Ultimate Fighter (TUF) champion and top contender at a pair of weight classes, Kelvin Gastelum, will look to continue his undefeated Middleweight run opposite former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) strap-hanger, Chris Weidman, this Saturday night (July 22, 2017) at UFC on FOX 25 inside Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York.
Kelvin Gastelum may be his own worst enemy, but it’s still working out for him.
He was damn close to a Welterweight title shot back at UFC 205, but his third failure to make weight sent him back to Middleweight for the second time. Undeterred, Gastelum went and put a beating on Tim Kennedy unlike anyone else has, bloodying and battering the grappler despite the size difference.
He followed that up by viciously knocking out Vitor Belfort before burning himself by failing a drug test for marijuana. Still unaffected by his problems, Gastelum now finds himself in a main event with the potential to become a top five Middleweight.
Let’s take a closer look at the skills that make him so great once he’s actually in the Octagon.
Gastelum is a fighter who excels on the basics. There isn’t a single part of his game that is overly complicated or flashy, but Gastelum’s mix of fundamentals and his natural attributes have proven pretty deadly.
On the feet, 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 handfight 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).
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. He tends to stick to bread-and-butter techniques, 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.
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.
For Gastelum’s technique highlight, we took a look at just how Gastelum succeeds so often and scrambling to his 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 undeniably a physical talent, and in the fight itself, he’s brilliant strategically as well. His consistent approach breaks fighters down, and his complete game means that there’s no easy option with Gastelum. Striking with him is trouble, taking him down is difficult and tiring, and best of luck to any who intend to contain his scrambles. He’s one of the best fighters in the world, but his match with Weidman will prove as a real test if he can succeed at this high of a level despite his weight problems.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an 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.