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When Robert Whittaker was forced to withdraw from his middleweight title defense against Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 234 on Saturday in Melbourne, Australia, Gastelum was put in a tough position. He wasn’t going to receive the title shot for which he had trained, and his status was broadly uncertain in an increasingly crowded middleweight division. With that in mind, Gastelum and his advisers concocted a bold strategy: Embrace your inner troll.
Gastelum strutted out in front of the cameras holding Henry Cejudo’s 125-pound belt and proclaimed himself the Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight champion. He declared that he had earned this championship via forfeit because Whittaker was injured and he had made weight. He further celebrated fulfilling his promise to his people and generously offered Whittaker a shot at his title. Megan Olivi in a television interview embraced her inner Mike Goldberg and opined that Gastelum was handling the situation like a true class act. In fairness, Gastelum did refrain from laughing about Whittaker’s injury and didn’t announce he was retiring as the undisputed champion.
Needless to say, there’s a general expectation among fans of any sport that the athletes want to prove that they’re the best through competition rather than being handed things. Fighters pull out from fights all the time and aren’t assumed to have lost them, let alone in the case of proven champions who suffer serious injuries. It might be halfway justifiable in the case of a challenger on a long winning streak who many assume to be the best already, but Gastelum’s winning streak stood at a mere two fights, and he is 5-3 with one no-contest across his last nine appearances; Whittaker is 9-0 over that stretch.
Of course, it’s hard to imagine Gastelum isn’t aware of this. It feels safe to assume that Gastelum genuinely does appreciate the importance of earning accomplishments in life and that this was a ploy designed to prevent him from being passed over for the next title shot. Israel Adesanya, after all, does lurk. The dual defenses of Gastelum centered on this: arguing that he was great playing a pro wrestling “heel” and/or that this was a wise strategy to try to make sure he’ll fight Whittaker next time out.
Neither of these arguments is particularly persuasive. For one thing, Gastelum is an odd choice for new MMA heel. He’s not a big talker, nor does he have a history of antagonizing opponents. An effort to reframe him as a bad guy is almost certainly going to come across as forced and inauthentic. On the other hand, trying to argue he has earned Cejudo’s title while maintaining his same persona from before will make him look like silly.
Even if Gastelum manages to get fans to buy into his new persona as pro wrestling villain, this isn’t even a good heel role. In pro wrestling, the best heels tend to be viewed as dangerous forces and are disliked for other characteristics, such as arrogance or an unwillingness to play by the rules. By contrast, this Gastelum persona more fits a character lower on the card, the delusional clown marching around with a title he hasn’t earned. To put it in pro wrestling parlance, he’s coming across less Bruiser Brody and more Honky Tonk Man.
Putting aside the specifics of how Gastelum is coming across, the value of playing the villain in MMA has always been overrated. The biggest attractions in MMA history have almost always rallied fans to their side rather than trying to get fans to dislike them. That’s true of beloved figures like Chuck Liddell and Georges St. Pierre, as well as more polarizing figures like Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey who rallied large fan bases to their side while also turning off others.
Brock Lesnar is often thought of as the archetype of the wrestling villain in MMA because of his antics and because a lot of MMA fans disliked him, but he brought with him a base of pro wrestling fans who rooted for him. He wouldn’t have been nearly the draw he was relying simply on MMA fans rooting against him. Likewise, Chael Sonnen played antagonist to Anderson Silva, but people forget that many fans were rooting for Sonnen to back up his words, given that Silva’s fights with Demian Maia and Thales Leites left Silva as an unpopular figure to many at the time. It’s hard to imagine this Gastelum approach doing anything other than turning fans away from him.
There’s also the matter of strategy. If Gastelum wants to ensure he isn’t passed over for a title shot for Adesanya, fan sentiment is important. The UFC is generally going to book the fight it thinks will draw the most fan interest. Adesanya because of his style has a leg up on Gastelum, and Gastelum’s best play was to generate sympathy over the fact he didn’t get the title shot for which he flew halfway around the world. If fans conclude he’s an obnoxious troll, they’re more likely to shrug or even laugh if he’s passed over for Adesanya, rather than lobbying UFC to give him the next shot.
It isn’t as if this is some abstract concept. We saw this exact scenario just play out. Colby Covington has done his best to play the villain, figuring that will get him ahead in his career. Instead, when the UFC elected to bypass the former interim champion for a title shot he thought he was getting, there was little sympathy for Covington. There was a collective shrug when fans might otherwise have supported him had he not gone out of his way to play the heel role. If fans react similarly here, Gastelum may need to borrow Cejudo’s title again when he attends a Whittaker-Adesanya championship fight.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.