Kelvin Gastelum cemented his place as a legitimate contender for the Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight title in the UFC 224 co-main event on Saturday in Rio de Janeiro. What makes the former welterweight’s rise at 185 pounds even more fascinating is how it mirrors the ascent of another undersized fighter: Frankie Edgar.
Many observers were perplexed when the 5-foot-9 Gastelum made the move to 185 pounds. Sure, we all know about his issues with making the 171-pound welterweight limit, but at 24 years of age and with a 6-2 record in the division, additional maturity and the use of a nutritionist seemed to be a better solution. However, after his latest run as a middleweight, few doubts remain about his ability to contend in the division.
Seeing an undersized fighter excel in a weight class is nothing new to MMA. Edgar pulled off the same act in the lightweight division from 2007 to 2010. Although he was not dwarfed by his opponents, Edgar was a rarity earlier in his career. While many of his opponents cut anywhere from 15 to 30 pounds, “The Answer” fought close to his walk-around weight.
The similarities between Gastelum and Edgar are more than superficial. They both jumped out to fast starts in their respective divisions, Edgar at lightweight and Gastelum at middleweight. They also both hit major speedbumps that delayed their plans, Edgar in his decision loss to Gray Maynard and Gastelum in his submission defeat to Chris Weidman.
In a sport where athletes cut large amounts of weight in order to be the bigger man on fight night, competing at a more natural weight represents a notable change from the norms. Yet neither man was deterred by his setbacks. Edgar moved into title contention at 155 pounds with a three-fight winning streak against Hermes Franca, former champion Sean Sherk and Matt Veach; those three fighters had a combined 64-9 record before they faced “The Answer.” Impressive, but Gastelum’s rebound was even more noteworthy. First, he dispatched former middleweight champion Michael Bisping in less than three minutes; and at UFC 224 on Saturday, he rolled into Rio de Janeiro and took a split decision from Ronaldo Souza in the co-main event.
The paths Gastelum and Edgar have taken are eerily similar. Gastelum was thrown in the deep end quickly, with matchups against legends, former champions and top contenders. Despite it all, he owns a 5-1 record at 185 pounds. As for Edgar, he was fed to the proverbial wolves. He faced Tyson Griffin -- the Xtreme Couture standout was 8-0 at the time, with a win over Urijah Faber -- in his promotional debut and then continued on in workmanlike fashion, winning six of his first seven UFC fights before earning his first title shot. That is where their paths divert.
Edgar challenged B.J. Penn for the undisputed lightweight championship at UFC 112 in April 2010 and did not let the opportunity go to waste, as he upended the Hawaiian in what was viewed as a major upset. He went on to retain the title on three occasions -- a reign that included a successful rematch with Penn, arguably the greatest lightweight of all-time.
Can Gastelum follow Edgar’s lead? Robert Whittaker will defend the middleweight crown against Yoel Romero at UFC 225 in June. Gastelum was ranked fifth in the UFC’s latest 185-pound rankings, though that is sure to change following his victory over the second-ranked Souza. Luke Rockhold, who sits at No. 3, was knocked out by Romero in his most recent appearance, and Weidman, now at No. 4, continues to battle thumb issues and has not fought since he beat Gastelum nearly a year ago. Souza and Rockhold are certain to fall behind Gastelum in the rankings. As for Weidman, the combination of inactivity and his being 1-3 in his past four bouts could result in his being leapfrogged, as well. As a result, Gastelum finds himself closer than ever to an elusive title shot.
It would be a great story if Gastelum follows Edgar’s path all the way to championship glory. A title fight with Whittaker -- assuming he can defeat Romero -- would feature two men who once fought at 170 pounds. It would lend further credence to the idea that fighting closer to one’s natural weight is beneficial to both the fighters and the division in which they compete.
Whether or not he captures UFC gold at some point, Gastelum is a rare talent. Considering his similarities to Edgar and the fact that he lacks a nickname, perhaps he should share the trendsetting star’s alias. Maybe he is the new “Answer” to all the questions in the middleweight division. Only time will tell if Kelvin “The Answer” Gastelum can live up to such lofty expectations. With that said, are you silly enough to doubt him?