The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) champion and two-division title threat, Kelvin Gastelum, is set to square off with recently dethroned Middleweight kingpin, Michael Bisping, this Saturday (Nov. 25, 2017) at UFC Fight Night 122 inside Mercedes Benz Arena in Shanghai, China.
Two-division title threat is an accurate descriptor of Kelvin Gastelum if a frustrating one.
At Welterweight, Gastelum advanced into the top five quickly and seemed to be closing in on a title shot before diet issues sent him to Middleweight (again). At 185 lbs., he’s proven himself an elite fighter with the ability to potentially beat anyone, but Chris Weidman also showed that size matters by grounding his smaller foe for most of the bout.
Regardless of weight class, Gastelum remains an incredibly talented fighter who demonstrates just how effective the basics are when done correctly. Let’s take a closer look at his skill set.
Gastelum is a somewhat frustrating fighter to analyze because of how meat-and-potatoes his overall game is. That’s especially true on the feet, as Gastelum repeatedly pierces up his opponent with the complex combination of the jab and cross. The 1-2 was assigned those numbers because it’s quite literally the first punches and first combination you learn as a boxer, yet Gastelum does a majority of his work with just that combination.
Of course, there’s a reason why Gastelum is so successful. On the feet, he’s far more fleet-footed than most of his peers at either weight class. Alongside that fluid movement, Gastelum packs fast hands and power that doesn’t require loaded up punches.
For Gastelum, it all starts with the jab. That may not be the usual weapon of choice for Southpaws, but Gastelum does a fantastic job of stabbing at his opponent’s nose regardless of their stance. His jab is fast and spearing, the perfect set up for his power punches. Often, Gastelum likes to reach out and hand-fight before stepping in with the actual punch.
Even though he’s a strong wrestler, Gastelum does an excellent job of maintaining distance via the jab. Opposite men who prefer to fight from the inside like Johny Hendricks and Tim Kennedy, Gastelum really does an excellent job of sticking the jab in their face as they tried to move forward (GIF).
Following Gastelum's jab is usually a long left straight, which has looked like a piston firing since his move up to Middleweight (GIF). Again, there's nothing too extraordinary about how Gastelum sets up his left, but he throws it aggressively and has a solid sense of distance. Often, it’s a simple matter of stepping to the outside and jamming his cross up the middle. Since his jab is such an effective weapon, it can stun his opponent just long enough for the cross to land cleanly. In particular, Gastelum reads his opponents’ defenses quite well and will find a hole with his left hand. He's rather nasty with the left uppercut, which he commonly throws as his opponent is pressed against the fence (GIF).
Feinting is also a major factor in setting up the left hand (GIF). Gastelum feints constantly and uses false starts to hide his actual entrances, and the result is clean punches that land on an unsuspecting opponent. Feints and false starts are pivotal to Gastelum’s game, and they’re the subject of this week’s technique highlight.
Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of Gastelum's game is his kicking. Gastelum has yet to really dedicate himself to chopping his opponent down, but he commonly starts his fights with some hard inside and outside low kicks. He also managed to drop Story with a head kick, which is becoming a more common weapon for him. Like many Southpaws, Gastelum plays with the double threat of the left cross and high kick opposite Orthodox opponents.
Similarly, Gastelum’s body kicks have become an increasingly effective part of his game. Additionally, Gastelum used a step left knee to the mid-section opposite Nate Marquardt. Stepping in to close the distance fully after pinning his opponent to the fence, these knees winded his opponent and helped set up the later knockout via punches.
Like the rest of his game, Gastelum hasn't shown any never-before-seen or particularly rare takedowns. It’s all simple technique, but he does them with such speed and fluidity that Gastelum has nonetheless managed to take down some excellent wrestlers.
Usually, Gastelum is looking for his double leg takedown. While he can work for the shot against the fence, Gastelum often looks for his takedown in the center of the Octagon, where he can really explode through the shot.
