When it comes to performance, Kelvin Gastelum has made a habit of defying the odds.
In spite of his recurrent underdog role, Gastelum has managed to consistently come out on top, emerging victorious to win “The Ultimate Fighter 17” against heavy favorite Uriah Hall – and then going on to beat seven of his next nine competitors. Of his two career losses, both close split calls, one was to current champ Tyron Woodley.
As he prepares to face Vitor Belfort (25-13 MMA, 14-9 UFC) in his opponent’s home country, Gastelum (13-2 MMA, 8-2 UFC) does see a personal achievement component in headlining a card opposite one of MMA’s most recognizable names.
But, then again, there’s a personal achievement component in the mere fact that he’s still around.
“It’s a big accomplishment for me to even just be here,” Gastelum told MMAjunkie. “First of all, because I wasn’t supposed to be here. I was picked last on ‘The Ultimate Fighter.’ I was the underdog in all my fights. I was supposed to lose all of them, and here I am, kicking ass, and I’m in the main event against a legend like Vitor Belfort.
“For me to be here is a big accomplishment in itself.”
The middleweight scrap headlines UFC Fight Night 106, which takes place March 11 at Centro de Formacao Olimpica do Nordeste in Fortaleza, Ceara, Brazil. The card airs on FS1 following early prelims on UFC Fight Pass, though the bout order hasn’t been finalized.
Gastelum, of course, didn’t just land the fight by accident. In fact, he explicitly asked for it – right after earning a dominant TKO win over now-retired Tim Kennedy in a middleweight scrap. Then torn between returning to his original 170-pound class, where he’d repeatedly failed to make the weight limit, or hanging around longer, Gastelum had a pretty simple reasoning behind the callout.
“I said at the post-fight press conference if I had a fight that would interest me in middleweight, I would stay here; (otherwise) I’d go back down to welterweight,” Gastelum said. “So I said if I get a fight like Vitor Belfort, who’s a big name, a legend in MMA, and he’s ranked above me.
“So they gave me the fight, the main event in Brazil. I’ve got a new contract, and things are looking good right now.”
While his request ultimately had a happy ending, another bit of his post-fight remarks elicited less-than-positive reactions: his wish to go back to welterweight. Gastelum’s well-known issues with the scale reached a critical point at UFC 205 when the commission forced him out of his bout with Donald Cerrone before he even got a chance to weigh in.
The incident had UFC President Dana White promising Gastelum would never go back to 170, which, paired with a solid display over Kennedy, amounted to some public pressure for the fighter to give up on making the previous cut.
Being surrounded by so much suspicion and having his weight once again steal the spotlight – and the headlines – is not a particularly warm-and-fuzzy feeling for Gastelum. But it’s a sentiment that he knows is not exactly unwarranted.
“It does bother me,” Gastelum said. “But at the same time, I’ve brought it onto myself. I have to face the consequences on a media standpoint now. It does bother me. It bothers me a lot. But I have to take it. I’m not one of those guys who shies away from his problems. I like to handle it upfront and kind of grab the bull by the horns.”
Failing to make weight, he said, is not only a public-relations problem; it’s a hindrance to performance, as well. That’s why, even though he won’t commit to “eating leaves” all the time, Gastelum is set on making lifestyle changes should he go back down.
“I don’t know how much physically – but mentally and emotionally, it affects you big time going into the fight,” Gastelum said. “Because you know people are talking so much trash, you know people are talking about you, you know you failed to make weight, and it’s just a big heavy burden that you go into the fight knowing all this. It’s a heavy burden.
“For me, I just have to learn to keep my weight down outside of camp. That was my main problem. I get too heavy. And I eat carelessly, I drink carelessly outside of camp, and that’s my fault. That’s not going to happen anymore. That’s a hard lesson learned, but I’m just trying to stay positive and learn from my mistakes.”
‘I want the fight that will give me a title shot’
But even the return to his original weight class, Gastelum clarified, remains an “if.” After all, he’s got one commitment at this moment: getting to the belt – in whatever division comes first.
“It’s not a definite that I’m going back down,” Gastelum said. “I’m going to weigh my options after this fight. I could stay at middleweight if a fight that I think interests me is given to me, or I’ll go back down and ask for a No. 1 contender. Because I want to fight for the belt in either division.
“I want to fight the contenders at middleweight, or I want to fight the contenders at welterweight. I want a fight for the No. 1 contender’s fight, at middle or welter. I want a title shot. I want a fight that will get me the title shot.”
And, as far as his physical attributes go, Gastelum doesn’t see himself at a disadvantage against the bigger middleweights.
“I don’t see (height) as a problem at all,” Gastelum said. “Guys are going to have to come down to me. What I mean is my center of gravity is going to be lower than a lot of these taller guys. It’s hard to even take me down. You have to really come under me to take me down, which is kind of hard to do if you’re tall.”
In any case, Gastelum’s possible future as a middleweight is now riding on the immediate challenge. In spite of a recent up-and-down run capped off by back-to-back knockout losses, Belfort is still – quite literally, if these images are to be believed – a tall order.
Used to being the underdog, Gastelum said he isn’t sure which will be his status coming in to March 11’s appointment. But, intrigued by the matchup, he is not about to overlook the always-dangerous “Phenom.”
“He’s been in this position before,” Gastelum said. “He’s coming off losses and he’s been up again, and winning again, and almost fought for another title again. So I’m not underestimating him at all. He’s been in this position before, and he’s dangerous, especially in the first round. So I have a lot of respect for him as fighter and a person.”
“Stylistically, I think we’re very similar. He has great boxing. He’s a southpaw. So am I. He’s got good jiu-jitsu. I’ve got my wrestling background. So I think stylistically, it’s going to be interesting because we’re both southpaws, we’re both good punchers, and we’re no slouch on the ground either.
“It’s going to be pretty evenly matched all around, except obviously I think I can win.”
And if he does win? Well, the 25-year-old has no reason to believe that gold – at whatever weight that may be – isn’t waiting right around the corner.
“I take it one fight at a time, but I want to be champ now,” Gastelum. “I think I can be champion now. I think it’s time. I think it’s time for me to really go on a mission for gold.”
For more on UFC Fight Night 106, check out the UFC Rumors section of the site.
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