This weekend, Kelvin Gastelum is set to fight Vitor Belfort. The younger fighter by over a decade, Gastelum has already put together an 8-2 UFC record since defeating Uriah Hall to win TUF 17. His only losses came when he dropped split decisions to Neil Magny and current Welterweight king Tyron Woodley. His complete inability to make weight (he’s weighed in closer to the middleweight limit than the welterweight limit before) has forced a move up in weight class, where he’s mauled both Nate Marquardt and Tim Kennedy. He insists that lifestyle changes will allow him to move back down to welterweight after this fight, but we’ve all heard that before. Anyway, this isn’t an article about weight management. It’s one about technique, so let’s get into it.
For a fighter with so many weight problems, Gastelum is surprisingly light on his feet. That isn’t necessarily a good thing. He’s constantly bouncing around, switching stances and shuffling his feet. While this type of footwork is often praised by commentators because it’s very easy to see, in reality it takes him out of stance—making him less effective and more vulnerable.
Look how dramatic and pronounced his bounces are. Moving straight in and straight out with such big movements of his feet makes him easy to time. Pay close attention to exactly when Woodley attacks. He steps forward with his right hand while both of Gastelum’s feet are moving, meaning he closes distance when Gastelum is moving into the strikes and unable to change directions. He staggers the extremely durable Mexican because he catches him off balance. Gastelum is caught directly in the path of Woodley’s punches and is unable to take his head offline because his feet aren’t set. Good head movement requires good hip movement, which requires good connection to the ground. The only thing Gastelum can do while he’s so upright and bouncy is lean back, which just puts his weight on his heels and makes him easier to knock back. In fact, he doesn’t even need to be hit to be driven back. Watch him get completely out of position in this short sequence against Woodley.
Gastelum’s footwork here is extremely unsound from a positioning perspective, both when moving forward and moving back. He starts by stepping his back foot all the way up to his lead foot, squaring his stance completely with his knees and hips straight. He then goes to take a big step with his lead foot to return him to stance. This slow, awkward step is very easy to time, so Woodley steps forward at the same time Gastelum does and looks to throw an overhand. Gastelum reaches both arms out to defend the punch while leaning back with his weight on his back heel and the foot turned too far out—as opposed to a pull where he would be up on the ball of his back foot. As a result of his poor foot positioning and weight distribution, he drags his lead foot back to recover balance. The gif ends, but Woodley hits him with a hard right to the body as he bounces.
Gastelum’s footwork breaks the most fundamental rules of positioning. Stance is the first thing you learn in fighting. A good stance leaves you balanced, grounded and mobile. It involves keeping your feet aligned correctly so that your opponent can’t get an angle on you, your knees and hips bent so that your center of gravity is lowered, and your feet spaced correctly with your weight on the balls of your feet so that you can move well and transfer weight. Put simply, a good stance means you are always prepared to attack, defend and move in any direction. We can see that this often isn’t the case with Gastelum.
The punches Magny throws aren’t that important here. What we’re looking at is the contrast in footwork. Magny attacks with small steps, always balanced and with his feet at least shoulder width apart. He keeps his weight on his toes, moves to an angle with feints then steps in to pepper Gastelum with straight punches. Gastelum defends with clumsy footwork, putting all his weight on his left heel and stepping his lead leg back out of stance while leaning back. He’s unable to offer any deterrent to Magny’s attack here because he’s off balance and out of position. As mentioned previously, he doesn’t need to be hit for this footwork to be used against him.
Marquardt starts with his back near the cage, where Gastelum had just been beating him up. He needs to escape, so he chooses to attack to back Gastelum off. Because of his tendency to step out of stance, he’s easily driven back and Marquardt pushes him all the way to the center. By the time Gastelum decides to hold his ground, Marquardt punches into the clinch and lands a knee to the liver. His poor positioning isn’t only seen when moving back. It also happens when attacking.
Gastelum feints with his lead leg then begins a rush in with a switch step jab. This was a poor decision because Woodley didn’t show any openings in response to the feint. He simply waited for Gastelum to come forward, and as soon as he was in range Woodley bombed him with a right hand that caught him in a terrible stance. His granite chin is the only thing that kept him standing, but even that isn’t always enough.
It’s the same exact lead here. A switch step before he runs in gets timed by Rick Story, so he eats a clean left hook that catches him leaning back with his feet square. Hurt, he backpedal to the cage as Story gives chase. The two get into a heated exchange as Gastelum shows his toughness and will. Story backs off, but Gastelum is too tough for his own good. He drags his rear foot trying to follow Story out with a big left hand that is deflected by Story’s measuring right arm, and then Story smashes him with a left while that foot is dragging and knocks Gastelum on his ass. First he gets caught with his feet out of position then he gets caught with only one foot on the ground. For how often he gets hit in such bad positions, Gastelum can’t keep relying on his chin. Luckily, he’s entirely capable of using good footwork.
Note the difference here. He slides out to an angle with his jab, then slaps down Marquardts lead hand while hop stepping to the same angle to throw a 1-feint-2. There is some of the same bouncing and walking in an upright stance, but when he attacks he lowers his weight, digs in with the balls of his feet and doesn’t move straight forward. He also mixes up the rhythm on his attack so that it isn’t predictable or easy to time. When these skills shine through, Gastelum starts to look like a beast.
Gastelum starts out of range. Flashing a jab as he steps to an angle, he pops Kennedy in the mouth with a second jab that gets Kennedy ducking and looking at the floor. He tries to use a jab to set up his cross but misses as he punches downward. Kennedy comes back with a left-right combination, but Gastelum catches the left on his shoulder and pulls from the right hook. Pay attention to the vast improvement in his footwork here. Instead of leaning back and stepping out of stance, he hop steps back with his center of gravity low, feet apart and well aligned. Because he stays in good position, he’s able to immediately fire back with a 1-2 that catches Kennedy on the retreat. Even when he gets hit in exchanges, when he settles down in his stance he’s much more effective.
After pressuring Woodley to the cage, Gastelum begins to unload. He gets caught with another counter right hand, but because his feet are planted and he’s balanced, the shot doesn’t knock him away. Instead, he’s able to stay in position and continue his attack, fade back when Woodley tries to counter, then land a few shots as Woodley retreats. By staying in position, Gastelum is able to keep the pressure on Woodley despite getting hit. The shots that do land don’t hurt him or knock him off balance, and he’s actually able to counter unlike when he steps out of stance. When he does this at his best, he can put a serious beating on his opponents.
When Marquardt attacks, Gastelum keeps his feet in position and despite doing more leaning back than I’d like, never gets so far that he’s unable to immediately shift his weight forward to attack. As a result, he’s able to counter with his jab and unload with combinations, working his straight punches, hooks and uppercut—even stepping in with knees. Gastelum has a dangerous offensive arsenal including heavy kicks and punches from all angles, plus he’s not afraid to target the body. His third round knockout of Tim Kennedy shows exactly what happens when this kid settles down and gets into his rhythm.
Balance, leverage, weight transfer, rotation, punch selection, head movement, it’s all there. When Kelvin can combine this strong positioning and killer instinct with his toughness, durability and offensive skillset he looks like a killer. That’s the difference stance can make: it allows the fighter to combine offense and defense fluidly.
Despite his 10 fights in the UFC, Gastelum is still only 25. He has a lot of growing to do and tons of potential. Here’s to hoping he gets his weight under control, sticks to his fundamentals and continues to put on more great performances like his wins over Marquardt and Kennedy.