A solid example of Gastelum's offensive wrestling came in his bout with Jake Ellenberger. "The Juggernaut" tagged his foe with a hard punch and tried to swarm, but Gastelum returned with a reactive double leg. Ellenberger -- who's quite the explosive athlete himself -- defended with strong hips initially. However, Gastelum simply wouldn't be stopped, as he ran through the takedown in a sort of double leg/knee pick hybrid.
In addition, Gastelum often looks to snap his opponent's head down. While he will look for it after a failed double — a very common tactic in actual wrestling — Gastelum will often just latch onto his opponent's head directly from the regular clinch and try to drag him down immediately.
Despite his wrestling background, Gastelum looks to strike more often than not. Since he’s become so effective in that area, it means that his takedown defense is tested often, and it’s held up rather well. Gastelum is light on his feet and moving constantly, which helps him avoid many of his foes takedown attempts. Unless they can time him coming in too heavily, he’s usually moving too much for his opponent to line up a double leg. In any case, Gastelum’s sprawl is heavy enough to stop the shot more often than not regardless.
At Welterweight, Gastelum only struggled with the takedowns of Neil Magny, an awkwardly tall body-lock wrestler. It’s worth-noting that he was training for Matt Brown, a very different fighter and non-wrestler. Regardless, Gastelum struggled to stop those clinch takedowns, as Magny would lock his hands and hang on Gastelum until the young athlete fell.
Since then, Gastelum seems to have improved. Tim Kennedy pursued a similar clinch-heavy approach, but Gastelum’s ability to return to his feet and fight hands from the back clinch exhausted Kennedy quickly. Before long, Kennedy was a sitting duck on the feet.
Springing back to his feet is definitely a strength of the Arizona-native. He’s quick to turn his back and stand, fighting hands to prevent control. If his opponent hangs on, Gastelum does a nice job of pressuring into his foe to prevent any big slam and give himself a chance to strip the grip. Additionally, Gastelum will look to shoulder roll often, which helps him scramble.
Against Weidman, however, Gastelum’s scrambling wasn’t quite enough. He made Weidman work and was difficult to control early on, but it’s exhausting to have a larger wrestler weighing down on you while working hard to escape. Eventually, Gastelum’s scrambles were less explosive, and Weidman was able to focus on damage and submissions instead of just control.
A purple belt in jiu-jitsu, Gastelum has proven to be an opportunistic finisher on the mat. That hasn’t been a pivotal part of his game lately, but Gastelum is definitely one to quickly revert to his grappling roots after stunning an opponent.
For wrestlers learning jiu-jitsu and trying to submit fighters in MMA, the rear-naked choke has always been the go-to. It's simple and usually requires nothing else but the correct position and persistence. In Gastelum's case, he excels at latching onto the rear naked choke during scrambles. Regardless of whether he's working from the turtle position or has just rocked his opponent standing, Gastelum is always hunting for an opportunity to dive on his opponent's neck.
In short, Gastelum is excellent at capitalizing on small lapses in his opponent's concentration. Focus is obviously important in a fight -- particularly when the rear naked choke is in play -- but there's a lot going on in a fight. While Gastelum's opponent is trying to figure out how to block his small punches, scramble back to the feet, or recover from a knock down, Gastelum is waiting for the moment his attention shifts just enough for him to sneak his arm under the chin (GIF).
Gastelum is a great fighter caught in a weird position that’s largely his own doing. At Welterweight, he was an imminent title threat. That position is less certain at 185 lbs., as the Weidman loss definitely took some wind from his sails. Starching Michael Bisping — as the odds makers seem to expect — will raise him up a few spots in the rankings, but it will take more than a single win to erase the memory of getting manhandled by “The All-American.” Realistically, Gastelum should keep campaigning for a return to 170 lbs., where his chance to take the belt is strongest.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an amateur champion who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport's most elite fighters.