Very rarely do Ultimate Fighter winners go from competing on the reality TV competition to facing off with Top 25 talent in their respective weight class.
More often than naught, the athletes emerging from the long-running program hold up the glass-block trophy and then find themselves with a favorable matchup in their first couple appearances inside the Octagon.
You’d have to go back to Roy Nelson’s first post-TUF appearance to find a member of the Ultimate Fighter fraternity that stepped into the cage with an established opponent, and that was against a still-developing Stefan Struve. Additionally, Nelson didn’t fit the traditional profile of fighters coming off the show either.
Kelvin Gastelum has no interest in experiencing that slow burn.
Following his victory over Uriah Hall in the Season 17 finale, the undefeated Yuma, Arizona native made the move down to the welterweight division. When his first opponent was announced, it wasn’t a lesser-known, lower tier talent - it was former contender Paulo Thiago.
After the bout fell through and Gastelum dominated late replacement Brian Melancon, he stayed in the fast lane for his second bout as well, matching up with fellow TUF winner Court McGee. A knee injury forced the 22-year-old Gastelum to withdraw from the contest, but the pattern had been established.
“I just want to challenge myself; that’s the main thing,” explained Gastelum of his break from the standard path previous Ultimate Fighter winners have taken in the past. “I want to one day be the best, so I’ve got to beat the best. That’s what I’m training for and that’s what I’m working towards - fighting those bigger opponents. It’s not that I don’t want to be the TUF winner that didn’t get the slow burn - it’s just personal goals. I want to win fights and win impressively and win against some of the best guys.”
Gastelum returns to the cage this weekend and he’s once again set to share the Octagon with an established competitor, squaring off with perennial contender Rick Story in the final bout on the preliminary card portion of the event.
While the scheduled bouts with Thiago and McGee that fell through were tough matchups, facing off with Story is an even bigger step up in competition for the still-developing Gastelum, as the Vancouver, Washington-based welterweight already has 14 UFC appearances under his belt and is one of only two people to defeat UFC 171 headliner Johny Hendricks.
What ups the intrigue on the pairing is that Gastelum lobbied for the opportunity to share the Octagon with the 16-7 Story, which further shows his commitment to dive right into the deep end of the talented 170-pound ranks rather than getting his toes wet in the shallow end to start.
“I have nothing against him,” said Gastelum, who carries an 8-0 record into this weekend’s showdown with Story in Dallas. “I actually trained with him in Montreal, hung out with him, and he was a cool guy. I liked him, but we’re in the fight business.
“I want to get my name up higher in the welterweight ranks and he’s a very established name, has fought some of the best and beaten some of the best in the division. A win over him could definitely catapult me up into the mix.”
His eagerness to enter right into the fray isn’t the only thing that separates Gastelum from other recent additions to the roll call of Ultimate Fighter winners.
During his time as a member of Team Sonnen - or Team Dark Side as they still call themselves - it was clear that the Gastelum had serious potential. Though he was relatively inexperienced heading into the competition, he profiled as a prospect with a solid base of skills that could develop him into a legitimate contender down the line.
After his first appearance in the welterweight ranks, it was clear that timeline had been accelerated and that the “diamond in the rough” had already started to add some polish and progress.
“I felt fantastic for that fight,” Gastelum said of his first-round submission win over Melancon back in August. “I had a great training camp and I hired Mike Dolce as my nutritionist, and I felt fantastic that night. I felt unstoppable, like whoever was in that cage with me was going to have a rough night.
“When I was on the show, fighting was something I did on the side - I didn’t really invest much time at that point. I was inexperienced and needed some more training. I have put a lot of time into my training these last couple months, just trying to improve my all-around game. I feel like I’m elevating more as an athlete and more as a mixed martial artist.”
This time around, part of that training came not far from where he’ll be fighting on Saturday, as Gastelum was recruited to Arlington, Texas to train with Hendricks.
Initially hesitant to unveil that he trained with the title contender, the undefeated TUF winner admitted that getting the chance to pick Hendricks’ brain about Story and prep with one of the best in the division was impossible to pass up.
“He’s fighting a strong southpaw, so they needed another strong southpaw to come in and help Johny out. We’re all southpaws fighting southpaws, so it all works out pretty well. I want to fight the best, so I’ve got to train with the best.”
Having trained with the best for Saturday’s meeting with Story, Gastelum is eager to hit the cage and show the gains he’s made over the last seven months.
“You’re going to be seeing a Kelvin 2.0 I guess. I think I’m going to be a lot quicker than him. I’ve seen that he’s gassed late in the third round, so I’m going to be looking to take advantage of that. I think I’m better all around - in the ground game and in the stand-up. Like I said, I’ve been training a lot and investing a lot of time in (preparation). I’m improving every day and I think it’s going to be a good fight.
“He’s going to come forward, I’m going to come forward - I think it’s going to be an all-out war.”
Kelvin Gastelum: On The Fast Track
"I just want to challenge myself; that’s the main thing. I want to one day be the best, so I’ve got to beat the best." - Kelvin Gastelum