On Saturday, in Fortaleza, Brazil, the UFC Octagon touches down with an event headlined by an aging veteran and a rising contender. As main-event pairings go, it's more interesting than it is high stakes.
Vitor Belfort has managed to be relevant in MMA for two decades, but as he reaches his 40th birthday, questions will follow him about how much longer he can hang around the top tier UFC middleweights.
There are already signs he's slowing down. In each of his last two bouts, he was stopped in one-sided fashion. In his defense, those defeats came to Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza and Gegard Mousasi, surging contenders with the skills to make anyone look bad.
Still, Belfort is a name Gastelum needs.
Gastelum has always resisted the move to 185 pounds, but a win would make him 3-0 in the division since his weight-cutting problems began, including back-to-back wins over Belfort and Tim Kennedy. Perhaps just as importantly, it might signal to him that middleweight is his true home.
Gastelum has a dilemma, and maybe this helps him discover the solution. Joining me to talk it all out is B/R colleague Chad Dundas.
Mike Chiappetta: Chad, MMA is a strange sport. A lot of weird things happen in it on a regular basis. One of those things is going on under our noses, and that is this: Gastelum is a reluctant middleweight in his own potential rise toward title contention.
All things considered, he'd love to move back down to welterweight. That match is clear. It's obvious he hasn't given up on the division, as he said during a January interview with MMA Junkie's Fernanda Prates.
It's just that after multiple misses at making that 171-pound max limit, the UFC no longer trusts him and refuses to book him in welterweight matchups.
I can understand his desire head back there. At just 5'9" and with a 71-inch reach, according to the promotion's website, Gastelum—ranked 10th in the division—is the smallest of the UFC’s top 15 middleweights.
Then again, Yoel Romero (5'10", 73-inch reach) has the most comparable frame in the division, and he seems to be doing OK as its top contender.
Being undersized isn't always a huge problem, so might this all actually be a blessing in disguise for Gastelum? While the division is bottlenecked, with champ Michael Bisping waiting for the returning Georges St-Pierre later this year, Gastelum has the chance to make some serious noise.
And frankly, Chad, I expect Gastelum to beat Belfort—and to do so convincingly.
Having already been in the cage with notables like Nate Marquardt, Johny Hendricks and Kennedy, Gastelum does not seem likely to be overawed by the big moment. And without having to drain himself with a horrific weight cut, he should have plenty of energy to take over the fight as long as he withstands Belfort's early barrage.
But does that make him a title threat? I don't think so. Not yet. There are just too many others to jump in line. There are certain opponents—Chris Weidman and Luke Rockhold, for two—who seem too big and others—Souza and Mousasi—who are too technical.
I'm not saying Gastelum couldn't beat them; I'm just saying that wins over Kennedy and Belfort don't provide us the information necessary to project the height of his climb.
If I had to guess, though, I'd say no. To me, Gastelum has a few too many liabilities. His height and reach. His inconsistent striking. His lack of a fallback specialty to lean on in hard times. It's a lot to overcome.
What do you think, Chad? Where do you see Gastelum headed in the middleweight contenders' race?
Chad: First off, let me say I'm kind of enjoying this odd little game of cat and mouse between Gastelum and the UFC.
The San Jose, California, native looked impressive as recently as December, when he dispatched Kennedy at UFC 206, but he then cast the moment into confusion and doubt by immediately announcing he wanted to head back to 170 pounds. So this pairing with Belfort almost feels like the UFC saying to him, "Oh, you do, do you?
By giving Gastelum a fish as big as Belfort, matchmakers were making him a 185-pound offer he couldn't refuse. Assuming he wins here, it'll be fascinating to see whether the promotion has to keep using this carrot-on-a-stick approach to keep him there.
We both say "assuming he wins..." because Gastelum is the biggest favorite on Saturday's UFC Fight Night 106 card, according to Odds Shark. Belfort is obviously capable of pulling off a surprise—especially in Brazil and especially early in the fight—but I tend to think Gastelum is too smart, well-rounded and durable to fall victim to an early blitz from the former light heavyweight champion.
I think he'll drag this fight out to the point Belfort starts to fade to either salt away a decision or take him out via late TKO.
And to answer your question, Mike, yeah, I can definitely see Gastelum becoming a contender in this division.
Along with being the smallest guy in the middleweight Top 10, as you noted, he's also the youngest, at just 25. Aside from the 26-year-old Robert Whittaker, the upper echelon of the 185-pound class is clogged with a lot of fairly old dogs. So long as Gastelum sticks around this weight and keeps improving, he'll work his way up the ladder sooner or later.
He's even still young enough to suffer a couple losses along the way and keep himself relevant.
Trouble is, Mike, with Bisping-GSP on deck for later this year, the division finds itself in a state of suspended animation.
