Opinion: Kelvin Gastelum’s View from the Fence

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the death of Christopher Wallace, aka Biggie, aka The Notorious B.I.G., aka one of the most era-defining artists of hip-hop ever. His style continues to be emulated and imitated, and his lyrics are among the most commonly referenced by other MCs to date.

Among the more frequent homages to his work is citing one of his biggest hits “Mo Money Mo Problems,” a track about the proportional relationship between having a lot of money and having a lot of problems. At the time it was recorded, platinum-selling Biggie -- along with labelmate Ma$e and hitmaker extraordinaire Puff Daddy, who were also on the track -- knew the ills of fame and money all too well. Celebrity makes it hard to live a normal life, compromising everyday luxuries like being able to walk freely in public. Wealth breeds mistrust. It can turn longtime friends and relatives into sycophantic barnacles who cling to their famous acquaintances and wait to catch the financial scraps that fall from the table. Affluence is its own brand of chaos.

To most of us, though, the idea that being rich is problematic is a bit silly. For those of us who have had to grind through multiple jobs at the same time, who have had to sweat through conversations with landlords for an extra week to pay the rent, who can hardly remember the last time we were able to go on vacation, we would gladly trade our problems for being too rich to go to the mall without personal security.

Indeed, some problems are better than others. For Kelvin Gastelum, a 25-year-old on a three-fight winning streak that includes two consecutive TKOs, his problems are pretty ideal for the MMA world. Yet they are still problems nonetheless.

After he dominated Vitor Belfort in the UFC Fight Night 106 main event on Saturday in Brazil, fans and pundits alike voiced their wishes for Gastelum to stay at middleweight. He struggled too much to make welterweight, the argument goes, and he has looked so good at middleweight that there’s no real reason to put his body through that extra 15 pounds of cutting weight. There is truth to these claims, but they ignore the context of both the welterweight and middleweight divisions; Gastelum does not fight in a vacuum, and his future at both 170 pounds and 185 pounds have real pros and cons.

Here’s the rundown: Gastelum, “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 17 winner, is 9-2 overall in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. He is 4-0 at middleweight, 4-1 when he made weight for welterweight fights and 1-1 in catchweight bouts where he didn’t make weight. On the surface, to say he has performed better at middleweight is basically correct, though it’s a bit hyperbolic to emphasize that point since both of his losses have been narrow split decisions to top 10 opponents, including one against current champion Tyron Woodley -- a fight for which Gastelum was nine pounds overweight. Still, undefeated is undefeated, so mark that as a reason to stay at middleweight, if you must.

Here’s the problem with ending at those statistics, though: The quality of opposition that Gastelum has faced at 185 is vastly different than who he has fought at 170. The average age of Gastelum’s middleweight opponents is currently 36, compared to 32 for his welterweight fights. Mid-30s is typically the tipping point of a fighter’s prime. This is especially pertinent since two of Gastelum’s four middleweight opponents -- Belfort and Nate Marquardt -- started fighting before 2000. Furthermore, the combined UFC record of Gastelum’s middleweight opponents in the last five years is 17-21. His welterweight opponents have gone 30-21 in the same timespan. At the very least, the argument that Gastelum has fought better at middleweight deserves an asterisk.

Regardless, whether Gastelum should stay at middleweight or go back down to welterweight has more to do with his future than his past. If he were to stick to one weight class, either way, he would likely be fighting top 10 opponents next. Here is how the divisions stack up against each other at the moment. The average age of the middleweight top 10 is 35, compared to 33 at welterweight. As for size, of course middleweights are larger, but just how much exactly? At least in terms of height and reach, not that much. The middleweight top 10 is on average 6-foot-1, with a 75.4-inch reach. The top 10 welterweights are an inch shorter both ways. Height and reach offer only a rough approximation of size, but they are still helpful measurements since we don’t know exactly how heavy fighters normally are before cutting weight. Thus, given these admittedly crude metrics, the middleweights Gastelum would be facing are slightly larger and older than the welterweights. It’s worth noting here that Gastelum, at 5-foot-9 with a 71-inch reach, is smaller than the average top 10 fighter at both weight classes.

What of his actual performances? At middleweight, where again he faced demonstrably lesser opposition, Gastelum landed an extra eight strikes per round than he did at welterweight. Even if you only count the welterweight fights where Gastelum made weight, he still landed an extra five strikes per round at middleweight. He has also scored the same amount of knockdowns in four middleweight fights as he has in seven welterweight fights. Moreover, he averages one takedown attempt per round at middleweight and just over half of that at welterweight, and his takedown completion rate and takedown defense have been the same in both divisions. Going off of statistics, he is the same fighter, just slightly more efficient when fighting at 185.

This weight division dilemma wouldn’t even be a necessary discussion if it weren’t for the fact that he has struggled to make 170 pounds. Aside from missing weight twice at a combined 10.75 pounds over the 171 non-title fight limit, it also took him three attempts before making weight against Rick Story. That means in almost half of his scheduled welterweight fights he has had difficulty making weight. Clearly, his biggest foe has been the scale.

Ultimately, Gastelum is in a weird spot. The numbers show that he generally fights a little better at middleweight. Numbers don’t lie, but it’s also hard to imagine him faring well against the likes of Yoel Romero, Luke Rockhold or Chris Weidman. On the other hand, he nearly beat the current welterweight champion when he was grossly unprepared for the fight. It only makes sense that a more dedicated, scientific training camp would yield better results for the ever-improving millennial contender.

Should he stick around at middleweight and give up extra size in exchange for better performances against older opponents, or should he try his hand once more in a tougher, younger division where he would not be at as much of a size disadvantage? Given his post-fight callout of either Anderson Silva or a top-ranked welterweight, the man himself seems to be on the fence about it. It’s a tough call to make, but he has to like his view right now. Being successful at two different weight classes is a good problem to have.

Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.
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