When news broke that #KelvinGastelum’s UFC 205 bout versus #DonaldCerrone was cancelled due to Gastelum’s inability to make weight, the situation seemed familiar. Prior to his UFC 183 bout against now-champion #TyronWoodley, Gastelum missed weight by nine pounds, weighing in at 180lbs and forfeiting 30% of his fight purse.
He was heavily criticized, but mitigating circumstances eventually led to some measure to retribution. Just over 24 hours prior to that fight, Gastelum had been hospitalized, vomiting what seemed like “mucus” according to his then-coach Chance Farrar, and becoming non-responsive before being rushed to an emergency room.
Weight cutting is a dangerous issue within MMA, one which many are aware of. Solutions are limited, and many serve only to put an athlete at greater risk. Fans and fellow fighters are particularly vitriolic towards those who fail to meet their contractually agreed upon weight.
The arms race of dehydration undertaken by professional fighters is an unfortunate reality for most who compete at any level of the sport, and the effects of this process must be considered thoughtfully before judgments are made. Falling ill during a weight cut is a forgivable occurrence, and for a fighter with an otherwise consistent record of safely making weight, it should not tarnish their reputation or future prospects within the sport.
In the case of Gastelum, criticism is both warranted and necessary. Of eight scheduled welterweight bouts, he has missed weight three times, and seemed dangerously close to missing weight on other occasions. This is a nuanced issue with fault likely belonging to both Gastelum himself, and to the weight cutting dilemma as a whole.
Despite his issues with weight management, Gastelum does not appear to be a particularly large welterweight. Though possessing a wide frame, he stands a mere 5'9 with a 71” reach. By comparison, featherweight and lightweight champion #ConorMcGregor is the same height, with a 74” reach. Though certainly a heavier man than McGregor and other lighter weight fighters of similar stature, Gastelum’s frame establishes him as a short, stocky man by welterweight standards, regularly fighting at a height and reach disadvantage.
Against Neil Magny, a 6’3 welterweight with an 80” reach, Gastelum seemed the much smaller man in the cage, and the height, reach and leverage allowed by Magny’s frame caused Gastelum to struggle greatly. Moving up fifteen pounds to middleweight would only exacerbate this issue.
In his return to middleweight against Nate Marquardt, Gastelum was the visibly smaller man, despite Marquardt also having a recent history of competition at welterweight. Size is clearly an issue for the ultra-talented The Ultimate Fighter 17 winner, but some of the blame must also be placed on him.
In spite of recruiting nutritionists such as George Lockhart in the past, his weight issues continue to be a problem. This would suggest either that Gastelum is not disciplined enough in his weight management, or that his cut is particularly brutal despite his best intentions.
While impossible to know exactly how grueling the cut is for a Kelvin Gastelum who eats correctly and remains disciplined in his approach, his size relative to former opponents who have not failed to make weight would seem to support the case that it should not be an unusually difficult cut.
The possibility exists that factors beyond his control render Gastelum unable to make the 170lb limit, but in this case, his weight problems represent far more than the butt of jokes. Even a relatively healthy, well-executed weight cut is a stressful process for the body, and can lead to long-term health issues, including organ damage. While deprived of fluid, the brain is also more susceptible to traumatic injury.
At just 25 years old, and with a history of repeated grueling weight cuts, his career runs the risk of being adversely affected, or even abruptly cut short. Daniel Cormier, UFC light heavyweight champion, underwent similar tragedy. During his 2008 Olympic run as the captain of the US freestyle wrestling team, he experienced kidney failure as a result of the weight cutting process, and was forced to withdraw from the event, despite the very real possibility of a medal-winning showing at the games.
After the fiasco that preceded his fight cancellation at UFC 205, Gastelum was suspended for six months by the New York Athletic Commission for failing to appear at the weigh-ins. Questions of fairness aside, it is clear that the inherent danger of his cut to welterweight is a pressing issue, and one which demands to be addressed in some form. Whether or not a six month suspension was the correct response, a welterweight being forced into a choice between fighting as an undersized middleweight or risking grievous harm to his health is a matter of grave importance.
The reality is that Gastelum, now also told by UFC president Dana White that he will never again be afforded the opportunity to compete at welterweight, has found himself in a situation which is highly detrimental to his career. Whether as a result of his own carelessness or a result of his inability to safely cut weight despite his best efforts, he is faced with two equally unappealing options. Continue his career at middleweight against substantially larger men, or hope that Dana White rescinds his previous comments and allows him to attempt a cut to 170lbs once again.
Whether competing at a clear size disadvantage or putting immense, potentially life-altering stress on his body, the effects on his career and future could prove devastating. For a man with such immense raw talent, this is a shame. There are absolutely no winners in this situation. Least of all, Kelvin Gastelum.