Kelvin Gastelum isn't looking for shelter. He's in search of the biggest challenges he can find.
Where a large majority of past winners of The Ultimate Fighter were ushered into the official UFC fold slowly and brought along at a measured pace, the 22-year-old had no want to continue that trend. After pulling off a dramatic upset over the heavily favored Uriah Hall to win the 17th season of the reality-based fighting tournament, Gastelum didn't waste time basking in a job well done. Instead, he made the decision to drop down a weight class and get to work.
Certainly the UFC could have paired him in a favorable matchup and allowed him to get his feet wet, but when his opponent was announced to be Paulo Thiago, the Yuma-based fighter's path began to take shape. When the gritty Brazilian veteran was forced out of the bout just weeks before their scheduled date in Indianapolis, the undefeated fighter remained focused and properly dispatched late-replacement Brian Melancon in the first round of their tilt at Fight Night 27 in Indianapolis.
It was an impressive showing from start to abrupt finish and put another charge of momentum behind Gastelum's rising profile. He was looking to continue that push when his next challenge was announced but an injury suffered in training forced the Team Sonnen representative out of his scheduled bout with Court McGee at UFC on Fox 9 last December.
"Before I even got the fight it was rumored that Story was going to fight Tyron Woodley," Gastelum told Bleacher Report. "As soon as Woodley got the fight with [Carlos] Condit, I text Dana and asked him if I could get this fight. He told me he was going to work on it with Joe Silva, and the next thing I know, they are calling to tell me I'm fighting Rick Story.
The Brave Legion fighter has been a nightmare matchup for some of the biggest names in the division and is one of only two people to hold a win over current title challenger Johny Hendricks. With his upcoming opponent's history against "Bigg Rigg," Gastelum packed his bags and headed to Arlington to train with the former two-time Div. I national champion wrestler and his crew.
"I did my training for this camp down here with Team Takedown and Johny Hendricks," Gastelum said. "They have some experience fighting Story and Johny is a heavy-hitter with a great wrestling base. I've been preparing pretty well with them and I feel good. I feel confident going into this fight."
In addition to the wrestling pedigree the camp is known for, they are also recognized for carrying some of the best beards in the fight game. While Hendricks' beard may be the most famous of the bunch, heavyweight Jared Rosholt and coach Marc Laimon have been bringing it strong and Gastelum's baby face must have been an interesting addition around the gym.
"No...no they didn't," Gastelum laughed when asked if they made him grow a beard to train with TTD. "Marc Laimon and everyone down there has their facial hair going and I tried to join the club but mine grows in patches. It's just not something I could pull off."
When Gastelum steps into the Octagon to face Story on Saturday night, it will be the biggest challenge to date. The Washington native has twice as many fights under the UFC banner as Gastelum does for his entire professional career. There is no doubt a victory over Story would certainly speed up his ascension through the rankings, and while Gastelum isn't quite sure where a win in Dallas would put him in the bigger picture, he's confident it will only lead to bigger things.
"A win over Story does put me in a really good position for a really good fight against a top opponent in my next outing," Gastelum said. "But I don't know what my next step would be to be honest. That is something I would have to talk with my management team and coaches about. A win here would put me in the right direction because I don't want to move backwards. I want to keep going forward. I want to keep getting bigger fights and keep building myself up in the rankings.
"Everything is absolutely coming together for me," he added. "I feel great and I feel like this is my time to shine. This is where I need to be right now. I'm living my dream and I'm happy to be here."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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