Kelvin Gastelum is trying to take a “glass half full” approach to having suffered his first professional loss, but it’s not quite working, which is a good sign for the 23-year-old fighter and bad news for anyone that has to share space in the Octagon with him going forward.
Things might be different had the former Ultimate Fighter winner simply come away on the wrong side of the results in a standard fight, but nothing about his contest with Tyron Woodley at UFC 183 in January was normal.
His weight cut went sideways, resulting in Gastelum missing the welterweight limit by a significant margin, the second time in three fights he’d failed to make weight. That prompted UFC President Dana White to declare that the Arizona native needed to pack his things and relocate to the middleweight division going forward. One night later, a depleted, drained Gastelum still nearly beat Woodley, getting the short end of the stick in a split decision verdict that sullied his previously unblemished record.
“These last few months have been some ups, some downs,” Gastelum says, under-selling the tumultuous start to his 2015 campaign, which continues Saturday night at UFC 188 in a middleweight showdown with former title challenger Nate Marquardt. “I dealt with my first loss. I’d like to think I could be undefeated for the rest of my career, but the likeliness of that is not very high, so I knew the possibility of losing a fight would come sooner or later.
“It’s something that I want to put behind me; I want to learn from it, turn the page and move on to the next chapter in my career. I had to deal with it and people have their opinions, which is fine. All I can do right now is learn from it. But every time I look at the statistics of me and Marquardt and I see that one, it stings.”
The charismatic young talent laughs, acknowledging the “salt in the wound” feeling that comes with knowing his unbeaten record is a thing of the past, never to return again.
“Nine times out of 10 I would have won that fight; I believe that in my heart,” he says of the bout with Woodley. “I do want a rematch (laughs), but that’s for another time and another day way in the future. I’m not going to make any excuses for what happened that s***ty weekend; whatever happened, happened and you’ve just got to learn from it.”
While getting moved back to the middleweight ranks and clearly rousing the ire of the boss is never a good thing, Gastelum recognizes there is a path to redemption set out before him.
Immediately following his loss to Woodley, he was tabbed to coach season two of The Ultimate Fighter Latin America opposite fellow former winner Efrain Escudero, and for the second straight event in Mexico City, he’s being counted on as one of the main draws and potential stars in that emerging market.
“It was amazing,” he says of his experience at UFC 180, the organization’s debut event in Mexico. “It felt like the event was tailored for me. Since Cain (Velasquez) wasn’t able to fight that night, I kind of feel like the UFC leaned on me to be that Mexican figure that they needed.
“I want to be ‘That Guy,’” Gastelum continues, hoping to repeat the result of his previous bout inside Arena Cuidad de Mexico, a first-round stoppage win over Jake Ellenberger. “Whenever somebody thinks about the UFC in Mexico or the UFC in Latin America, I want my face to pop up in their head first. In that market, Cain and Fabricio (Werdum) are the guys right now and they’re awesome – they’re great athletes – but I want to take that spot as ‘The Guy’ in Latin America. I’m up to the challenge of whatever they want to give me.”
In addition to those outside of the Octagon opportunities, Gastelum knows a standout performance on Saturday night against Marquardt is the quickest way to get back on track and maybe even the welterweight division.
“I want to dominate this fight; I don’t care who is in front of me. I’m going to make a statement in this fight and ask Dana to let me go back to welterweight. I haven’t had a chance to sit down one-on-one with them, but I plan on it after this fight. I want to get on their good side first by putting on a good performance. It’s going to take a lot of convincing to the boss, Dana, but I think it’s going to happen. He let Henry Cejudo go back down, right? I’m hoping he does the same with me. I really believe I can be a champion at welterweight.
“That’s the difference between being welterweight and being middleweight,” he adds. “I’m either going to be the welterweight champion or a mediocre middleweight. I want to be the champion, so I want to go back down.”
First he needs to deliver that dominant performance he envisions against Marquardt on Saturday.
“I’m a lot younger than him, I think I’m a lot hungrier than him and I’m pretty frustrated,” he admits. “I have a lot of bottled up emotions from my last fight and I’m going to let it all out in this next fight. I’m not happy at all with my last performance – it was a s***ty weekend, a s***ty situation. It was a bad day on the job. We’ve all had those and I plan on making up for it on June 13.”
And how does he see the fight playing out?
“Have you ever seen a Mike Tyson highlight reel? That’s what I expect.”