LAS VEGAS — Nothing he sees from Jared Cannonier inside the small Octagon at Apex on Saturday will faze Kelvin Gastelum, even though Cannonier is the UFC’s third-ranked middleweight and one of the most powerful strikers in the division.
That’s because Gastelum has seen it all before.
Gastelum is 16-7 in MMA, but his strength of schedule has been remarkable and nearly unmatched. He’s fought seven men who were UFC champions; two others who fought for a UFC title and two who held Strikeforce belts.
There have been very few breathers for Gastelum along the way, though he’s hardly complaining.
“It’s not something I’ve looked back at too much, but I’ve always asked for it,” Gastelum said of elite opposition. “Ever since my very first fight in the UFC after winning ‘The Ultimate Fighter,’ I was asking for Paulo Thiago. He was a big contender at the time. I was just coming off winning ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ and I was asking for the biggest name possible. I’ve always asked for it.”
And he’s mostly succeeded, though he enters the fight Saturday at somewhat of a career crossroads. He’s coming off a loss to Robert Whittaker — yes, an ex-champion — that he took on short notice. It was Fight of the Night, but that red in the loss column stands out as a glaring reminder of what happens when you fight the elite of the elite.
You can fight well, receive plenty of praise, and still come out on the short end of the stick.
Gastelum enters Saturday’s fight having lost four of his last five. The negative run started at UFC 236, when he lost a split decision to Israel Adesanya for the interim middleweight belt in what was one of the best fights in UFC history.
He’s been in three Fight of the Night battles in his last six fights alone, proof that he’s right at the top of his division. When the fighters are so talented and evenly matched, there is very little that separates them and a bout can turn on the slightest mistake.
Gastelum, though, is 29 and won’t turn 30 until the end of October, so he has a long time yet to compete. And he noted that fighters like him, who are always seeking out the best challenges, are part of the reason for the rapid growth in MMA’s popularity.
“There’s a lot of fake stuff online,” Gastelum said. “A lot of photoshopping, a lot of fake people. In general, there is a lot of fakeness going around in the world today. People are looking for something genuine and I think MMA is one of those few things that is very genuine and very true to the art.
“That’s why it’s attractive to so many people. People are looking for something real and in MMA, you can’t lie in there. There’s no deceit in there. If you don’t prepare for the fight or don’t train well, you’ll go in there and get smashed.”
Despite his 1-4 slide, Gastelum remains ranked ninth in the middleweight division, a testament to how competitive he is just about every time out.
Now, fighting a dangerous opponent like Cannonier, who once competed as a heavyweight, he knows he’s taken on risk. Gastelum started his career as a welterweight.
So while Cannonier dropped down two weight classes to get to middleweight, Gastelum moved up to get there. So Cannonier’s physicality and size could be a factor.
Gastelum, though, is never one to be sold short.
“I think [size and strength] could be an issue,” Gastelum said. “He’s a very big, strong guy and I think if his goal is to use it, then maybe it could be a factor. … On Saturday, we’ll see if I can take but we’ll also see if he can take my power because you know what? I bring a certain level of power to the table, as well.”
And that, among many characteristics, is what makes him a can’t-miss guy in the UFC.
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