The line on the record of Kelvin Gastelum reads that on April 13, 2019, he lost a unanimous decision to Israel Adesanya in a UFC 236 fight for the interim UFC middleweight title. A hundred years from now, when people talk about that fight at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia, the end result will be the last thing they refer to.
“That's why we go out there and do what we do,” said Gastelum. “We hope to have those kinds of fights. We want to show that.”
What Gastelum and Adesanya showed that night was the reason why we watch mixed martial arts. It wasn’t about technique or skill, though there was plenty of both; instead, it was about heart, determination, drama and the willingness to dig deep when the proverbial tank is empty. It was a vivid reminder of why only a miniscule percentage of the population can do what these 185-pounders do. And as much as it hurt Gastelum to be on the wrong end of the decision, a little over a year later, he can appreciate what he was a part of.
“Yeah, absolutely,” he said. “That's actually my favorite fight that I've ever had. I had a lot of fun doing it, but ten years from now, I don't want to be looking back and say I almost won a world title. That's not why I got into this. I got into this to achieve a goal, and that's to be a world champion. That's what's still keeping me driven, although I am very proud of the fight that I put on, and it's my favorite fight ever, just because I was able to do a lot of things that I haven't been able to do in other fights. It was really fun.”
These days, Gastelum is working out when he can as he recovers from an LCL tear in January, and as the UFC prepares to return to action in May, he’s starting to get itchy to make his first start since a split decision loss to Darren Till last November.
“After the Adesanya fight, I felt like I had something to prove, so I jumped right into another fight and a very good fight against Darren Till,” he said. “All credit to him, he did a really good job that night, but I didn't really feel like myself that night, and I'm pretty sure everybody else saw that too. So as soon as things are up and running, I'm throwing my name in the hat, for sure. I want to be able to fight in July, so hopefully everything is back to normal; if not, then we'll be fighting in an empty arena or something. But July is when I want to get back.”
Full house or not, Gastelum’s has embraced the time off to not just rehab his knee, but to let his body rest after two grueling battles in 2019. And though he didn’t get the results he wanted, he remains a top ten contender at 185 pounds and a legit title threat. As such, he isn’t looking for any tune-up fights in his return. He’s got his eyes on the belt and he wants to fight anyone who can help shorten his route back to a title bout.
“I have to work my way back up, and somebody in the top five for sure has to accept a fight with me,” he said. “I gotta keep taking steps forward, so the opponent has to be right, the date has to be right, and we'll get back on track. I'm only 28 years old; I haven't even hit my physical prime yet. I feel like I have so much more room for growth and I still feel like I'm a beginner. I'm excited because we're putting all these experiences together - the good, the bad, the championship loss, everything. I’m a little bit smarter, a little bit more mature, a little bit more experienced, and we're gonna make another run.”
When he mentions that he hasn’t even hit 30 yet, it comes as a surprise considering how long he’s been fighting at the elite level of the sport. But then again, he was the young gun under the radar when he burst onto the scene via The Ultimate Fighter’s 17th season. Back then, it was tough to drag more than a sentence out of Gastelum in interviews, a far cry from where he is now as an affable media favorite who has settled into his role as one of the sport’s stars. That transition wasn’t as easy as he made it look, though.
“It's been extremely difficult,” Gastelum admits. “A fighter's life, sometimes it doesn't go the way you want it to go and you go through ups and downs, just like everybody else, and it has not been easy. When I came into The Ultimate Fighter, I was barely 21 years old. I barely knew anything about anything. (Laughs) It's been seven years now, and I've done nothing but grow and mature and get up to a world-class level, and it's been pretty amazing so far.”
What may be more amazing is how he weathered the storms that come along with growing up in public with class, even when every hiccup that most in their early 20s go through wound up on the internet.
“That's unfortunate,” he said of growing up in public. “But it's part of it and I had to learn that. I had to learn that I'm not just a normal person walking the streets anymore.”
He’s not. He’s part of a small group of people who fight for a living at the highest level of their profession. But Gastelum wants more than that. He wants to reach the peak of his sport, and if Adesanya is the one he has to beat to get there, there would be no better scenario for him.
“The cherry on top would be to beat Adesanya for the belt,” said Gastelum. “I feel it's inevitable that our paths will cross again, whether it's for the belt or not, and I think we're gonna see each other, for sure.”
The ears of fight fans around the globe are probably perking up at the idea of Adesanya-Gastelum II, but in the meantime, the champ will likely be in with Paulo Costa next while Gastelum prepares for a return to the win column on the way his next title run. And should the Yuma, Arizona product make it back to a championship fight and walk away with the belt, he has a good idea what that moment will look like.
“This is something that I talk about with my coaches a lot,” he said. “Everything is a build up to when we win the title. We talk about that moment a lot and how much it's gonna mean to us and how much we've been through to get to that point. I can already visualize it because I have done it a million times and I can feel that feeling, but you can never really know until it's there.”
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