The Weight-Cutting Chronicles — UFC 234: The Paths of Robert Whittaker and Kelvin Gastelum

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Kelvin Gastelum UFC
Kelvin Gastelum Credit: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com

It’s time to take a look at UFC 234 from a weight-cutting perspective — and hopefully, Kelvin Gastelum’s struggles on the scales are a distant memory, part of his welterweight past as he readies for his first crack at middleweight gold.

Like it or not, weight-cutting is deeply rooted in mixed martial arts. MMA adopted its weight-cutting from the sport of wrestling, where it is presumed to be very advantageous to be the biggest and strongest in your weight class. Known as the ‘fight before the fight,‘ most UFC fighters cut anywhere from 5-25 pounds, with some fighters even in excess of 30 pounds.

Weight-cutting is the ultimate test of discipline and willpower. Many fighters in the sport consider it very unprofessional to miss weight. In this series, we will shine a light on fighters who cut a massive amount of weight, who have missed weight multiple times in the past, who have made weight-class changes, along with how the weight-cut and weigh-in could affect possible upcoming match-ups. Basically, every aspect of weight-cutting and how it affects the fight game in the UFC.

Robert Whittaker and Kelvin Gastelum are strikingly similar and have had mirrored career paths in the UFC. Both began at the lighter weight class of welterweight before moving up to middleweight and finding success.  This move up in weight class is an interesting one because it is a full 15 pound gap. A lot of the lighter weight classes only have 10lbs separating the weight classes, making a class move a little less daunting. That extra 5lbs is a huge factor. There are a lot of large fighters at 170lbs fighters but they are nothing compared to the sheer size of the UFC’s middleweight division. 15lbs heavier on a professional athlete, never mind a combat sports pro athlete and you have a huge difference.

Both men were on The Ultimate Fighter and won their respective seasons. The fact that both of these fighters were standouts at 170lbs where they were compromised by a weight cut as well as at 185lbs, where they are slightly undersized, is really a testament to the skill of each of these gentlemen. Robert Whittaker and Kelvin Gastelum could potentially inspire a new generation of fighters to fight at their natural weight classes, and let their skill carry them places instead of their ability to try and manipulate the fight outside of the competition, via weight cutting.

Robert “The Reaper” Whittaker (20-4 MMA, 11-2 UFC)

Robert Whittaker stands at 6 feet tall and possesses a 73.5 inch reach. Whittaker is by no means big for the division and most would likely consider him undersized. Especially next to the rest of the top of the middleweight division. But in Whittaker’s eight-fight stint in the middleweight division he has yet to lose a single fight. Most recently he has beaten the seemingly unbeatable, superhuman Cuban wrecking ball that is Yoel Romero. And Romero didn’t even make weight for the second fight so there is no telling how much weight Whittaker gave up in the cage. Didn’t matter. Still got it done.

Robert Whitaker began his long journey to UFC gold in the 170lb division and as a member of the TV show The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes season. Robert ran through the competition and won the show with a unanimous decision win over Brad Scott. Whittaker was now ready to take on the big leagues of the UFC.

Robert never missed weight at 170lbs in the UFC. But just because ‘The Reaper’ never missed weight doesn’t mean that it was a walk in the park for him to make the welterweight limit. Whittaker beat Colton Smith but dropped his next two fights in the welterweight division. One was a split decision loss to Court McGee. And the other loss was to Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson in a first round stoppage in Febuary of 2014. This would prove to be Robert’s last welterweight fight.

Robert Whittaker made his middleweight debut in November of 2014 where he finished Clint Hester with a knee and punches in the second round. Since that fight has legitimately been off to the races for Robert Whittaker. He has had massive success.  Without the weight cut Robert has been able to focus more on the fight and less on losing weight. Robert was just 23 years old when he took his first middleweight fight and had been fighting at welterweight ever since he was 18. At 23 years old his body was trying to fill out a little more and the weight cut was hindering it from happening. At 185lbs. Whittaker’s body is able to grow to its natural state, he’s healthier, happier and even more dangerous.

Whittaker told fightersonlymag.com in 2016:

“That’s one of the major reasons behind my success at 185-pounds. I’m clearly a more natural middleweight. I’m certainly much stronger now and can absorb more punches, too. I’m finally in the right place for my body and that’s why I’m having so much fun. My confidence levels have risen dramatically because I now trust my body to perform at 100%”

Clearly Whittaker was on to something here. And thanks to his realization he now has the belt and is one of the best fighters in the UFC right now. 

