Fighter On Fighter: Breaking Down Gastelum!
Power-punching Southpaw, Kelvin Gastelum, will go to war with Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Middleweight kingpin, Robert Whittaker, this Saturday (Feb. 9, 2019) at UFC 234 from inside Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, Australia.
Gastelum is a difficult man to write about. Think about all the tools and weapons of other top title contenders, how many different strikes and submissions does Tony Ferguson throw up inside five minutes? Gastelum, meanwhile, relies almost entirely on fundamentals and timing. That’s not to say Gastelum is less effective than other contenders, as there’s a real chance his left hand pierces the jawline of Whittaker. In fact, the simplicity and success of Gastelum is really remarkable. Personally though, I don’t expect any surprises from Gastelum: if he wins on Saturday night, I’m pretty sure I know how it will happen.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Gastelum’s jab and cross make up a huge percentage of his strikes. His straight shots are lightning fast, well-timed and generally carry the power to send men to the ground. On the feet, he’s far more fleet-footed than most of his peers, particularly at Middleweight. The general speed advantage — both in terms of footwork and hand speed — is often what allows Gastelum to find his target.
For Gastelum, it all starts with the jab. That may not be the usual weapon of choice for Southpaws, but Gastelum does a fantastic job of stabbing at his opponents’ noses regardless of their stances. His jab is fast and spearing, the perfect set up for his power punches. Often, Gastelum likes to reach out and hand-fight before stepping in with the actual punch. Even though he’s a strong wrestler, Gastelum does an excellent job of maintaining distance via the jab (GIF). Opposite men who prefer to fight from the inside like Johny Hendricks and Tim Kennedy, Gastelum really did an excellent job of sticking the jab in their faces as they tried to move forward.
Following Gastelum’s jab is usually a long left straight, which looks like a piston firing since his move up to Middleweight (GIF). Again, there’s rarely anything too extraordinary about how Gastelum sets up his left, but he throws it aggressively and has a solid sense of distance (GIF). Often, it’s a simple matter of stepping to the outside and jamming his cross up the middle. Since his jab is such an effective weapon, it can stun his opponent just long enough for the cross to land cleanly. In particular, Gastelum reads his opponents’ defenses quite well and will find a hole with his left hand. He’s rather nasty with the left uppercut, which he commonly throws as his opponent is pressed against the fence (GIF).
Feinting is also a major factor in setting up the left hand (GIF). Gastelum feints constantly and uses false starts to hide his actual entrances, and the result is clean punches that land on an unsuspecting opponent. Gastelum’s constant commitment to pumping his lead hand feint and faking entries is a major reason that his cross is able to land so consistently.
Gastelum often looks to set up his punches by coming underneath the guard. He carries his jab hand low, meaning it shoots up from the waist. To build on that, Gastelum commonly feints low with a slight squat before firing. In addition, Gastelum has been more active with targeting the mid-section with a left hook around the guard.
Gastelum commonly lands hard shots on the counter. A new wrinkle to his game he showed opposite “Jacare” Souza came in the form of elbows. As Souza marched forward with his hands high, Gastelum occasionally planted his feet to land an upward or fold-over elbow. In addition, countering the right hand often results in Gastelum’s most significant blows (GIF), and we covered his strategies in this week’s technique highlight.
Gastelum’s kicking is underutilized. He has yet to really dedicate himself to chopping his opponent down, but he commonly starts his fights with some hard inside and outside low kicks. He also managed to drop Rick Story with a head kick, which is becoming a more common weapon for him and pairs nicely with his killer cross.
Similarly, Gastelum’s body kicks have become an increasingly effective part of his game. In addition, Gastelum used a step left knee to the mid-section opposite Nate Marquardt. Stepping in to close the distance fully after pinning his opponent to the fence, these knees winded his opponent and helped set up the later knockout via punches. In a five-round fight with a rangy fighter, it would be wise for Gastelum to kick more often.
Gastelum’s wrestling approach is just as meat-and-potatoes as his kickboxing and nearly as effective too.
Though he rarely wrestles offensively nowadays, Gastelum will look for his double leg takedown. While he can work for the shot against the fence, Gastelum often looks for his takedown in the center of the Octagon, where he can really explode through the shot.
A solid example of Gastelum’s offensive wrestling from earlier in his career came in his bout with Jake Ellenberger. “The Juggernaut” tagged his foe with a hard punch and tried to swarm, but Gastelum returned with a reactive double-leg takedown. Ellenberger -- who’s quite the explosive athlete himself -- defended with strong hips initially. However, Gastelum simply wouldn’t be stopped, as he ran through the takedown in a sort of double leg/knee pick hybrid.
In addition, Gastelum often looks to snap his opponent’s head down. While he will look for it after a failed double — a very common tactic in actual wrestling — Gastelum will often just latch onto his opponent’s head directly from the regular clinch and try to drag him down immediately. Gastelum usually looks to spin to the back following the snap down, but he also simply circled to safety when faced with Souza (GIF).
Defensively, Gastelum is light on his feet and moving constantly, which helps him avoid many of his foes takedown attempts. Unless they can time him coming in too heavily, he’s usually moving too much for his opponent to line up a double leg. In any case, Gastelum’s sprawl is heavy enough to stop the shot more often than not regardless.
Springing back to his feet is definitely a strength of the Arizona-native. As seen in his fight with Tim Kennedy, Gastelum is quick to turn his back and stand, fighting hands to prevent control. If his opponent hangs on, Gastelum does a nice job of pressuring into his foe to prevent any big slam and give himself a chance to strip the grip. Additionally, Gastelum will look to shoulder roll often, which helps him scramble.
Against Weidman, however, Gastelum’s scrambling wasn’t quite enough. He made Weidman work and was difficult to control early on, but it’s exhausting to have a larger wrestler weighing down on you while working hard to escape. Eventually, Gastelum’s scrambles were less explosive, and Weidman was able to focus on damage and submissions instead of just control.
Gastelum faced a similar challenge in “Jacare,” and he focused on defending the initial takedown more than trying to scramble away. The results were spectacular, as Souza scored no true takedown and was forced to pull guard into a leg lock to force a grappling match. Athleticism is a major factor in takedown defense so long as the defending man knows how to widen his base and fight for underhooks, something Gastelum did well repeatedly (GIF).
A Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, Gastelum has proven to be an opportunistic finisher on the mat. That hasn’t been a pivotal part of his game lately, but Gastelum is definitely one to quickly revert to his grappling roots after stunning an opponent.
For wrestlers learning jiu-jitsu and trying to submit fighters in mixed martial arts (MMA), the rear-naked choke has always been the go-to. It’s simple and usually requires nothing else but the correct position and persistence. In Gastelum’s case, he excels at latching onto the rear naked choke during scrambles. Regardless of whether he’s working from the turtle position or has just rocked his opponent standing, Gastelum is always hunting for an opportunity to dive on his opponent’s neck.
In short, Gastelum is excellent at capitalizing on small lapses in his opponent’s concentration. Focus is obviously important in a fight -- particularly when the rear naked choke is in play -- but there’s a lot going on in a fight. While Gastelum’s opponent is trying to figure out how to block his small punches, scramble back to the feet, or recover from a knock down, Gastelum is waiting for the moment his attention shifts just enough for him to sneak his arm under the chin (GIF).
Can Gastelum go all the way to the top with his simple game? What about while facing a size disadvantage? So far, Gastelum has consistently proven himself one of the best in the world with nothing but straight punches, sound wrestling and great instinct. He’s faced with a different challenge and great champion here, but Gastelum’s simple strategy is not out-matched.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.