FOX Sports Exclusive
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 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.
"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.”