Again, so long as this bout plays out according to chalk, what do you see as Gastelum's immediate future? Can the UFC entice him to remain a middleweight, or will boredom alone chase him back to welterweight?
Mike: It seems like he's lost the ability to chart his divisional path. In most instances, I can't stand how much power the UFC wields over its athletes' career arcs. In this one, though, I can't really fault it for if not flat out forcing him into a division, at least corralling him into the 185 pen.
After all, the promotion is supposed to be in the business of lining up contenders to compete for the belt, but if Gastelum continually fails to qualify for the class in which he's trying to conquer, what's the point?
At least he has a path forward. And as long as he keeps winning, why change it? I guess my previous argument about the division's top stars being too much for him would be a legitimate reason, but it's also subjective, and it's just as easy to point out advantages Gastelum might have in those fights. The youngster has an excellent gas tank, legitimate power and is tough as nails.
Depending on whether he wins and how he wins on Saturday, he might move up the rankings a couple of slots. If he dazzles the fight world with a crushing first-round knockout, would it be impossible to envision him jumping Belfort, Derek Brunson and maybe even Anderson Silva to No. 7? I don't think it's inconceivable. And that's where things get interesting.
If Gastelum wakes up on Monday morning, peeks at those rankings and sees himself among the Mousasis, Weidmans and Rockholds of the world, it wouldn't be easy to toss away that progress and head back to a division in which your last four fight weeks went like this: canceled because of missed weight, decision win, decision loss, decision loss after missing weight.
For Gastelum, the journey to get to 170 is as dangerous as the fight itself. Why deal with all those extra headaches if the present is going so swimmingly?
If and when Gastelum does hit a roadblock at middleweight, that might signal the moment to take some time away to hire a qualified professional to guide his career back to welterweight in a responsible way.
It's worth noting that observers to the sport tend to think of these athletes as interchangeable pieces on a chess board. To us, Gastelum can fit either at 170 or 185. In reality, he's a natural 'tweener. There's no easy solution to that problem for him. At some point, though, it will behoove Gastelum to make a commitment—a serious, well-designed one—to one home.
I guess the bigger question is, can he do that?
Because when we talk about Gastelum's well-known weight-management problems, what we're talking about is discipline. It seems to me that if that ingredient is missing in one area, it can pervade everything else.
Chad, you seem to be higher on him than me. Do you chalk these problems up to his age? And if so, what do you see him achieving in the next two to three years?
Chad: I honestly don't know what Gastelum's major issues have been—either with continually missing the welterweight limit or with committing to being a middleweight. I suspect a great deal of it has to do with the stuff we already mentioned—that he's a natural 'tweener and deep down suspects he doesn't have the physical size to hang with the top dogs at 185 pounds.
|Kelvin Gastelum's Last 5 Fights|
|UFC 206||Tim Kennedy||Middleweight||Win (TKO)|
|UFC 200||Johny Hendricks||Welterweight||Win (Unanimous Dec.)|
|TUF Latin America 2 Finale||Neil Magny||Welterweight||Loss (Split Dec.)|
|UFC 188||Nate Marquardt||Middleweight||Win (TKO)|
|UFC 183||Tyron Woodley||Welterweight (missed weight)||Loss (Split Dec.)|
Are there motivational issues to go along with that? Commitment issues? Issues with living a mundane, flavor-free life eating kale, brown rice and chicken breasts for every meal? Maybe. And frankly, if Gastelum struggled with that last one, I wouldn't blame the guy. I would too.
Maybe I just have too much faith in him—maybe I have too much faith in professional fighters in general—but I believe he'll eventually get it figured out. In fact, I believe it's possible he already has.
And if I may assume for a moment that Gastelum has cleared things up to the point he can now get on with the business of being his best self, I have no reason to doubt he can be a player at 185 pounds.
Is he going to immediately jump up and beat Romero to become No. 1 contender? Probably not. Then again, if we restricted our discussion of potential middleweight up-and-comers to people we think could beat Romero, we'd end up having a short conversation. Almost nobody fits that description.
But do I think there's a chance Gastelum could one day fit in alongside other top challengers like Weidman, Souza, Mousasi and Rockhold? Yeah.
All told, Gastelum has amassed a 13-2 record while spending all but the earliest days of his career fighting in the UFC. His pair of losses both came at 170 pounds—one to current champion Tyron Woodley and one to Neil Magny—and both by split decision.
The list of guys he's most recently defeated—Kennedy, Hendricks, Marquardt and Jake Ellenberger—is also pretty impressive.
The bottom line, for me, is this: I don't know how good Gastelum can ultimately be. The evidence we have suggests he can be pretty darn successful, if only he figures out two of perhaps the simplest parts of his job: how to make weight and the proper division for competition.
Maybe he goes down as one of those tragic cases who never get their leather together.
But if not? I'll stand by my assertion he could have a future as bright as nearly anybody else on that middleweight Top 15 list.