Back in its early days, The Ultimate Fighter was a breeding ground for future title contenders and stars. Men like Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans, Diego Sanchez and Nate Diaz all became big stars inside the Octagon and at least received title shots. Lately, though, it seems like the quality of fighter on the show, as well as any hopes of seeing another TUF winner become a champion, have greatly diminished. However, we could have a knight in shining armor that could restore honor to the throne of The Ultimate Fighter winners. That man is Kelvin Gastelum.

Gastelum won his season of TUF just about a year ago. It was season 17 of the reality series, and the coaches were Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen. Gastelum entered the show as the young underdog after defeating Kito Andrews in the qualifying round. He was Sonnen’s last pick among the 14 middleweights who made the house.

Over the course of the season, he knocked off potential favorite Robert “Bubba” McDaniel via submission, scored a TKO victory over Collin Hart and submitted Josh Samman to advance all the way to the finals against Uriah Hall. Hall was the most heavily hyped TUF prospect in years after his devastating knockout of Adam Cella early in the season. As crazy as it seems, there were fans out there that were calling for him to face Anderson Silva, the reigning middleweight champion at the time, after winning the show. Then, something funny happened. Gastelum pulled off the upset, and Hall didn’t win the season. Many criticized Hall’s performance in that bout, but it was finally clear that the young kid, Gastelum, was the real deal.

Gastelum competed at middleweight as a member of The Ultimate Fighter cast. After capturing top honors in the competition, he dropped down to welterweight to truly begin his UFC run. The UFC showed how much potential it really saw in Gastelum by initially booking him to face Paulo Thiago in his welterweight debut. Thiago was never the champion or anything, but the Brazilian had shown flashes of greatness. It was rare for the UFC to pair a guy just coming off of The Ultimate Fighter with a name of that caliber.

That fight never came to fruition because of an injury to Thiago, but Joe Silva’s matchmaking tipped the UFC hand. It had big plans for Gastelum.

Instead of Thiago, Gastelum locked horns with fellow prospect Brian Melancon for his welterweight debut. Melancon had looked great in his last fight inside the UFC and many still viewed this as a tough match-up, but Gastelum absolutely dominated Melancon and force him to tap in less than three minutes.

After that fight, Gastelum and his management team specifically asked for one fight. Their wish was granted when Gastelum faced Rick Story this past weekend at UFC 171. Story was definitely a huge step up in competition. He is a grinding, steady force in the welterweight division. Story even gave the new champion, Johny Hendricks, one of his two career losses.

Gastelum went out in the first round and performed like a world-beater again, nearly finishing Story. The TUF winner was again winning most of the second round until a punch from Story nearly put him on Dream Street. Gastelum composed himself and survived the round, but it was now clear that he had some work to do in the third if he wanted to stay unbeaten. He had some rough moments in the third when Story was able to take his back, but the young fighter was able to do enough in the judges’ eyes to take the decision.

A victory like that tells you more about a young fighter than a dominant first-round win could ever reveal. It shows that the guy has the ability to dig deep and come out on top even when he is dragged into the deep waters. When I use the word “young” to describe Gastelum, that isn’t an exaggeration. He is only 22 years old, and yet he is already out there beating guys like Story. Gastelum has all the tools and, more importantly, all the time in the world to get to the top of the mountain.

Gastelum has a very good background and base as a wrestler to go along with an ever-improving power striking game. Those are the same base set of skills shared by the two men who fought for the title on the night that Gastelum beat Story. Gastelum also has submission skills to go with that stellar base.

All of the fighting skills in the world, however, don’t necessarily equal out to becoming a superstar. Gastelum has the other half of the package as well. He is young, extremely marketable and has Latin heritage. The heritage is huge to the UFC, which is currently making a push into Mexico. Gastelum could join Cain Velasquez and Erik Perez at the top of the card when the UFC makes its first trip to Mexico City.

In a funny twist of fate, the biggest long shot to win The Ultimate Fighter in years might turn out to be the guy who makes it relevant again.

About The Author

Trey Downey
Staff Writer

A Central Florida native, Trey Downey's interest in MMA came after a trip to Blockbuster and the rental of UFC 47 on VHS. He has been blogging about the sport since 2011 and hosted a podcast called The TD Experience focusing on football and MMA (touchdowns and takedowns). Trey studied radio and television at the University of Central Florida and will soon be attending the Connecticut School of Broadcasting. Trey enjoys watching sports, pro wrestling and is an avid runner.