For Kelvin Gastelum, the role of underdog is gone, left behind
in the Vegas desert. After weaving his way through The
Ultimate Fighter tournament in which he was his team’s last
pick and going on to capture the crown, he’s a full-fledged UFC
fighter, and in his Wednesday night fight against Brian Melancon,
he’s a favorite to boot.
Things aren’t supposed to move this fast for any
21-year-old, let alone one who had little professional experience
before trying out for the show. Yet when he got his opportunity,
Gastelum proved both a quick study and a ferocious competitor,
defeating three of its most seasoned performers: Bubba McDaniel,
Josh Samman and Uriah Hall.
Despite capturing the prize and becoming the youngest tournament
winner in TUF history, Gastelum keeps hearing the same thing, that
those fights didn’t really count. That now is when his career
The pressure. The expectations. The target on his back. Beyond
that, he can no longer sneak up on the field. Now, he’s a known
commodity, and that changes everything.
If that wasn’t fully proven by his TUF stretch, he left no
questions when he accepted a fight against the dangerous Brazilian
Paulo Thiago, a veteran who once famously starched perennial
contender Josh Koscheck with a crushing uppercut. As intros go, it
would have been something of a baptism under fire.
As it turns out, he’ll take a different path, after Thiago
was forced out due to injury and Melancon took his place. The
31-year-old Melancon is not nearly as seasoned as Thiago, with only
one octagon bout under his belt. However, in that match, he knocked
out the tough Seth Baczynski, improving his record to 9-2. So he’s
no slouch, either.
To Gastelum (6-0), it’s just a name anyway, quite
literally, as he told FOX Sports that he had to look up Melancon
after accepting the fight with him. As he sees it, the person who
stands across from him holds no real importance past their mere
presence. It’s a choice he’s consciously made in order
to focus on his own development. And since we’ve last seen
him, he’s undergone some changes.
First off, he’s healthy. The grueling TUF schedule —
four fights over the course of a few weeks in the house —
took its toll, and as a result, he thinks he is capable of even
more than he showed.
While he spent the early part of his career in Arizona, Gastelum
used the TUF platform to tinker with his existing training, and
those connections opened up a spot for him at Mark Munoz’s Reign
Training Center in Lake Forest, California. During the time, he
trained with his former teammate and last opponent, Hall.
Hall has become something of a cautionary tale for him. After
starting off with so much promise during TUF, Hall struggled to
channel his best effort against Gastelum and recently put forward
another heavily criticized performance, this one against John
Howard, losing another decision.
Like most other observers, Gastelum has been left scratching his
head at what he’s witnessed from Hall in the cage. But since
he has direct experience with how good Hall can be — “he’s a
beast in the training room and works everybody,” he says — to
him, the cause is a mystery. He can’t put his finger on why
consistency has eluded such a talent, but knows he can’t let the
same thing happen to him.
“I definitely don’t want to do that,” he said. “He didn’t
perform and that’s a lesson to be learned. You don’t want to
do what he did in the cage. You want to leave it all in the cage
and I don’t feel like he did. He paced himself. Every fight I have
I expect to leave it all in the cage.”
Aside from the shift in his coaches and partners, the biggest
difference is size; after winning TUF as a middleweight, he made
the move back to 170 pounds with the help of renowned strength and
nutrition coach Mike Dolce. It was a move he planned since the
beginning, but it still required some changes.
Gastelum’s diet before consisted of whatever he wanted. Mexican
food, Burger King, donuts, they were all frequently featured in his
meals. Under Dolce, that’s all been changed, and Gastelum says he
felt the difference as he went through his training camp.
“I’ve been handling these middleweights, so I think
I’m gonna toss welterweights around the cage,” he said. “I’m
going to be the bigger, faster and stronger fighter in the cage,
which is going to work to my advantage.”
At 5-foot-9, Gastelum will rarely have height on his opponents,
but he believes that it will be the norm for him to enter with a
strength advantage. After scouting Melancon, he sees an opponent
with powerful hands and aggressiveness.
“He reminds me a lot of me, really,” he said.
“But he likes to brawl. He’s a brawler. I think
I’m going to be a little more technical. I’m going to
fight smart and be the aggressor.”
If going from perennial underdog to favorite has changed him,
he’s not showing it. If being under the spotlight at age 21
has put him under pressure, it doesn’t come across in his
words. He keeps hearing that this is his official debut, like all
those other fights don’t matter, and he’s OK with it.
This is a man who once nearly quit MMA because of financial
struggles, and now his biggest problem is how his career is
perceived? He’ll gladly sign up for that. Whether it’s
his first fight or his seventh, the goal is to continue the forward
momentum he built when nobody believed in him, when nobody could
see quite where he was going.
“Eventually, I would like to fight someone with a name
that I’ve seen before and people know, and really test myself
against top veteran guys,” he said. “But this does kind
of feel different. I’m not a part of TUF anymore. I’m
on the UFC roster, and I couldn’t be more excited.”