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Kelvin Gastelum Is Fighting For More Than Just A Win

Ninth-Ranked Middleweight Kelvin Gastelum Looks To Move Past Trio Of Losses En Route To Gold at UFC 258

If you were to observe Kelvin Gastelum’s Wednesday evening workout at the UFC Performance Institute, you’d likely have no clue that arguably the most important fight of his career lingered just 72 hours away.

The 29-year-old middleweight was genuinely having fun as he danced, joked and smiled his way through a 90-minute workout, even as he was dressed in multiple layers and a wool beanie.

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This ethos of his is fairly new; a mindset shift ahead of his July 2020 loss to Jack Hermansson had him enjoying every step of the process -- even in defeat. But a first-round heel hook submission by Hermansson left very little opportunity for Gastelum to put the changes he’s made as an athlete on display.

Kelvin Gastelum vs Ian Heinisch Preview | UFC 258: Usman vs Burns
Kelvin Gastelum vs Ian Heinisch Preview | UFC 258: Usman vs Burns
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“I really enjoy the process, that hasn’t been the case in the past,” Gastelum told UFC.com ahead of his UFC Fight Island bout seven months ago. “I hadn’t been enjoying the process, enjoying putting myself through these miserable workouts, but that wasn’t the case for this fight camp. I’m battling my own demons every single day and conquering those demons.”

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An overt demon of Gastelum has been weight management, but an even bigger hurdle, shrouded from view, has been the mental battles Gastelum has had to overcome.

Facing three consecutive losses against high caliber opponents is never easy but choosing to relentlessly continue on his quest for gold has proven conceivably more difficult. Gastelum said that while the last 22 months have “messed with him a lot,” he’s now arrived at a mental space that allows him to authentically enjoy his advancing journey as a professional fighter.

It’s a journey that started nearly eight years ago, when the Mexican American became the youngest competitor to win a UFC contract on The Ultimate Fighter in the show’s 17th season at the age of 21, after being picked last to join Team Sonnen.

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Since then, the Kings MMA product has made a name for himself, topping the likes of UFC legends Michael Bisping and Ronaldo Souza, to name a few. His most recent trio of losses come at the hands of undisputed UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya in an epic interim title bout, Darren Till in a three-round war ending in a split decision, and the unforgiving finisher Hermansson.

Gastelum admitted that while his mentality and focus heading into the Hermansson fight was leaps and bounds better than it had been in the past when he would focus more on the “variables that come with the win,” it still wasn’t as sharp as his physical strength. He’s since licked his wounds, made the necessary adjustments, and now the two elements are in sync.

Kelvin Gastelum punches Michael Bisping of England in their middleweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event inside the Mercedes-Benz Arena on November 25, 2017 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC)
Kelvin Gastelum punches Michael Bisping of England in their middleweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event inside the Mercedes-Benz Arena on November 25, 2017 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC)

“I feel really healthy, I feel really good,” Gastelum said, with an air of tranquility about him. “I haven’t felt this good in a long time, actually.”

While he feels like he’s in a good spot athletically, Gastelum has confessed that he feels like he’s not just fighting for redemption at UFC 258, but he could be fighting for his job, as well. This assumption would normally add an insurmountable amount of pressure to an athlete’s plate, but it’s a circumstance that Kelvin welcomes.

“I believe I thrive under that pressure,” he said. “I need it sometimes. Maybe [the Hermansson loss] was a wakeup call that I needed.”

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We’ll see if the wakeup call has served Gastelum well on Saturday when he’s put to the test against Ian Heinisch, who says he’s releasing the “3.0 version” of himself.

“I know Ian, I’ve seen him break people,” Gastelum said. “He’s a dangerous guy, an up-and-coming guy, but also I know what I bring to the table and what I can do, and I expect to do that.”

Kelvin Gastelum has his hands wrapped backstage during the UFC 244 event at Madison Square Garden on November 02, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)
Kelvin Gastelum has his hands wrapped backstage during the UFC 244 event at Madison Square Garden on November 02, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)

In this matchup between #9 and #15, both middleweights have their eyes set on something bigger. The difference? While Heinisch has his sights set on breaking into the top five, Gastelum’s goals remain the same: he’s after gold. 

Armed with a fresh mindset and a strategy that brings him confidence, Gastelum is ready to step back into the Octagon on his road to redemption -- a journey that started the moment he picked up his gloves again after the Hermansson loss.

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“I feel like I’ve turned a corner not only in my career, but my psyche and my physical ability,” Gastelum said. “I’m just better. These losses have made me so much better in every aspect of my life and I’m very excited.”

When Gastelum says he’s excited, you know he means it. He knows the fight that lies ahead won’t be anything close to easy, but he wants to “get the job done in there and leave.” For him, it’s no longer about the glory that comes from winning, but simply winning itself.