By Adam Martin
TUF 17 is most remembered for Uriah Hall’s reign of destruction in the house, but Hall was not the best fighter to emerge from that show, despite what Dana White would tell you. The winner of the show was Kelvin Gastelum, who beat Hall in a giant upset at the TUF 17 Finale. Gastelum blasted through the competition, and as a 21-year-old rookie, beat Hall to win the sixteen-man middleweight tournament. To look so impressive at such a young age and with so little experience showed what kind of a fantastic blue chip prospect the 185-pound division had, and at the time it seemed like Gastelum would be making a run at the belt one day if he kept improving.
However, instead of sticking around at 185 lbs, Gastelum decided to make the move down to 170 lbs. After all, at 5’9, Gastelum was one of the smaller middleweights on the roster, and considering he was a bit of a pudgy 185er, it made sense for him to go to welterweight. So he did just that, and in his 170-pound debut he destroyed veteran Brian Melancon in the most impressive performance of his young career to date. For that fight, Gastelum had no problem making weight, and, ironically, it was actually Melancon who retired after that fight due to kidney complications stemming from the weight cut.
Making 170 lbs wouldn’t be easy for Gastelum in his next fight, however, against Rick Story at UFC 171. Although he eventually made the weight, it took multiple weigh-in attempts, and although he did get his hand raised by split decision, it was far from an impressive performance, and his previously iron-clad chin looked shaky in the bout, a classic sign of cutting way too much weight.
Though he did make weight -- albeit with difficulties -- against Story, Gastelum failed to do so in his next bout, a decision win over Niko Musoke. For that fight, Gastelum weighed in at 172.5 lbs. He may have won the fight, but missing weight no doubt angered his UFC bosses, who count on their fighters to make weight. So it was important that he didn’t have weight issues when he took on Jake Ellenberger at UFC 180. He didn't, earning a submission win over the veteran, and he looked like a bona fide title contender in the process.
The UFC liked what they saw of Gastelum against Ellenberger and matched him up against Tyron Woodley at UFC 183. It was a hugely-anticipated fight with the winner potentially being in line for a title shot, but Gastelum couldn’t make weight; he wasn’t even close. He weighed in at 180 lbs, and the only reason the fight went on as a catchweight bout was that Woodley agreed to the contest, though he could have refused to. Gastelum, who spent time in the hospital getting rehydrated before the fight, looked flat in the contest and lost a split decision. But perhaps more importantly, UFC president Dana White confirmed he would force him to move to middleweight. According to White, Gastelum’s days as a welterweight were over.
In his return to 185 lbs, Gastelum absolutely thrashed Nate Marquardt in a brutal beatdown at UFC 188. It was incredibly impressive, but not at the weight class Gastelum wanted to fight at, for as he stated, he might be able to be a champion at 170 lbs, but at 185 lbs he would be too small to compete with the likes of Chris Weidman and Luke Rockhold, even though as far as skills go, he matches up fairly well.
So despite White stating that Gastelum’s days as a welterweight were over, he decided to let him try to make 170 lbs once again, and Gastelum did just that in the main event of UFC Fight Night 78, which took place last weekend. After originally being tabbed to fight Matt Brown, Gastelum took on short notice replacement Neil Magny in what most figured would be a relatively good matchup for the youngster, who on paper appeared to have the better wrestling.
Ultimately, in what was an excellent fight between two great fighters, Magny won a split decision, although many felt the fourth round should have been scored 10-8 in Gastelum’s favor, rendering the bout a draw. The judges didn’t see it that way, though, and now Gastelum has another loss on his record to drop to 1-2 over his last three bouts. So now he has a lot of questions to ask himself. Was it just a letdown performance by Gastelum? Was Magny just better than we all thought? Did the judges screw Gastelum? Did the weight cut make him fight worse than usual? Whatever the case may be, Gastelum needs to make some changes to get back to contender status.
It’s fair to wonder if moving back up to 185 lbs would be a good career decision for him. After all, Gastelum is undefeated as a middleweight in his career – 7-0 as a pro, plus another 4-0 in the TUF house, and he was fighting and beating good fighters like Josh Samman in the house – while he’s just 4-2 as a welterweight. He might be smaller at 185 lbs, but maybe he will feel stronger at middleweight not having to cut all that weight.
In fact, I see a parallel with Gastelum to Robert Whittaker, who is about the same age and is also a former TUF winner. Like Gastelum, Whittaker was a top welterweight prospect who found himself at a crossroads, but decided to move up to middleweight for a fresh start and because the weight cut was hurting him. And since moving up to 185 lbs, he’s looked like a contender. Everyone thought it was a bad idea for Whittaker to move up to middleweight, but now he’s ranked in the top 10. So maybe it’s in Gastelum’s best interest to move back to 185, where he looked like a world-class destroyer in his beatdown of Marquardt just a few months ago.
Maybe, with a few adjustments, he can make another run at 170 lbs. Gastelum is a terrific fighter, and he showed it in his fight with Magny, but he falls just under the list of true contenders. Clearly he has some work to do, but if he can figure it out, he still has the potential to be a title challenger. At what weight, though, remains to be seen.
UFC Fight Night 78: Magny vs. Gastelum (formerly UFC Fight Night 78: Brown vs. Gastelum) took place on November 21, 2015 at Arena Monterrey in Monterrey, Mexico.