When Kelvin Gastelum opened the e-mail and saw the offer to fight Johny Hendricks at UFC 200, the first emotion he felt was surprise. Here was a fighter in the midst of his first career slump, still reeling from a rocky year riddled with losses and questions about his fluctuating weight, unexpectedly getting the chance to dance with a former UFC welterweight champion at one of the promotion's seminal events.
But that's just mixed martial arts. The game is nothing if not unpredictable, and if Gastelum was looking for a way to remind the world why he was once considered a can't-miss welterweight prospect, he knows he couldn't have asked for a better opportunity.
"This is the biggest fight of my life," Gastelum told MMA Fighting. "It's a position that I've been in before, so I'm comfortable where I'm at, comfortable taking the fight. But on the other hand, this is Johny Hendricks. He's a former champ. He's beaten a lot of beasts. He's a killer, and he's got that knockout power. Right now, it's intimidating. Absolutely. You've got a lot of psychological battles you've got to go through, but I believe in myself and what I can do."
The booking comes at an interesting time for Gastelum, whose honeymoon stage with the UFC ended in 2015 with losses in two of three fights, punctuated by a brief dalliance at middleweight after a badly botched weight cut at UFC 183.
Gastelum now sees UFC 200 on July 9 as a fresh start. He calls the opportunity "a dream come true" when he thinks back to the memory of watching UFC 100 from the couch of his college dorm room in 2009. He had just one amateur fight at the time, so in a way, the chance to compete at UFC 200 is a reflection on how far he has come since those early days.
Gastelum also knows he is lucky that after enduring the hardest year of his professional career, he still finds his name ranked among the top-15 in the UFC's media-generated welterweight rankings. So with his struggles moving farther in the rearview mirror, he hopes to use his stage at UFC 200 as a springboard to greater things, kicking off the next chapter of his fighting life.
"I had a great 2014," Gastelum said. "I even won the MMA award for Breakthrough Fighter of the Year. I had a great year -- '15 was just not my year. But obviously I learned about my body, about nutrition. I had to educate myself, because I had no knowledge about it. I had to get help.
"But at the same time, I look at it in a positive way. If it's not my time to win those fights, then it's for a reason. I believe things happen for a reason, and that's part of the process to my end goal, which is winning the world championship. So I think, in a way, it's going to shape me so that I can achieve that."
Still, the fight with Hendricks represents a precarious crossroads for Gastelum.
A loss would be the third loss in Gastelum's last four fights, following split decision setbacks against Tyron Woodley and Neil Magny. On the other hand, a win against a name like Hendricks would easily be the biggest accomplishment of Gastelum's career, and would erase the memories of those prior stumbles.
Gastelum is catching Hendricks at a good time, too. The former UFC welterweight champion looked like a shell of his former self in his last outing -- a one-round shellacking that saw Hendricks finished for the first time ever at the hands of Stephen Thompson. In many ways, Hendricks' situation mirrors Gastelum's, as weight-cutting issues resulted in Hendricks overcompensating and coming into that fight week at the lightest weight of his entire career.
Gastelum understands better than anyone the effect those problems can have on the psyche of a fighter, and how heavily the stress of a potentially botched cut can weigh on an athlete's mind.
"Hendricks looked a little different," Gastelum said. "He made a real conscious effort to really get down (in weight) and stay disciplined on his diet in his last camp. I was expecting to see the best Johny Hendricks we've ever seen, just based on that, just based how strict he was for his diet, how disciplined he was for his camp. But he looked different.
"If your weight is the last thing on your mind, then you're going to have a fun fight. For me, my problem was, the whole training camp, the whole week of the fight, my main issue is dropping the weight, and that's what's on my mind. I'm not even thinking about the fight the whole camp or the week of the fight. I'm thinking about cutting weight. It affects you psychologically. Once the fight gets closer to the actual date, the fight gets more mental rather than physical."
In regards to his own weight problems, Gastelum vows those issues are a thing of the past. He successfully cut down to the welterweight limit with the help of nutritionist George Lockhart this past November when he fought Magny, and he plans to employ Lockhart's services again for UFC 200.
If all goes well, Gastelum hopes an impressive performance against Hendricks will rocket him back to the front of crowded title picture.
"It puts me in a title eliminator fight, I think," Gastelum said. "Why not? He's top-five. Then I'll fight somebody in the top-three, then hopefully get a title shot. That would be the plan."