LAS VEGAS — Kelvin Gastelum is among the longest-tenured fighters in the UFC. After winning Season 17 of “The Ultimate Fighter” with an upset of Uriah Hall, Gastelum has been a mainstay in the UFC for more than eight years.
He’s had a series of significant wins during that time, and participated in one of the greatest slugfests in UFC history. He’s got wins over former champions Michael Bisping and Johny Hendricks among his biggest victories.
But Gastelum, who will meet former middleweight champion Robert Whittaker on Saturday at Apex, is often a frustrating fighter because so much is expected of him. He has shown remarkable talent at times, but he’s the first to admit that consistency hasn’t been his strong suit.
Part of it, he said, was trying to put on a show rather than simply focusing on finding a way to get a victory.
“I feel like after the fight with [Israel] Adesanya, I did feel that way a little bit, actually, for my next couple of fights,” Gastelum told Yahoo Sports. “I kind of had that mentality. Obviously, it didn’t work out in my favor. I had to go back dig deep and really dig into my mind and psyche to kind of change that mentality because it wasn’t working for me.
“So that’s what I did. I’m working with a mind coach at the moment and he’s been with me since the Ian Heinisch fight and has really kind of changed my approach to fighting a little bit. I feel more focused, more lasered in.”
It’s easy to forget given all of his success and how long he’s been fighting at the top level of the sport that Gastelum still is only 29 years old.
His maddening inconsistency can be explained by simply realizing the precociousness of youth. Veterans who have been around a long time usually know how to deal with all of the distractions and the emotions that fighters face better than younger, less experienced athletes.
Dr. Bob Rotella, a longtime golf sports psychologist, has written a number of books on the mental side of the game, and his overarching theme is a simple one: stay in the present. There is nothing you can do about a shot that’s been hit, nor is there anything you can do about something coming up in the future. All that matters is what you do in the moment.
Gastelum put on a magnificent effort in the loss to Adesanya for the interim middleweight title, and many have called it the best fight in UFC history. He found after that loss that perhaps he was trying to get it back all at once.
He then went out and lost two consecutive fights, to Darren Till and Jack Hermansson.
“I feel like in those other fights, I was eager to kind of get back on top, eager to get back that rematch [with Adesanya] but obviously, it didn’t work out in my favor,” he said. “Mentally, I just wasn’t there.'
He ended his three-fight losing streak on Feb. 13 at UFC 258 when he used his wrestling to win a unanimous decision over Heinisch.
And while he’s an underdog — Whittaker is -260 favorite at BetMGM, while Gastelum is +210 — he’s confident he can win and eager for what he expects to be a strong run for many years.
He’s younger than you’d expect given his tenure, and the best, he believes, is yet to come.
“I feel I’ve shown only maybe 50 percent of my potential,” Gastelum said. “Now that I’m much more older, a little more mature, smarter, I feel like the best days are ahead of me still. … I’m not that 21-year-old kid anymore. I’m about to be 30 in October and it’s kind of crazy seeing that change in me and that change in my career. I feel like I’m starting my career over again. I feel I’ve gotten a fresh start and I’m going to make the most out of it.”
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