In sports, the relationship between talent and success is correlative, not causal. This past Saturday night, we were reminded of that fact once again, courtesy of Kelvin Gastelum’s loss to Jared Cannonier.
In the UFC Vegas 34 headliner, Gastelum lost a competitive five-round unanimous decision, in a bout which figures to install Cannonier as the next contender for UFC 185-pound champion Israel Adesanya, who was vocal about his desire to take on the “Killa Gorilla” even prior to the fight. The defeat, in which the middleweights duked it out on the feet for 25 minutes with several turns in momentum, essentially came down to a single round. In this sense, a loss shouldn’t be any particular cause for concern for Gastelum, yet the former “Ultimate Fighter” Season 17 winner, who was once viewed as an elite prospect, is now 1-5 in his last six fights. So, how the hell did this all happen?
While the fight was certainly a fun, spirited punch-up, even the most indifferent fans were quick to express their frustration, due to the Gastelum’s erratic execution. It’s not the mere fact that Gastelum lost, but the fact he lost in such a similarly unnerving fashion to the ways that have marked his career failures, not just in his recent slump, but extending back even further. It was the latest in a long line of vexatious, borderline confounding performances that have frequently left people wondering just how these outcomes seem to constantly repeat themselves and whether or not Gastelum can ever emerge as a truly top-flight competitor, especially in a middleweight division that could certainly use a few more contenders.
Gastelum’s case is relatively unique in that it doesn’t follow the most common methods by which many fighters falter consistently in the same way, such as overpassivity, overaggression, or being a fast starter whose gas tank can’t hold up over the long haul. His case is a rarer sort, in that his losses tend to be marked by wild unevenness. He fights in strange spurts, not due to poor conditioning, but due to… well, I’m not quite sure, hence this article.
Against Cannonier, quickly Gastelum opted to trade low kicks with Cannonier, despite it being immediately apparent his opponent was landing his strikes considerably harder. Gastelum is a pressure fighter by nature, which is fine, however he is a former welterweight facing a foe who made his UFC debut at 235 pounds. While Gastelum did have success by pressing forward, outlanding Cannonier 89-81 in significant strikes, the dynamic of the fight was immediately clear: he was landing marginally more, but Cannonier was landing much harder. Nonetheless, he had a successful second round and it appeared that Cannonier might be starting to tire, drawing long, sharp breaths by the end of the second round.
Then, in a familiar fashion, Gastelum simply started chasing Cannonier around the cage in the third frame, landing only 27 percent in the round and being absolutely drilled to the canvas by a right hand. He also began shooting takedowns with the most tentative of setups, leading to him going zero for eight on takedowns over the fight. While the bout was never out of reach, at every critical juncture over the final 15 minutes, the Arizona native found an inexplicable way to zig when he should’ve zagged, the latest exhibition of him being his own worst enemy.
He fought much taller, rangier fighters like Darren Till and Israel Adesanya in a similar way, not realizing the reach disparity and how his sporadic lulls were putting him into a hole on the scorecards. In the Adesanya bout, the lone title fight of Gastelum’s career, he wound up getting dropped four times. Against Jack Hermansson, he inexplicably embraced 50-50 position on the ground, then froze as if he was tasered. Hermansson heel hooked him in 78 seconds.
Unfortunately, Gastelum’s mercurial missteps don’t just occur inside the cage. Lest we forget, his wins following “The Ultimate Fighter” came at 170 pounds, which despite his initial promise, also turned out to be a routinely unnerving clusterf—k. For his June 2014 fight against Nico Musoke, he weighed in nearly three pounds over the limit. The following January, for his fight with Tyron Woodley, he missed weight by 10 pounds. Later that November, against Neil Magny, he fortunately made weight, but then proceeded to do almost nothing for the first 15 minutes, before suddenly deciding to fight his ass off, even knocking Magny down twice. Unfortunately, it was too little too late, and for no good reason.
The final nail in the coffin for Gastelum at welterweight came on weigh-in day ahead of UFC 205, one of the biggest events in MMA history. Knowing that he wouldn’t make weight, he didn’t even take to the scales, prompting UFC President Dana White to announce he would never compete for the company at 170 pounds again.
Normally, were a fighter to go 1-5 over a six-fight run in a promotion, I’d advocate for their release but I feel Gastelum’s case is a particularly unique one. Gastelum hasn’t missed weight in six and a half years now. He’s found the division he’s supposed to be in and at this juncture, those past indiscretions shouldn’t be any more of a concern than they would be for another fighter.
Secondly, Gastelum consistently faces strong-to-elite competition on a regular basis; he’s not losing to undercard scrubs and is typically paired against immediate title contenders. His competitive doldrums, while they have their own distinctive quality, are of a strategic variety. They may make you shake your head, but he can still clearly, viably compete against the best 185-pounders in the world. Even if he never gets over these tactical hiccups and his ceiling is being the gatekeeper to stardom at middleweight, that is still a valuable asset for any promotion.
No matter what is in Gastelum’s immediate future, there’s going to be a place for him. He is still just 29-years-old. More importantly, MMA will forgive almost any flaky behavior when the person in question is legitimately talented and can still provide fights worth watching or play a specific role in their division; after all, this is a sport that put up with the capricious antics of Vitor Belfort for over 20 years. If he’s released from the UFC in the near future, he will almost assuredly be nabbed by Bellator MMA, Professional Fighters League or another noteworthy promotion.
I’m not sure that Gastelum will ever join the all-time pantheon of reliably unreliable fighters, who often grace us with pure exasperation, but the man can still clearly fight. The MMA world may be incessantly fickle, but it’s also endlessly forgiving, especially for those who can flash their talent, even if inconsistently.