I’ve been beating the drum that Rick Story is underrated for a long time now, but I have to admit that it’s frustrating how inconsistent he is. The same fighter who defeated Johny Hendricks and Thiago Alves, and arguably deserved victory against Martin Kampmann as well, lost to Charlie Brenneman and Mike Pyle, and got his head crushed by Demian Maia. The result is that Story has been alternating between losses to ranked fighters and wins against fringe or mid-level UFC talent.
Story’s upcoming fight against Kelvin Gastelum is interesting, because I’m just not sure where Gastelum is in his development. The narrative behind Gastelum is that he’s the underdog who always defies expectations. I certainly didn’t think Gastelum had what it took to win his season of The Ultimate Fighter, and I was astonished by how good he looked in a first-round submission victory over Brian Melancon. So far, Gastelum has proven me to be spectacularly wrong about him.
However, there’s one thing we need to acknowledge immediately: that Story is an enormous step up in competition for Gastelum. Story currently ranks #10 in FPR in the UFC welterweight division, but even if you don’t buy that assessment, you have to admit that Story is a much tougher opponent than either Melancon or Uriah Hall. Story is a brutal striker, a fighter known for dishing out punishment to the body and legs of his opponents, and a very effective wrestler as well. Apart from his loss to Maia, Story has landed at least one takedown in all of his UFC fights.
Meanwhile, I’m concerned that Gastelum is being overrated based on one spectacular performance. Prior to his win over Melancon, Gastelum had some real back-and-forth fights against TUF opponents. His win over Hall was a split decision that arguably should have gone Hall’s way. Gastelum’s fight against Bubba McDaniel was a wild grappling match with both fighters reversing position repeatedly before Gastelum finally caught McDaniel and finished him by rear naked choke in the second round. Sure, there’s something to be said for the fact that Gastelum has been winning each of these fights – but he hasn’t been as dominant as I would have liked to see. Not for a fight against the likes of Rick Story.
In this particular match, the best way for Gastelum to fight is definitely to pursue the takedown. Story’s takedown defense is surprisingly mediocre at 63 percent, as he’s been taken down numerous times by Maia, Kampmann, Brenneman, and Hendricks. Gastelum’s background is in wrestling and he’s proven effective at it so far – if he tests Story’s takedown defense then he’s likely to succeed. Story also hasn’t shown much of a submission game from his back. Gastelum could potentially grind out a win like Brenneman did.
On the flip side, Story should be capable of taking Gastelum down as well. The takedown could go either way, and the kicker is that Story should have the advantage as long as the fight stays standing. Story has landed 3.51 significant strikes per minute against just 1.88 absorbed, and landed 71 significant strikes in his most recent victory against Brian Ebersole, a fighter who is normally excellent at avoiding damage. Gastelum has respectable knockout power but is down 45-51 in significant strikes in his two UFC fights.
It’s true that Gastelum is improving and may be a different kind of athlete in the welterweight division. Perhaps his combination of takedowns and knockout power will be too much for Story to handle. But when I look at this fight, I think Gastelum and Story are evenly matched in the takedown game, with Story having a clear advantage in striking. I just see Story as the superior fighter and think he should be able to win this one.
Pick: Rick Story by decision
DEGENERATE GAMBLER’S CORNER
If you didn’t believe me when I said Gastelum is being overrated, consider that he’s currently the favorite to win at -175, with Story the underdog at +155. You would think Story didn’t actually have a win over Johny Hendricks on his record. Don’t get me wrong, I expect Gastelum to put up a fight and at least make it tough, but I see Story as not just the favorite to win, but a favorite by a significant margin. Trust me when I say I’m showing restraint by only risking $3.00 of my degenerate bankroll to win $4.65 on Story.