Kelvin Gastelum (16-3 MMA, 10-3 UFC)

Kelvin Gastelum stands at 5’9″ and possesses a 71.5 inch reach. Technique-wise Kelvin doesn’t do anything incredibly fancy but, what he does do, is executed near flawlessly. Gastelum is stocky, extremely powerful and has a wide build especially around the shoulders and back. Over the course of his career he has really had a difficult time cutting weight.

Kelvin Gastelum’s “mission for gold” has been a long time coming, and featured a few more bumps and missteps along the way than ‘The Reaper.’ Much like his opponent, Gastelum’s career in the UFC began as a member of The Ultimate Fighter, on season 17. Kelvin entered the show an undefeated prospect but was largely overlooked and picked second to last. Kelvin also competed at 185lbs. for these fights, as it would have been extremely difficult for him to remain on weight at 170lbs the entire time. Kelvin left the show undefeated, earning a UFC contract and beating favorite Uriah Hall in the finale of TUF 17 by split decision.

He then dropped to welterweight following his successful TUF run. Two fights into Gastelum’s UFC stint he missed weight at 172.8lbs for a bout against Nico Musoke in June of 2014. Including the grace pound, Kelvin missed weight by 1.8lbs.

After a first round submission win against Jake Ellenberger five months later, Gastelum had positioned himself to attempt a run at the welterweight title.

In January of the next year (2015) Kelvin faced Tyron Woodley at UFC 183. Gastelum missed weight by a mile, weighing in at 180lbs and forcing the bout to proceed at a catch weight. Fans and the UFC brass were disappointed in Kelvin to say the least. To add insult to injury Gastelum would lose this fight by split decision and temporarily dash his title hopes.

As a result of his weight cutting issues Gastelum was forced to move back up to middleweight to face Nate Marquardt just five months later. This fight was a nice warm up fight at middleweight and to prove to the promotion that he was a professional and the real deal.

After anther five months, in November of 2015, Kelvin again returned to the welterweight division. Kelvin had no issues on the scale and weighed in at 171 on the dot.  Gastelum took on Neil Magny in a fight that earned the Fight of the Night, but ultimately resulted in Gastelum losing a split decision. Next Gastelum had another bout at 170lbs, against former welterweight champion Johny Hendricks at UFC 200. Kelvin won a very decisive unanimous decision.

That is when the wheels fell off. Gastelum was slated to take on fan favorite Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone at 170lbs for the huge UFC 205 card in November of 2016. But Gastelum was severely overweight and did not make a formal attempt to hit the weight limit. The fight was scrapped as a result. This marked the third time that Gastelum had missed the weight, and the UFC brass determined that he would never fight at welterweight in the promotion ever again.

Even after Kelvin beat the full sized middleweight freak that is Tim Kennedy at UFC 206, he expressed how he felt out of place in the weight class. Kelvin retired the UFC and Strikeforce vet with a third round stoppage.  After the fight, Kelvin spoke about how welterweight was still a possibility, but admitted that one of his main problems with weight cutting was the self discipline outside of camp. Gastelum seemed very self aware on how his actions caused him to be put in a compromised state for his welterweight bouts.

Kelvin said this in his post fight interview after the Tim Kennedy fight:

“I feel like 170 is my optimal weight class. my HEIGHT and my reach is at a DISADVANTAGE at 185. These guys are over six feet tall and have a major height and reach ADVANTAGE over me. So I feel like 170’s is WHERE my body type fits best.”

“I get too heavy outside of camp, and THAT’s my problem. I like to eat my Mexican food. And it SHOULDN’T be that way. My whole fight Camp is concentrated on losing the weight that I gained outside of camp. It just SHOULDN’T be that way. I was able to get away with it the last few fights but the older I get the harder it is to cut the weight”

Even though Kelvin would never return to welterweight, these quotes were very telling as the young fighter took responsibility for his missteps. He showed that he had grown, and examined and identified where he went wrong. Now at 185lb. for the long haul Kelvin set himself on a mission for goal. After a finish of Vitor Belfort (that was later overturned to a NC because Gastelum test positive for a marijuana metabolite) Gastelum lost to former champion Chris Weidman in July of 2017. He then earned a Performance of the Night bonus in his first round knockout of former champion Micheal Bisping. And in May of 2018 in a title eliminator bout, Gastelum fought masterfully and took down the wizard that is Jacare Souza in a split decision.

On to UFC 234, where these two welterweights-turned-middleweights will collide.

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Bryson Hester is a MMA writer and who enjoys the technical and skill aspect of the sport. Writing about weight cutting interesting match ups, concepts, and techniques is what he likes to focus on. He has been a mixed martial arts fan since True Life I'm a Mixed Martial Arts Fighter came out in 2008. His interest increased with an amateur combat sports career of his own and a passion for fitness.

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