For Kelvin Gastelum, UFC's Reluctant MW Contender, It's Time to Accept New Home

Mike ChiappettaMMA Senior ColumnistMarch 12, 2017

Kelvin Gastelum (left) lands a straight left on Vitor Belfort.
Kelvin Gastelum (left) lands a straight left on Vitor Belfort.Jason Silva-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe Kelvin Gastelum needed to have the decision made for him. Faced with the dilemma of draining his body or fighting undersized, Gastelum has let the UFC take the lead on his career, and as far as the company is concerned, he's a middleweight. 

As it turns out, he's a very good one—a contender, even.

The 25-year-old added yet another star to his resume, crushing Vitor Belfort in the main event of Saturday's UFC Fight Night event in Fortaleza, Brazil.

Starching the legend on his home soil in just three minutes and 52 seconds, Gastelum continues his rise, with three straight wins in the division since dating back to 2015. More notably, he gives the weight class another rare rising young talent. 

Most of the division's top talents—champion Michael Bisping, ex-champs Chris Weidman and Luke Rockhold, Anderson Silva—have been big names for years. 

Now, with Gastelum and Robert Whittaker, there are finally the beginnings of a youth movement, a most welcome development.

Gastelum's rise, while not a surprise, comes at least with some reluctance, even now. 

Asked in the UFC on FS1 post-fight show whether his streak has caused him to reconsider his hopes of heading back down to 170, the answer was a bit surprising.

"No," he said. "But if I get offered a fight that interests me, that keeps me moving up the rankings, I will for sure stay, you know?"

Yes, Kelvin. Yes, we get it. The fights need to mean something, but isn't that exactly what the UFC is doing with you?

Kelvin Gastelum celebrates his win over Belfort.
Kelvin Gastelum celebrates his win over Belfort.Jason Silva-USA TODAY Sports

Remember, this whole thing wasn't the result of an evil UFC conspiracy. It was only after multiple weight issues at welterweight that he got pushed up a division by UFC matchmakers. 

At just 5'9", his hesitation is easily understood, however. At that height (and with a 71-inch reach), he is almost always going to be undersized.

So far, though, it hasn't mattered. In fact, it's been something of a benefit.

Not only is Gastelum a smaller target, but he is usually going to come with a built-in speed advantage against some of the bigger, more lumbering types that populate the division.

That wasn’t necessarily true against Belfort, who built his legend on blistering hands and violent barrages. Gastelum wasn’t the naturally faster of the two, but he was fast enough to do what he wanted.

About midway through the first, he came forward with a combination, stunning Belfort with a right hook before dropping him with a straight left. Gastelum followed with a hail of ground strikes, but Belfort used his veteran savvy by covering up and managed to return to his feet just moments later.

Undeterred, Gastelum clipped Belfort with a hard left a few seconds later. This time, there was no coming back from Belfort, who went down and took a few ground strikes before ref John McCarthy waved off the fight. 

"It took a few shots to find it, but I knew eventually it was going to find its home," Gastelum said in the UFC on FS1 post-fight show.

Gastelum, sitting at No. 10 in the UFC middleweight rankings, should soon move up a couple of slots and find himself just a couple of wins away from the belt, making his rise both unlikely and fruitful.

The reality was it was not a fight he could afford to lose.

Sure, Belfort is a legend, but at this point of his career, that's about his best remaining attribute. His reputation. His past. His history of terrorizing opponents. 

Beyond that, it has been a slow, steady descent over the last two years, losing three of his last four before Saturday.

Until the day he walks off for good, it seems like Belfort will always carry his early dangerous blitz with him, but these days, if it doesn't close the show, the drop afterward goes further, faster. 

On Saturday night, it never came. His hands looked fast but never reached the target.

Belfort had height, reach and experience on Gastelum, but the young American had too many intangibles that are difficult to overcome for someone old enough to begin campaigning for a "Legends League" seniors division, as Belfort did recently in an interview with MMA Junkie.

Gastelum is durable, aggressive and boasts a nonstop motor. Any of the three traits alone is difficult to deal with; for Belfort, the presence of all three in the same opponent practically represents kryptonite. 

For almost the entirety of his career, Belfort has been a front-runner. That's not a knock on him specifically; you can say the same about most fighters. It's just he's never been a guy who has been able to turn things around after falling behind. He's not the type to make adjustments and rally. Either his power crushes or it doesn't.

On Saturday, it didn’t.

Belfort was also fighting just weeks away from turning 40. With a career than began over 20 years ago, he's seen his body go through numerous injuries, a failed drug test and the testosterone replacement therapy era. At some point, it has to flame out.

For him, it was probably easy to explain away a loss to Weidman. It was understandable to get stopped by Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza and then Gegard Mousasi. Those are all names who have won championships in major promotions. 

But Gastelum? A blown-up welterweight? That one won’t be quite as easy to rationalize.

Except maybe it will be in retrospect. Gastelum continues to move up and to matter in the middleweight division.

Now it's up to the UFC matchmakers to keep him there. Gastelum floated the idea of fighting Silva in June in a fight that would be on the Spider's home turf in Rio de Janeiro.

He has that kind of confidence and swagger. It's almost like he believes this whole middleweight thing is going somewhere. It's almost like he feels at home.