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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC Vegas 34’s Kelvin Gastelum

UFC Fight Night: Whittaker v Gastelum Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

Long-time contender, Kelvin Gastelum, will square off with multi-division power puncher, Jared Cannonier, this Saturday (Aug. 21, 2021) at UFC Vegas 34 inside UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Gastelum is an interesting athlete, especially from the analyst’s chair. On one hand, he’s clearly a remarkable talent, a contender in whatever division he can make weight at and consistent main event athlete. On the flip side, Gastelum’s overall approach to fighting is remarkably simple, and little has changed over the years. Though writing him off entirely would be foolhardy, it’s impossible to ignore that Gastelum’s recent results have not been inspiring. He’s lost four of his last five, only looking particularly great in the Israel Adesanya bout. Perhaps it is time for Gastelum to branch out with his strategies and techniques?

Until then, let’s take another look at his skill set:

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Striking

Gastelum is about as meat-and-potatoes as it gets — all of his foes know that the 1-2 or 3-2 are coming! However, Gastelum is still able to achieve great results and hurt lots of his opponents on the strength of his movement, feints, and timing.

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 opponents’ noses regardless of their stances. 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 (GIF). Opposite men who prefer to fight from the inside like Johny Hendricks and Tim Kennedy, Gastelum really did an excellent job of sticking the jab in their faces as they tried to move forward.

Following Gastelum’s jab is usually a long left straight, which looks like a piston firing particularly since his move up to Middleweight (GIF). Again, there’s rarely anything too extraordinary about how Gastelum sets up his left, but he throws it aggressively and has a solid sense of distance (GIF). 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. Gastelum’s constant commitment to pumping his lead hand feint and faking entries is a major reason that his cross is able to land so consistently. Often, he uses his upper body feints to bring has back foot a little more beneath him, allowing that explosive lunge into the left.

Gastelum often looks to set up his punches by coming underneath the guard. He carries his jab hand low, meaning it shoots up from the waist. To build on that, Gastelum commonly feints low with a slight squat before firing. In addition, Gastelum has been more active with targeting the mid-section with a left hook around the guard.

Against Adesanya, Gastelum’s low hand position and speed proved a huge issue for the counter striker. Early on, Adesanya was trying to time Gastelum’s entrances, but he was simply too fast! Gastelum would fire the jab up into the chin, lifting Adesanya out of position and leaving him vulnerable to follow up shots (GIF).

Gastelum commonly lands hard shots on the counter. A new wrinkle to his game he showed opposite “Jacare” Souza came in the form of elbows. As Souza marched forward with his hands high, Gastelum occasionally planted his feet to land an upward or fold-over elbow. In addition, countering the right hand often results in Gastelum’s most significant blows (GIF).

Gastelum’s kicking is underutilized. For example, Darren Till managed to score a split-decision over Gastelum largely by hanging back and landing a few more kicks. By the third, however, Gastelum had picked up on what was happening and started digging his own low kicks to great effect — he won that round! More kicks earlier may have helped him avoid that defeat.

On occasion, Gastelum will use the Southpaw double threat to set up his left leg, whether to the body or head. In addition, 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.

Admittedly, Gastelum’s simplicity may be catching up to him. Robert Whittaker seemed extraordinarily well aware of the threat of Gastelum’s left, but he largely nullified the weapon by slamming his shin into Gastelum’s forearm repeatedly. Without the left bothering him, the taller and longer Whittaker was able to score with his jab and kicks frequently.

Wrestling

Gastelum’s wrestling approach is just as fundamental as his kickboxing and nearly as effective, too.

Oddly enough, Gastelum really returned to his wrestling recently vs. Ian Heinisch, who is a bigger man that likes to wrestle. Shooting off his left hand, Gastelum repeatedly picked up the high-crotch. From that shot, Gastelum had options: he could look to run the pipe, cut the corner to the back, or attempt the dump finish then transition into the double leg. He scored all those finishes at one point or another, and he also used the odd set up of absorbing a flying knee to score the takedown on two separate occasions.

An earlier 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 takedown. 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. Gastelum usually looks to spin to the back following the snap down, but he also simply circled to safety when faced with a jiu-jitsu master in Souza (GIF).

Defensively, 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.

Springing back to his feet is definitely a strength of the Arizona-native. As seen in his fight with Tim Kennedy, Gastelum is 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. In addition, Gastelum will look to shoulder roll/fat man roll often. This pair of rolls work remarkably well for Gastelum, who consistently reverses opponents who try too hard to hang on at the waist.

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.

Gastelum faced a similar challenge in “Jacare,” and he focused on defending the initial takedown more than trying to scramble away. The results were spectacular, as Souza scored no true takedown and was forced to pull guard into a leg lock to force a grappling match. Athleticism is a major factor in takedown defense so long as the defending man knows how to widen his base and fight for under hooks, something Gastelum did well repeatedly (GIF).

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

A Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, 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 mixed martial arts (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).

Conclusion

Is this the fight where Gastelum demonstrates new skills? At the very least, the dangerous punching of Cannonier may force him to rely on both his wrestling and kickboxing across five rounds, whereas its largely been one or the other lately. At 29 years of age, there’s still reason to hope Gastelum can put together a title run, but it’s clear that his style needs some tweaks to work against the Middleweight elite consistently.


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To check out the latest and greatest UFC Vegas 34: “Cannonier vs. Gastelum” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.

Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional 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.