Exactly one year ago, Kelvin Gastelum paired with reigning UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya to put on one of the greatest fights in the history of the sport. While he takes some fulfillment from his performance that night, Gastelum admits it still hurts to think how close he was to wrapping gold around his waist.
“I’m very proud of the effort that I put in that fight and what we did in that fight despite the circumstances, and I’m very proud of that fight because I got to do a lot of things that I haven’t been able to do in a lot of other fights,” Gastelum told MMA Junkie. “I’m very proud of it. At the same time though, this is not why I got into the sport, to say and look back, ‘I almost did it. I was this close.’ No, man. I’m not going to be one of those people.
“I’m not really worried about it right now, but when people ask me, and they’re like, ‘You were this close,’ it sucks. It burns in my soul. It burns in my heart to know I was that close, and I just won’t let it happen again.”
The UFC 236 headliner was MMA Junkie’s 2019 “Fight of the Year” and certainly didn’t see Gastelum (16-5 MMA, 10-5 UFC) lose any standing in the division despite Adesanya taking home the decision win. However, when he returned to action seven months later, Gastelum wasn’t able to turn in the same type of effort, ultimately suffering a split-decision loss to Darren Till.
In retrospect, Gastelum admits it was a fight he probably shouldn’t have taken.
“I feel like after the Israel fight, I was eager to get back and prove something because I lost, but it didn’t work out in my favor,” Gastelum said. “I lost the Darren Till fight, and I feel like after the Darren Till fight, I realized, ‘Man, maybe I should have taken some more time to kind of heal from that beating I took last April.’ After that fight, I should have taken more time off.
“I was really eager. I had done more damage to my body than I probably realized. I wasn’t there mentally. I wasn’t there physically or emotionally in the Darren Till fight. I don’t even feel like I lost to him, just because of the way that I felt. I didn’t feel like really being there, to be honest.”
Gastelum has been forced to the sidelines in the time since that UFC 244 setback. After tearing his LCL in January, “The Ultimate Fighter 17” winner has been focused on rehabbing, and he says the time off has done him well, and he looks forward to working with his manager, Ali Abdelaziz, and UFC president Dana White to book another fight, which he hopes could be held in July, especially if International Fight Week goes on as planned despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“It should be a few weeks before I get those conversations going again with Ali or Dana, and actually, I’m very much looking forward to it,” Gastelum said. “I’m looking forward to training again – just very much looking forward to that process again. This is what I love to do, and part of it is that process: Waking up in the morning, being sore, being tired, but at the same time, you know you’re chasing something incredible, and I can’t wait to be part of that process again.”
Gastelum currently sits at No. 13 in the latest USA TODAY Sports/MMA Junkie middleweight rankings, but he’s hoping for a chance to start building back up the ranks. Initially, he hoped to face Robert Whittaker, thought it now appears the former middleweight champ will be facing Till, instead.
Forced to consider other options, Jared Cannonier is another name that Gastelum finds appealing, as well.
“He’s at that level,” Gastelum said. “He’s a dangerous guy, and everybody recognizes how dangerous he is. That would be another big name. If you beat him, you’re right there, too, you know? That would be another guy.
“I don’t know. There’s a couple options. I just don’t know who the matchmakers would want me to match up with for the next fight, but I mean, I’m hoping for anybody: Robert Whittaker, Jared Cannonier, Jack Hermansson.”
In truth, the name really doesn’t matter too much to Gastelum. What’s more important is the number next to it. Gastelum believes he still belongs at the top of the division, and he wants a chance to prove it.
That effort from a year ago, it’s still there, Gastelum said. And at just 28 years old, he believes his best days are still ahead – including the one when he earns the title of UFC champion.
“I’m glad I’m taking this time to heal my body, heal my mind, heal everything, you know, and just get ready to make another run once again,” Gastelum said. “I’m still young. Man, I’m 28 years old. I’m not even 30. I haven’t even hit my prime yet.
“I still believe in myself. I still believe I’m going to be champion.”