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Kelvin Gastelum is a real nowhere man, and that suits him just fine

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UFC 206 Weigh-in Photos Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Kelvin Gastelum’s latest turn at middleweight has been one of those weird things that everyone (including himself) is trying to get his mind around. Four months ago, he was still a nondescript welterweight getting set to fight former lightweight Donald Cerrone at UFC 205. Then he missed weight and — as a result, it seemed — was shamed into a bout with the specimen Tim Kennedy at UFC 206 in December, in which he showed up like a sequoia stump, sturdy and wise and a mile-deep into the earth. That got people to talking. That even got Gastelum to talking. After taking out Kennedy, he said 170 was still his “optimal weight class,” but he volunteered to fight fading legend Vitor Belfort in Brazil out of nowhere.


Yeah, well the UFC granted that request. Gastelum got the Belfort fight. He very quietly snuck down to Fortaleza and knocked Belfort out, only to treat his sudden success at middleweight as nothing more than a reluctant bit of serendipity. He said he thought he was better suited for welterweight as far as title runs go. He also called out Anderson Silva for June in Brazil. A few days later. The UFC granted his request, and now he’s fighting Anderson Silva in June in Brazil.


Yeah, well…alright, what the hell is going on? Kelvin Gastelum a few months ago wasn’t on anybody’s radar. Now, he’s the radar itself. He’s a shot-calling, legend-thumping, retirement-inducing, match-stealing, detour-taking, interloping quiet guy at the party that suddenly is talking up everyone’s girlfriends. Harmless? Oh, he’d like you to think so. He’s a charmer. And he’s one of those guys that falls forward. He’d been working on Great Jones Street as a barista, but somehow stumbled down Broadway and discovered his name on a marquee. Is he even a contender at middleweight? There’s a chance he could be the devil.

Whatever he is, Gastelum seems to be holding welterweight out there as a home that he can return to, just an abstract place in the Midwest with a wood-burning stove and a sleepy cat. Right now, he’s treating this as a lark. It’s been an adventurous six months. Back when the UFC made his fight with Cerrone, there was a healthy amount of “what the hell kind of matchmaking is this?” going on, because Gastelum wasn’t the kind of exciting name that felt right for “Cowboy.” Now he’s fighting Silva and everyone is kind of like, “yeah, well, he’s fighting Silva.” That’s one hell of a career twist.

Still, one constant has remained through it all: Gastelum has never quite been in focus. He’s traditionally been cast as part of somebody else’s narrative, a narrative that he just as routinely ends up controlling.

That is where Gastelum has spent his entire career. Standing in as other. When he came onto the scene on The Ultimate Fighter 17, he was picked next to last in the middleweight pool. He was the dead weight that Team Sonnen would have to carry. That season was all about Uriah Hall, the bogeyman who they teased in promos with Dana White’s astonishment and ominous glimpses of ambulances. It was Hall that put Adam Cella in the hospital, and spooked poor Bubba McDaniel into a state of fidgets.

Meanwhile, there was Gastelum, quietly beating McDaniel, Collin Hart and finally Josh Samman en-route to a showdown with Hall in the Finale. Coming out of that fight, it was all about Hall having lost his killer instinct. Gastelum slipped out the backdoor and down to welterweight, where went on a four-fight winning streak and missed weight the first time (against Nico Musoke), and then later against Tyron Woodley. He moonlighted for a single fight back at middleweight against Nate Marquardt, a fight he won via TKO.

As of November 2016, Gastelum was a young, stubborn, not-particularly-interesting fighter who was known more for carrying caution to the scale. He’s been nothing more than a welterweight with a shelf life, not the kind of guy that springs to mind when checking down a list of contenders. He has lost two split decisions in his career — the Woodley fight, and later against Neil Magny — and yet the true battle has been making weight. He could have kept on in such a thankless way if he had showed up on weight for Cerrone. He could have stretched out his basic whateverness forever.

Yet he didn’t. He came in overweight, and now his career is taking off. He retired Kennedy, he (essentially) retired Belfort, and now he’s going after the middleweight GOAT in Silva. By failing to make weight, he succeeded in finding his ultimate relevance in the fight game. He had to fail to come into focus. By doing so he constructed himself a platform from which to call his shots. And that’s what he’s been doing, even if he insists that welterweight is still out there, waiting for his return.

Maybe it is. But right now as a middleweight Gastelum may talk like a reluctant tourist, but for the first time in his career he looks right at home.