Things move at a rapid pace in mixed martial arts, and Kelvin Gastelum is getting used to receiving his education on the fly.
Just 14 months ago, the Arizona-based fighter was staring down the barrel of a long-shot opportunity against one of the most highly touted competitors to ever come through The Ultimate Fighter tournament in Uriah Hall.
The flashy striker's highlight-reel knockouts during the 17th season of the reality-based fighting program had evoked talk of future title runs and a fast track to greatness. Gastelum's underdog status had him poised to be Hall's final step in his crossover to competing in the big show.
Yet, if the 22-year-old was supposed to step aside quietly, he did not receive the memo, outworking Hall en route to picking up the victory and the coveted six-figure contract with the UFC.
While the win over the New York native put him in the spotlight, Gastelum's impressive steamrolling of veteran Brian Melancon in his next outing brought certified legitimacy. The two men squared off in Gastelum's welterweight debut at UFC Fight Night 27 last August, and the Yuma United MMA representative needed less than a full round of work to finish the Strikeforce veteran via rear-naked choke.
With two victories inside the Octagon under his belt and his undefeated record intact, the TUF 17 winner set his sights on taking a big step up the welterweight ladder by facing Rick Story in his next outing.
The Brave Legion fighter had been a staple in the 170-pound ranks for years, facing a collection of the division's top talent over that stretch. Story was set to be the biggest challenge of Gastelum's young career. The way the action unfolded in the opening minutes of their tilt at UFC 171, it appeared to be a test the surging prospect was going to answer with flying colors.
From the opening bell it was all Gastelum, whose high-pressure attack nearly put Story away in the first round. Yet, despite being in serious trouble in the initial frame, the Washington native rebounded strong in the second round and got the better of Gastelum in several reckless exchanges. It was a back-and-forth affair until the final bell sounded with Gastelum edging out Story on the judges' scorecards via split decision.
Although the bout didn't go as smoothly as he would have hoped, there was still something to be said about his ability to defeat a fighter with Story's proven moxie. Nevertheless, every fighter who carries expectations and buzz around his name understands that the perception to be on point at every turn comes with the territory.
Gastelum understands and appreciates the weight he carries on his shoulders, and he chalks up every experience inside the Octagon as a part of a greater education.
"I'm still learning as I go and I was pretty green going into The Ultimate Fighter, which was just a year-and-a-half ago," Gastelum told Bleacher Report. "Over these past few fights, I was learning how to become a professional fighter in the UFC. Now, in this fight with [Nico] Musoke, I feel like I have reached that place where I am a professional fighter in the UFC.
"I've grown and matured a lot since my time on TUF. I've used all the information I've taken in and the experiences I've received in my fights as part of the learning process. I want to be the best I can possibly be and continuing to grow is a very important part of that. I've compiled everything and that is going to show in my fight this Saturday."
Gastelum exited the Octagon victorious, but his performance against Story showed there were things he needed to work on before taking another step into the deep end of the welterweight ranks. He knows the window to sharpen his game is small while competing at the highest level of the sport, but he has zero issues with putting in the work it will take to make that happen.
His next challenge will come against Nicholas Musoke at UFC Fight Night 44, and Gastelum is eager to show the adjustments he's made on Saturday night in San Antonio. While Musoke is a step back in regard to the name recognition and divisional ranking that Story carried, Gastelum definitely doesn't see this fight as a step back in terms of competition.
Musoke has looked sharp in both of his showings under the UFC banner, and Gastelum is expecting a scrap when the cage door closes.
"After I fought Rick Story I wasn't sure what the next step was going to be," he said. "I wasn't sure which direction the UFC was going to take with me. I wasn't surprised, but I was kind of curious about who they were going to match me up with next. They called me back and it ended up being Nico Musoke. After the Story fight, there was talk that my next opponent would be someone from the Top 15—maybe even the Top 10—but it ended up being something different.
"I've studied a lot of Nico's past fights and I'm ready for this challenge. I'm actually happy they didn't put me up against a Top 10 opponent because I learned a lot from that Rick Story fight. I was able to pull through with the win despite having a bad weight cut and getting rocked in the fight.
"I just had a lot of problems in that fight, and I was able to overcome all of those things and still come out with the victory. I was able to learn from that experience and I don't think someone in the Top 10 would have been suitable for me at this time. That's why I think this is the perfect time for me to fight Nico.
"[Musoke] has looked good in both of his fights in the UFC," Gastelum added. "He's had good performances and he got a finish over a veteran in Alessio Sakara. He got caught in his next fight, but was able to pull through and get the win just like I did against Rick.
"He's a tough guy that comes forward. He's big, strong and explosive. I believe he brings it every time and you guys know I bring it every time as well so that makes for a great fight."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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