UFC 234: Matured Kelvin Gastelum ready to finally complete his mission for gold

Kelvin Gastelum always expected to be here — standing in the cage, headlining a pay-per-view, with UFC gold hanging in the balance.

Truth be told, he expected it to happen much sooner, but just as the course of true love never did run smooth, the road to championship success in the Octagon is rarely without delays, detours and being forced to double-back a couple times.

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“When I fought Tyron Woodley, the winner was promised a title shot,” said Gastelum, speaking with Sporting News just a few days prior to facing Robert Whittaker for the middleweight title in the main event of UFC 234. “I was expecting to get the title shot and be champion then, but the universe doesn’t work that way.

“I wasn’t ready and I wasn’t mature enough.”

Prior to the contest, which took place at UFC 183, Gastelum missed weight for the second time in three fights, prompting UFC President Dana White to declare his days at welterweight were over. The next evening, the former Ultimate Fighter winner suffered the first loss of his career, dropping a split decision to the current welterweight titleholder in a tepid battle where neither truly fought to his full potential.

Two years, four fights and one more failed attempt to make the welterweight limit later, Gastelum was banished to middleweight permanently, even though he publicly lobbied for another reprieve following impressive wins over Tim Kennedy and Vitor Belfort.

But now, on the eve of competing for UFC gold for the first time, the 27-year-old challenger reflects on those mistakes and miscues as crucial moments that allowed him to get to where he is today.

“I think all those experiences have led me to where I am now,” said Gastelum, who enters this weekend’s main event on a two-fight winning streak and sporting a 10-1 record with one No Contest in a dozen middleweight starts. “Obviously, I wanted to be the best that I can be at those times.

“All those experiences have pushed me to where I am now and I feel like now is the time,” he added. “Now I’m mature enough to know how to deal with this, to make the right decisions. You get all the good experiences, the bad experiences, put them all together and wish for the best and so far, it has worked out since moved back up to middleweight.”

Another key piece in Gastelum’s ascension to contender status in the middleweight division and overall maturation has been finding a stable home at Kings MMA under the watchful eye of Master Rafael Cordeiro.

Initially based out of his hometown of Yuma, Arizona, the 27-year-old bounced around to different gyms during the first couple years of his UFC career, searching for the right fit. Eventually, he landed in Huntington Beach, aligning with the former Chute Boxe Academy coach who helped guide Fabricio Werdum to UFC heavyweight gold and stands as one of the most respected leaders in the business.

“It has a been pretty awesome ride thanks to Master Rafael Cordeiro,” said Gastelum. “(Settling in at Kings MMA) has been huge because they’ve changed my perspective on MMA and fighting overall.

“Before, I was just a fighter. I could throw a pretty good one-two, but to actually live the lifestyle and learn from a great master like Rafael Cordeiro changes you — changes your perspective on what it is that you’re doing and why you’re doing it.”

Gastelum’s maturation isn’t just evident in the way he performs inside the cage or the fact that he’s no longer encountering any issues with the scale the day before his fights, but also in the way he discusses his craft and this weekend’s championship main event.

While competing at middleweight means the final days before each fight is no longer “The Battle of the Bulge,” he’s also shifted to maintaining a year-round diet and approach to his training, rather than vacillating between “In Camp” and “Out of Camp” and needing to close the gap between the two at the outset of each fight camp.

But you can also hear it in the way he speaks.

Where many fighters can help but get extra excited and filled with nervous energy as the opportunity to compete for UFC gold draws nearer, Gastelum is as laid back as ever, viewing Saturday’s showdown with Whittaker as nothing more than another big fight in a string of big fights over the last two years.

“I’m super-excited, obviously, but it feels weird; it feels like another fight,” said Gastelum, adding that he was surprised he didn’t feel differently on the eve of challenging for the middleweight title. “It feels like another big fight and that’s what I’m taking it as and the belt is just a (byproduct) of the work that I have put in.

“It has significance, but at the same time, it doesn’t have much significance for me because it’s just a (byproduct) of the work I’ve put in.

“I didn’t know what to expect and it just feels like another fight,” he continued. “It feels like a big fight, obviously, but it just feels like another fight. I’ve had some pretty big fights in my career, a few main events here and there, and it doesn’t feel any different from any of those.”

Although it may feel like the next big fight, Saturday’s contest is also a culmination of years of hard work focused on one specific task — to claim UFC gold.

After years of being “#OnAMissionForGold,” as his Twitter ID states, what will it feel like should Bruce Buffer belt out the words, “And NEW UFC middleweight champion of the world” on Saturday night?

“I’ll probably cry,” said Gastelum after a long pause and a deep exhale. “It’s funny because it doesn’t feel real, not yet. It wasn’t the feeling that I thought I would have and it still isn’t real.

“I don’t think I’ll be saying it’s real until I have the belt around my waist; then I’ll know it’s real.”

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