Gastelum can thrive in a post-Mousasi world

Gegard Mousasi, you suspect, will be one of those fighters who isn’t missed – really missed – until it’s too late; who isn’t missed until he’s gone, perhaps never to return.

That certainly seemed to be the consensus opinion last week when it was announced the number four-ranked UFC middleweight had decided to see out his UFC contract and then switch to Bellator MMA on what was described as an exclusive, multi-fight deal. The move not only signalled the end of Mousasi in an Octagon, at least for the time being, it also drove a wedge right through the organization’s 185-pound division. Cue bemusement and no small amount of disappointment.

If there’s one division that could do with some order and clarity, not to mention stability, it is the middleweight division. This is the division headed up by Michael Bisping, after all, a champion who defended his belt against Dan Henderson in October but has since only been linked with a fight against former welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre. It is also a division that, Robert Whittaker aside, lacks any notable top contenders on any kind of form. Yoel Romero and ‘Jacare’ Souza were supposed to fill that void, but found themselves falling victim to Whittaker, while Chris Weidman, the former champion, has lost three fights in a row and drinks at the last chance saloon this Saturday (July 22) against Kelvin Gastelum.

Worth remembering, too, the name of the last man to defeat Weidman. It was, of course, Gegard Mousasi, otherwise known as the name no longer spoken in the UFC middleweight division; the rebel; the maverick; the contender who got fed up of waiting and decided to jump ship. To some, this makes his decision to leave for pastures new all the more peculiar. But, now that it’s done, we should appreciate what’s left and, better yet, recognize the fact that many middleweights previously way down a pecking order have now been bumped up a spot or two.

Weidman, for instance, the last man Mousasi stopped, no longer has to worry about gaining revenge on the Dutchman, nor does he have to bypass him on his route back to the top. Gastelum will have also been buoyed by the sight of the field clearing before his very eyes.

“I absolutely believe I’ll be the next guy in the title race with a win in this fight and don’t see why that wouldn’t be the case,” Gastelum told FloCombat. “(Gegard) Mousasi is gone. (Luke) Rockhold is MIA and hasn’t fought for over a year. (Yoel) Romero and (Ronaldo) Jacare are both coming off losses.

“I’m ready to be next in line and ready for my shot and I’m calling for it as soon as they hand me the mic. I’m ready to get this ball rolling and continue my push to get that shot.”

Gastelum, like Whittaker, certainly has a freshness many of the others lack. He hasn’t been knocked out, for one. He isn’t on a losing run. He isn’t a man in his thirties or forties.

In actual fact, Gastelum, at 25, remains one of the brightest prospects in all of MMA, regardless of weight class. Look beyond his wayward discipline, which has come back to bite him on more than one occasion, and many would go so far as to say Gastelum is a nailed-on future UFC champion.

Certainly, in the Octagon, where it counts, he’s often without equal. Relaxed, composed, completely at one with the idea of a fist-fight, Gastelum has put men like Vitor Belfort and Tim Kennedy to the sword inside the distance and also outscored Johny Hendricks, Nate Marquardt and Uriah Hall. He can fight. It’s something he makes look easy. Perhaps, to him, it is easy. Maybe that’s the problem.

Just as Gastelum represents another stern test for Weidman, a man who needs a break, Weidman marks a considerable step up in class for Gastelum. He’s bigger, presumably stronger, and has the experience of a former champion who has shared an Octagon with some of the best of all-time. For Gastelum to come away victorious, therefore, he’ll not only have to raise his game, he’ll have to show the one thing that has sometimes escaped him throughout his career – discipline. Hunger, too. The right kind of hunger.

Gastelum, to his credit, is saying all the right things and realises this is a hell of an opportunity, one even greater in light of Mousasi’s swift exit. But he has to also now back up his words with actions. Potential needs to be fulfilled; his job needs to be taken seriously.

Should this happen, and should Gastelum get his head straight and prove his doubters wrong, we could very well be looking at someone capable of winning UFC gold. At 25, he has time, as well as talent, on his side. That much is beyond question. But, all the same, ask Chris Weidman how quickly time passes and how quickly fortunes turn. He knows. He can tell you.

What’s clear, days from the biggest fight of his career, is that Kelvin Gastelum, now ranked eight at middleweight, needs to capitalise on the moment. He needs to get it while it’s hot. And, in terms of opportunity, the middleweight division, sans Mousasi, is currently piping.