Kelvin Gastelum's comprehensive first-round technical knockout victory over Vitor Belfort in Fortaleza, Brazil, left a number of strong impressions on Saturday night.
Firstly, it's evident how talented Gastelum is. Despite being a visibly undersized middleweight—his return to the division a result of numerous failed attempts at making the 170lbs welterweight limit which appears to be his rightful home—Gastelum continues to show remarkable improvement with each fight and it's startling how easily he handled a veteran in Belfort in such at the tender age of 25.
Gastelum's level of in-cage competence is a world away from that of the younger man who cut a shy and retiring figure picked last by coach Chael Sonnen on season 17 of The Ultimate Fighter—a season he ended up winning to the chagrin of many a UFC official, who had put all their eggs in the one basket of Uriah Hall, who was marketed as Anderson Silva Mk II.
Secondly, it was equally evident how far Belfort is past his prime. Yes, Belfort was described as a veteran as above, but his performance on Saturday night suggests he is not at the level he was little over three years ago, victorious with three consecutive head kick knockouts over current UFC middleweight champion Michael Bisping, former middleweight UFC champion Luke Rockhold, and all-time great Dan Henderson.
That run earned him a well-deserved title shot against then-middleweight king Chris Weidman, and was beaten within three minutes by TKO. Belfort rebounded with another head kick KO over Henderson as late as November 7, 2015. But since then, Belfort endured two knockout losses to Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza and Gegard Mousasi before his latest defeat to Gastelum on Saturday.
Less than a month away from his 40th birthday, Belfort had slowed down considerably ahead of this Gastelum fight, but that's fine and to be expected—combat sports is the one game where age creeps up on you before you realise and, more often than not, it doesn't end well for you. Ahead of his UFC light heavyweight title fight against Jon Jones at UFC 152, Belfort described himself as an "old lion," and that was almost five years ago before the aforementioned run at middleweight which culminated with his title shot. He didn't back then, but Belfort is finally looking every part of the old lion he prophesised in the past.
In the immediate aftermath of their fight, thoughts quickly moved onto who the UFC should put an exciting talent like Gastelum up against next. The opinion held strongest was a match-up against the winner of Jacare Souza and Robert Whittaker, who are slated to fight in April at UFC on Fox 24. Souza may be 37-years-old, but he has shown no signs of slowing, going 7-1 in the UFC since 2013, with that sole loss a controversial split decision to consensus number one middleweight contender Yoel Romero. Meanwhile, Whittaker is one of the division's most promising prospects aged similarly to Gastelum at 26 and is 5-0 since moving up to middleweight from welterweight—another similarity between the two.
However, Gastelum had other ideas and quickly dashed any hopes harboured for a top middleweight contest featuring two men in their twenties—a rarity at 185lbs these days—or a true test for Gastelum against one of the world's premier submission grapplers-turned-MMA fighters. Borrowing a phrase from his former TUF coach Sonnen, Gastelum quipped in his post-fight interview: "There's a guy really close to me that I know [who] started a legends ass-whooping tour and I want to finish it. June 3, I want to against Anderson [Silva]."
Just days later, the UFC obliged and announced a fight had been finalised between all-time MMA great Anderson Silva and Gastelum, scheduled for June 3 at UFC 212 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
There's no doubting the extent of the accomplishments achieved by Silva and his name still garners plenty of star power, but the unavoidable truth is that he has only won one fight since 2012—a controversial decision win against Derek Brunson at UFC 208 in February 2017. Though he hasn't been beaten quite like Belfort had in the lead-up to Gastelum's latest fight, Silva has been knocked out by Weidman, followed by an unfortunate TKO loss due to a broken leg he suffered in his rematch against him, and has dropped unanimous decision losses to Bisping and Daniel Cormier, sandwiching a No Contest against Nick Diaz—a win which was overturned after Silva had tested positive for performance enhancing drugs drostanolone and androsterone.
With Silva turning 42-years-old ahead of the scheduled Gastelum fight, the local Brazilian press did call out the latter's apparent insistence on fighting opponents much older than his 25 years. Gastelum did well to brush off those suggestions, correctly identifying the fact Silva is ranked three spots above him in the UFC middleweight reckoning as number seven in the world before saying he'd fight anyone that will push him higher in the rankings. But the fact he stated he wants to continue and end a "legends ass-whooping tour" suggests he has put some thought into his post-fight callout of Silva.
It's worth remembering that Silva audibly pondered retirement following his win over Brunson and even hinted at leaving the Octagon behind following his later-overturned victory against Diaz over two years ago. Likewise, Belfort openly talked about retirement in the lead-up to the Gastelum fight, saying the only way fans would get to see more of him competing is by the UFC opening a "UFC Legends League." The Brazilian mentioned his plans once again following his disappointing defeat.
Gastelum's role as a Randy Orton-esque retirement-inducing "Legend Killer" has already claimed one victim. Tim Kennedy, who hadn't fought in the UFC for over two years, returned to the cage to face Rashad Evans at UFC 205. However, once Evans was pulled from the show for undisclosed medical reasons by the New York State Athletic Commission, Kennedy was left opponentless and that fight was rescheduled. Evans, once again, couldn't make the date, and was replaced by Gastelum following his weight cut-related discrepancies which saw his contest with Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone, also at UFC 205, similarly scrapped.
An active National Guard for the United States Army—who had long vocally pondered retirement from the sport, accumulating over two years of ring rust in the process—a 37-year-old Kennedy quickly ran out of gas and was handily pummelled by Gastelum at UFC 206 in Toronto, Canada. Gastelum impressed and successfully stemmed the flow of furore thrown his way following his UFC 205 weight cut mishap. Kennedy promptly announced his retirement from fighting after his loss—and while not an MMA "legend" per se, Gastelum's run of fighting former greats already considering retirement started from this point.
There is no doubting Gastelum is a talented. He is exciting to watch and even had the smarts to conduct the majority of his post-fight interview in Portuguese for the Brazilian audience—showing off a new wrinkle in his rise to prominence on the UFC roster. But those natural cerebral tendencies are coming to the fore with his announced wishes to continue his "tour." Yes, Silva is ranked above him and has a big, beatable name which feeds into this new storyline he's created, but Gastelum could and should be provided with opponents which make more contextual sense for both parties—a criticism levelled at the UFC, rather than Gastelum himself.
What does a star as big as Silva get for beating a man who is ranked lower than him with a lesser-known name? Unfortunately for the Brazilian, he painted himself into a corner by taking the Brunson fight when he had previously said he wanted to only fight those of a similar standing to him at this winding-down stage of his career—ie a Michael Bisping or a Nick Diaz, who had big names in their own right. There is no guarantee of victory for Gastelum against a brilliantly unpredictable man like Silva and this article could even be seen as slightly disrespectful towards the latter—a man who has never needed anyone to fight his corner for him, nor fear for his wellbeing in or outside of the Octagon. That is neither the intention nor the case.
Really, it's hard to even hold this big opportunity against Gastelum, who is a largely likeable character besides his inability to make the welterweight limit. However, his brazen openness at wanting to fight fading stars and the UFC's lack of lateral thinking, in addition to their perceptible willingness to go ahead with Gastelum's announced plans, is particularly galling and leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Both Gastelum and Silva deserve more than this.