No pressure on Kelvin Gastelum

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

really begins.

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.

“I’m in it full speed ahead,” he told FOX Sports a few days

prior to

href="http://www.ufc.com/event/ufc-fight-night-condit-kampmann2#/fight"

target="_blank">UFC Fight Night: Condit vs. Kampmann II. “I’ll

fight anybody they put in front of me. Anyone the UFC wants me to

fight.”

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.

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“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.”