Kelvin Gastelum will headline his second UFC event on March 11 against Vitor Belfort in Fortaleza, and even though he called “The Phenom” out in December, he wasn’t really expecting to face the Brazilian veteran next.
Right after his third-round TKO victory over Tim Kennedy at UFC 206 in Toronto, Gastelum said that he wanted to go back to 170 pounds, but he was down to staying at middleweight for a fight against Belfort. One day later, the UFC called him offering to face the Brazilian in enemy territory.
"I kind of just threw the name out to see what happens and they gave me the fight, so let’s do this,” Gastelum told MMA Fighting. "They gave me the fight against a legend, Vitor, a main event fight here in Fortaleza. I got a new contract, so there’s just a lot of factors where I couldn't say no to this fight. It’s a great opportunity.”
Gastelum visited Fortaleza this week to promote the card, and officially met his opponent for the first time after seeing him occasionally in other events.
"It was intense,” Gastelum said of his meeting with Belfort. "I don’t think he wants to be my friend right now [laughs], so I kind of just kept my distance and that’s it. Let’s do our jobs and we’re just gonna keep each other a distance right now.
"Every fighter is different,” he continued. "When I was going to fight 'Cowboy' Cerrone, he was hugging me, we were riding the same van together, everywhere together. He was friendly, you know? Vitor likes to keep distance from his opponent, not talk. We have to be separate, you know? Every fighter is different.
"I like to be respectful. Whatever my opponent wants. If he wants to say hi to me and be friendly, then I’ll be friendly back. But if he doesn’t, I’ll give him that space. It just depends on the fighter. But I can be friendly with everybody. We’re gonna fight either way."
Even though Gastelum’s initial plan was to go back to welterweight, he explains that he’s not completely against the idea of staying full time at middleweight. After UFC Fight Night: Fortaleza, his next move will be determined based on the opportunities that comes.
"I’m not against (staying at 185), but I feel like welterweight is my optimal weight class. But I’m not against staying at 185,” Gastelum said. "What I want is the No. 1 contender fight after this fight, whether it’s at middleweight or at welterweight. I want to fight for the No. 1 contender so I might get my title shot. But it doesn't matter if I’m at middleweight or welterweight, I just want to fight the No. 1 contender."
But can a win over Belfort in a middleweight bout give Gastelum a No. 1 contender fight at welterweight?
"That’s the only fight I’m willing to take,” he said. "I’m not gonna take any other fight other than the No. 1 contender fight.”
It’s clear that Gastelum plans one fighting one more time after UFC Fight Night: Fortaleza before getting a shot at a UFC belt, but he knows he can’t look past someone like Belfort.
"He’s dangerous. He's a very, very dangerous fighter,” Gastelum said. "He's been fighting for over 20 years. That’s something to respect. He's been up, he’s been down, he's been up again, he's been down again. Right now, his last few fights haven't gone his way, but he's been in this position before so I’m not counting him out at all. I feel like he's been in this position before, he’s been fighting for 20 years, so he should feel very comfortable coming into his fight.”
Gastelum won’t expect an easier fight based on the fact that Belfort has lost three of his last four fights, getting finished by Gegard Mousasi, Ronaldo Souza and Chris Weidman, but admits that those performances give him some ideas of how to prepare.
"I’m a different fighter than any, than every one of those fighters he fought, so my way of winning will be different,” Gastelum said. "I’m gonna focus on what I’ll do and hope for the best. But it does give me a little bit of insight as to what his weaknesses are and what his strengths are."
Belfort hasn’t lost three in a row since a 2005 skid against Randy Couture, Tito Ortiz and Alistair Overeem, and Gastelum believes that the Brazilian will retire after the fight in Fortaleza.
"Yeah, I think,” Gastelum said. "If he ends getting really hurt - I hope he doesn’t, and I hope I don't get hurt either. This is a fifty-fifty game, I don’t wish bad to anybody - but if he gets really badly injured in the fight, I think he may call it quits and retire."
And when Gastelum says “hurt”, he means both injured or hurt in the process of getting knocked out.
"I think injury or a really bad performance like that,” he explains, "I think he will retire."
And will he add another knockout loss to Belfort’s record on March 11?
"For some reason in the first round, knocking him out,” Gastelum said when asked how he foresees himself winning in Brazil. "I don't know why. It could be a 25-minute war, but I have a feeling it will be in the first round."