Two years ago, Kelvin Gastelum was supposed to fight Robert Whittaker for gold. That opportunity slipped through his fingers when the fight fell through. From there, the TUF champ went into a bit of a tailspin, losing three straight, including an interim title shot against Israel Adesanya.
Now, things have come full circle. Or just about. Following a win over Ian Heinisch at UFC 258 in February, Gastelum (16-8, 1NC) threw out the idea that he’d be willing to step up to replace either Whittaker or Paulo Costa in their April showdown. That exact opportunity arose when Costa dropped off the UFC Vegas 24 card, and true to his word, Gastelum stepped up.
Heading into the fight with Whittaker, Gastelum feels like he’s “continuing off the last camp. I feel even better than what I did in February. I’m a much better version than that, I’m a much better version than I was two years ago,” he said during this week’s UFC Vegas 24 media day.
Despite Whittaker losing the title, Gastelum has always been keen to pursue the fight. “Yeah. He’s young, so am I, and I think eventually we would have been matched up.” Gastelum also feels that, while it’s far from official, his bout against Whittaker is in essence a title eliminator. “I think the winner of this fight gets the Izzy rematch,” he stated.
Despite the emergence of Marvin Vettori, Gastelum believes that simply getting the win should lock up the title shot for him. “I get the win, I get my hand raised, and I get the chance to fight for the title next.”
“This is a match-up I’ve wanted for a long time,” Gastelum added later. “Not just because he was the champion, but because I believe it was just a very exciting fight. Our styles match really well. He has a heavy boxing game, so do I, and I think it’s just going to be a really cool clash of styles.”
Beyond that, he explained, “this is an opportunity for me to get back to where I was, which is the top of the division.”
Kelvin Gastelum steps in against Robert Whittaker atop the UFC Vegas 24 card on Saturday, April 17. The event airs live on ESPN (TSN in Canada).