman now and probably would have gotten a second job."

Gastelum watched every episode this season with his mom, who raised Gastelum by herself.

"We were like four feet apart," joked Gastelum, who submitted Josh Samman with a rear-naked choke in their first round of their semifinal bout that aired Tuesday on FX. "She’s really proud and excited."

Gastelum is all but guaranteed a UFC contract, even with a loss to Hall, who was also part of Team Sonnen. Hall is the more experienced and physically gifted fighter.

But so were the four opponents — counting his preliminary match — Gastelum already has beaten this season.

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