The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 17 winner, Kelvin Gastelum, will square off with veteran knockout artist, Vitor Belfort, this Saturday (March 11, 2017) at UFC Fight Night 106 inside Centro de Formacao Olimpica do Nordeste in Fortaleza, Brazil.
At this point in his young career, Gastelum is known for two things: Incredible talent and shitty dieting. On the bright side, if not for the fact that Gastelum missed weight so often, we would not know that Gastelum is also a dangerous man at 185 pounds. as well. Moving forward, Gastelum’s future is unclear. It would be wise for him to pursue another trip down to Welterweight — where he’s Top 5 and not out-sized — but Gastelum is closing in on a similar position at Middleweight. If he can keep winning fights like this one, he may just be able to go on a streak into title contention.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
In each aspect of his game, Gastelum is not exactly a technical marvel. That’s not to say he’s technically poor — the 25 year old is definitely skilled in all areas — but he tends to stick to the basics. As Gastelum’s success has proven, there’s nothing wrong with that, as his combination of speed, timing and durability have made him a lethal fighter even if he isn’t exactly innovating.
For most Southpaw, the jab is rarely such a key weapon. In Gastelum’s case, however, he uses it far better than most, opposite both Orthodox and Southpaw foes. In this week’s video highlight, I took a look at how Gastelum finds a home for his jab so consistently.
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 Gastelum throws with quite a bit of power. 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. 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).
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 his opponent, 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. He tends to stick to bread-and-butter techniques, but he does them with such speed and fluidity that Gastelum has nonetheless managed to takedown 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 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, which is very common in 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.
The only time Gastelum’s takedown defense truly came up short was opposite Neil Magny. It’s worth noting that Gastelum was training for Matt Brown — far from a wrestler — but Magny’s lanky frame and body lock takedowns did provide a tough test to Gastelum’s own wrestling. Gastelum routinely turned his back and stood to shake Magny off, but his opponent’s numerous takedowns did end up winning him the split decision.
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.
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 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 pretty damn close to being in the title mix in two separate divisions at just 25 years old. He’s quite obviously an incredible talent, and he’s most likely going to win this fight. As his game continues to grow deeper, the sky really is the limit for TUF 17’s champion, particularly if he can learn to cut weight properly.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an undefeated amateur fighter 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.