The past six months have been a wild, storybook ride for Kelvin Gastelum, the youngest competitor in The Ultimate Fighter history who upset his way from last pick to TUF 17 season champion. And like all true underdog tales, this one almost never happened.
"I was sitting in my office one day," Gastelum recollected on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour. "And then I saw the (TUF 17 tryouts) ad and I was like, ‘Hey, I guess I'm going to go and tryout, see what happens.' Because before that I was struggling. I was about ready to quit MMA for a while, and just get another job because obviously I wasn't doing well financially.
"I was like, man, if I don't make it, it's going to be a while until I'm back in a cage somewhere. Luckily it worked out all in my favor."
Gastelum's story culminated on Saturday night with an impressive split decision victory over Uriah Hall, perhaps the hyped prospect to ever emerge from the series. Now Gastelum, still just 21 years old, finds himself swamped with both photo and autograph requests on a daily basis.
For many, it's a shocking turn of events. Hall was the hyper-athletic striker touted as a monster, the man expected to become a star almost overnight. Yet Hall's performance at The Ultimate Fighter 17 Finale left much to be desired, and afterward UFC President Dana White declared that the middleweight "mentally broke."
"People are saying he didn't perform, and I guess I would have to agree," explained Gastelum. "Mostly because I was putting the pressure on him and actually bringing the fight, which it what a lot of the guys didn't do. Adam Cella was the guy that brought the fight (on TUF 17) until he stayed stationary the last couple seconds and got caught with that kick. Then the other guys were just scared. I wasn't scared, I brought the fight to him.
"I expected it to be a war, which it was, but I expected more flashy stuff and for him to try and keep me away from him. He let me implement my gameplan more than he did his, so obviously it worked out in my favor."
After such a whirlwind journey, no one would begrudge Gastelum if he wanted to avoid the spotlight for a while. However the undefeated prospect of out Yuma, AZ has bigger plans in store, including a cut down to welterweight.
"I haven't talked with Dana (White) or Joe (Silva) or anybody, but yeah, that's what my next move is, or what I want it to be," Gastelum revealed. "I haven't really talked to anybody about it yet.
"I am [confident I can make 170.] All my fights have been at 185, but I know that once I get the diet going and my work outs, I'll be able to make 170 for sure."
Some wonder why a fighter who just bulldozed his way through a grueling middleweight tournament would elect to make such an immediate and drastic change. Though for the 5-foot-9 Gastelum, there is one simple reason.
"Uriah felt real strong," Gastelum explained. "And I wasn't able to control him like I wanted to and really finish the fight. That was the first fight that I haven't finished in my career. I'm not a point fighter. I go out there and I try to finish fights, so that's the only thing. He felt really strong."
Hall and Gastelum were friends on the show, and after the conclusion of their fight, Hall pulled Gastelum aside to tell the perennial underdog just how proud he was and how much Gastelum deserved his success.
It's been an emotional stretch for Gastelum, no question. With his life now in a far better place then it was prior, Gastelum recommends the TUF experience to any up-and-coming fighter. Personally, he credits much of his own growth to coach Chael Sonnen, who took Team Darkside under his wing and imparted a valuable mindset to his young students. To no one's surprise, it was that mindset that allowed Gastelum to pull off his final upset.
"For me, I go into the fight thinking that's he's trying to take something that I got," Gastelum finished. "I'm not going to let him take something that I earned, obviously. That's my mentality going into the fight. Obviously I like the guy and we had a great friendship during the show, and we trained a lot together, but for 15 minutes I've got to make myself believe that I hate him."