Perhaps the scariest part of Kelvin Gastelum’s quiet ruining of expectations is that he’s only 22 years old. The soft-spoken Arizona fighter that some fans have begun calling "Mini Cain" was barely drinking age when he shut down the boogeyman of The Ultimate Fighter 17 house, Uriah Hall.
People saw it more as Hall grossly underperforming than Gastelum "shocking the world." Since then he very quietly dropped to welterweight, where he’s gone 2-0. Brian Melancon, who looked so good in knocking out Seth Baczynski at UFC 162, couldn’t last half a round with Gastelum not quite two months later. Then Rick Story, who at one point was nudging his way into title contention, ended up on the wrong end of the scorecards against him at UFC 171.
Gastelum hasn’t rushed out of the gates banging pots and pans; he’s just sort of silently putting together a casualty list, in which he hopes to add Nicholas Musoke’s name very soon. That he’s still just learning how to build around his wrestling/ceaseless cardio base is also telling.
In professional sports they call raw talent like his "upside."
"When I fought Hall, people thought it was a fluke," Gastelum says. "I left that fight with a chip on my shoulder and said, well, you know what I want to prove people wrong. I’m here to win fights and I’m here to stay in the UFC for a long time. So I want to keep proving people wrong."
Sometimes being underappreciated makes for stronger motivations. Gastelum, who lives in the bordertown of Yuma, is a soft-spoken fighter who to this point hasn’t been denied. He fights Musoke on June 28 in San Antonio as the co-main event of UFC Fight Night 44. At this point, he’ll be the favorite. A win will be expected.
That’s a different sort of vibe than he’s used to. So far everything he’s done in the UFC has been from a prospect’s vantage of wait-and-see.
"Against Musoke, I plan to make a statement for sure," he says. "I have had two split decisions. The only split decisions in my career have been in the UFC. Guys are hard to finish in the UFC. These are the best fighters in the world and they are really hard to put away. If you look at my record, I only have two decisions and I don’t like that. I don’t like that I have two split decisions where people say, oh, you know I thought the other guy won, or the other guy should have won. I don’t like that. I want to fight and I want to finish fights. I want to prove to people that I am ranked what I am ranked for a reason."
Gastelum is posted at No. 11 on the current UFC rankings, which is no small feat when you consider how stacked that division is. A modest win over Musoke won’t move the needle much. But an emphatic win, like his statement over Melancon, could deliver him into fights against the grail of the top ten. That’s the new coveted space for the guy who nobody saw coming.
"Musoke’s a good fighter, he trains with that [Alexander] Gustafsson crew over there in Sweden," Gastelum says. "He’s had two good fights in the UFC. He’s not very well known because he’s fought mostly in Europe. But he’s tough. He’s real tough. A lot of people don’t know him and expect me to win, but I’m not sleeping on this guy at all. He’s in the same position I was when I was fighting Rick Story and he’s going to try to make his name off of me in this fight. I’m definitely not going to let it happen. He’s hungry, he’s young and he’s looked good in his fights. So, this is a very dangerous opponent because he’s got nothing to lose and everything to gain."
Another positive side effect of Gastelum’s quiet rise has been the even quieter resurgence of TUF as a vehicle for producing viable talent. At UFC 173, TJ Dillashaw of season 14 won the bantamweight title over Renan Barao, whom Dana White was touting as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
Gastelum isn’t where Dillashaw is (yet), but he’s happy to be part of the second wave of TUF-produced studs.
"I was super stoked when TJ got that title shot," he says. "I even tweeted out, TUF veteran getting a title shot. Who said TUF isn’t relevant? I’ve read some forums where people say aw, you know TUF is getting kind of washed down. TUF is irrelevant now, there’s a lot boring fights and boring fighters. But I’m glad that I came out of The Ultimate Fighter and that we’re making noise."
So, where does the "Mini Cain" label come from? Is it that he looks like an economy version of the original?
"It’s funny because people on the forums started calling me that, ‘Mini Cain,’ but I never said anything like that, ever," he says. "It’s not an official thing. The fans have been saying I’m the ‘mini-Cain or something. It’s cool, it’s cool, what can I do? It’s probably a combination of everything, my style is kind of that wrestler/boxer style, a lot of forward pressure. I don’t know."