There were a pile of favorites on the The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 17 cast: Bubba McDaniel was among them for his Jackson's MMA association and stiff fight experience, Bloody Elbow aficionados had their chips on community member and double head-buster auteur Josh Samman and Uriah Hall's dazzling kickboxing violence made him a shoe-in.
The name Kelvin Gastelum (6-0) was the last uttered when the coaches were picking teams and definitely not a part of the favorites conversation. He did nothing memorable or flashy, either in the cage or outside of it -- no highlight-reel striking displays, no scathingly arrogant smack talk, no drunken shenanigans, no tears or emotional outbursts. I mean, this guy didn't even piss in his own pants nor in any of his fellow cast mate's food. I know, right? The audacity of it all. Adding fuel to this already raging fire is the fact that Kelvin seemed like a pretty damn nice guy too.
With the standard list of attention-grabbing tactics in TUF history off his radar screen, the humble 21-year-old opted for the innovative approach of relying on his prowess as a mixed martial artist, and the outlandish gamble paid off. Despite a pedestrian decision win in the elimination match, Gastelum, perhaps understandably wielding super powers after UFC women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey called him to wish him luck, proceeded to steamroll the competition.
McDaniel was choked out in the 2nd round. Collin Hart was knocked out in the 1st round. Samman was choked out in the 1st round. Hall was the only opponent Gastelum didn't finish, but the irony of overcoming the criminally lopsided betting lines at the TUF 17 Finale might have made up for it.
Gastelum's opponent at Wednesday night's UFC Fight Night: Condit vs. Kampmann 2 event, Brian Melancon (7-2), also boosted his stock as an over-performing underdog, but his journey was condensed into five minutes and one opponent on Facebook rather than stretched out over a television season and consummated in a UFC co-headlining role. Some were curious why the 31-year-old was even being given a shot in the big leagues -- after all, he split results in two Strikeforce fights and was defeated in his lone Bellator outing.
But, like Gastelum, Melancon proved his worth the old fashioned way. Debuting against monumental favorite Seth Baczynski, a 6'3" tall welterweight who just saw a 4-fight win streak -- which included finishing Matt Brown by submission -- snapped by Mike Pierce, Melancon calmly and methodically shellacked his towering opponent by 1st-round TKO. And it was a little more than just landing a lucky punch -- Melancon streaked out a succession of blazing heaters that snapped Baczynski's head back repeatedly, and his combination of timing, speed, power and accuracy was virtually astounding.
Also, Melancon could've revealed that he'd just cured cancer in his post-fight interview and it wouldn't have been as endearing as when he credited Russian heavyweight legend Fedor Emelianenko as his inspiration.
Now, the question becomes whether Melancon was just on fire that night or can actually perform to that level consistently. Though Gastelum and Baczynski are both wrestlers, Baczynski has exhibited some questionable tactics on the feet, such as discarding his exceptional height and length by standing directly in a smaller fighter's wheelhouse, as he did against Melancon and Brown.
If there's one thing Gastelum showed on TUF, it's that he offers no gimmes and he doesn't make many mistakes nor mentally collapse. While wrestling is his core competency, his striking is far from shabby and he also has solid power. Gastelum has adopted the simple, no-nonsense and blue-collar approach of being a fundamentally sound striker and wrestler with the intelligence to capitalize on both traits in unison.
He's yet to shoot a desperation takedown from outside or badly telegraph a shot -- he either sets up his attempts with strikes, ducks under his opponent's punches to attack the waist, or just assumes the ideal position and distance to nail a double leg. The same applies to the southpaw's boxing acumen -- it's basic, fundamentally sound and effective, and also well synched to his wrestling.
Melancon showed some veteran savvy on the mat in his scrap with the rugged Isaac Vallie-Flagg, but he clearly would rather handle his business standing. That puts the burden of avoiding takedowns and landing his thunder -- in that specific order -- square on his shoulders. The first challenge he'll face is the classic MMA variable of a striker being hesitant to plant his feet and squeeze the trigger amidst the risk of impending takedowns. There is no better way to take the sting out of a striker's punches than to drop levels and attack his hips whenever he digs in to throw. Even a half-hearted attempt or a fake is often enough to wreak considerable havoc.
Melancon has two choices: any combination of the Machida/Liddell iteration in which he'd implement strategic movement, get on his bike, make Gastelum chase him down and then squeeze off short and controlled bursts while staying light on his toes to react defensively. Or he could go full-on gangster by holding his ground, planting his feet and dotting up Gastelum with his speed and power anytime he's in range. Another possibility is alternating back and forth between both, feeling things out early and carefully picking his spots to erupt.
Baczynski's height and striking defense aren't really comparable to Gastelum's though. The former is a lanky, rangy fighter with a lackadaisical guard and Gastelum is a shorter and more compact with good attention to defense; Baczynski stands orthodox and Gastelum is a southpaw, meaning Melancon's vicious left hook won't have as many target opportunities; Baczynski stood in the pocket and isn't known for his footwork while Gastelum is only in the pocket when he's throwing his hands or attacking with takedowns.
Melancon is not a bad wrestler himself and seems to have the knowledge and confidence in his submission grappling to survive short spurts on his back. Gastelum will endeavor to keep him there longer, and is the type of fast-paced and intelligent wrestler that doesn't give you an inch and capitalizes on even the slightest of mistakes.
You can never rule out a fiery gunslinger like Melancon, as evinced solely by his throttling of Baczynski. The overall style analysis, however, definitely favors Gastelum. He's not just a wrestler facing a striker -- Gastelum does a ton of little things with his entries, timing and motion, and should have the intelligence and fortitude to grind out another win.
My Prediction: Kelvin Gastelum by decision.