Diaz, Melendez state case for UFC title shots
SAN DIEGO – The Northern California trio of Nick Diaz, Gilbert Melendez and Jake Shields started in the sport together under Cesar Gracie, and captured Strikeforce championships together over the past few years.
And after the first major Strikeforce show under the Zuffa banner on Saturday night, all three find themselves in serious discussions regarding potential UFC title opportunities.
Diaz (25-7, 1 no contest) survived being knocked down twice by Paul Daley (27-10-2) to retain his Strikeforce welterweight title. The match was stopped with Daley taking punishment on the ground just three seconds before the end of the first round.
Melendez (19-2) obliterated Tatsuya “The Crusher” Kawajiri (27-7-2) to keep the lightweight title in what was his career-best performance, winning via ref stoppage in 3:14. The performance left him with a very serious argument for being the top-ranked fighter in arguably the deepest weight class in the sport.
It’s a question he wants answered as soon as possible, as immediately after winning, he called for whoever is the UFC champion after the May 28 fight between Frankie Edgar and challenger Gray Maynard.
Shields, who cornered both Melendez and Diaz for their fights, is the first member of the team to cross over from being Strikeforce champion to getting a shot at a UFC title. He faces welterweight champion and the most dominant fighter in the sport, Georges St. Pierre, on April 30 in Toronto.
“I think I put a lot of pressure on myself since the buyout,” Melendez said. “I’ve been campaigning to be the No. 1 fighter in the world. Kawajiri’s no joke. The pressure was there, but I’m happy I performed. I’ve been a big part of this company for a long time. I’ve been around this sport a lot longer than Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard. I think I’ve accomplished more than they have. I’m trying to represent both the organization (Strikeforce) and the team.”
“Here’s the thing, it’s only been about 30 days since the purchase,” said Strikeforce promoter Scott Coker. “We haven’t really had those conversations as to when it would happen. When the fans demand it, those fights will happen. As a fan, Gilbert fighting Frankie Edgar, Alistair Overeem fighting Cain Velasquez, Jacare (Souza, the Strikeforce middleweight champion) fighting Anderson Silva, Nick fighting GSP, we have a great relationship with Showtime, but at some point, let’s get it on.”
None of the champion vs. champion matches are on the short-term horizon. After Edgar vs. Maynard, there is still former World Extreme Cagefighting champion Anthony Pettis, who was promised the next UFC title fight, provided he beats Clay Guida when they meet on June 4 in Las Vegas.
Melendez will likely have one more title defense, with Coker considering a match-up with Jorge Masvidal and Justin Wilcox to determine Melendez’s next foe.
So while almost anyone who saw the number Melendez did would be up for the match now, if Melendez keeps winning, it’s most likely not going to happen until early next year.
“I want whoever has the belt,” Melendez said. “I think there’s a lot of great fighters. I kind of see 155 like 205 used to be where the title can change hands in any fight. I think Nate Diaz beat Maynard, so he could be the champion. I beat Guida. Pettis is a great fighter. Being a champion is to fight every style. It doesn’t matter who, whoever has the championship is the guy I want to fight.”
Melendez came out strong, knocking Kawajiri down with a right in the opening seconds and staying on him, to where Kawajiri could never get settled in. Melendez scored a takedown and then hurt Kawajiri on the ground with punches. Melendez put Kawajiri down again with knees and punches, and also hurt him with a series of uppercuts against the cage, which he used to his advantage since Kawajiri had spent his career fighting in the ring. The finish came when Kawajiri went for a takedown, but was caught underneath and Melendez hammered him with punches and elbows before referee Cecil Peoples ended it.
The two had fought previously on December 31, 2006, in Japan, in a fight Melendez won via unanimous decision, but it was a close enough fight that it could have been scored either way. Melendez said he was fueled by the remarks of people saying he lost that first fight. He noted that he avenged his two previous losses, and if that first bout was considered by anyone as a loss, he now has clearly avenged it as well.
“You’ve got to motivate yourself,” he said. “I avenged both of my losses. Some people blogged and said I got my butt kicked the first time (against Kawajiri). Some people thought it was a draw. All my fights except the two I lost and that one, I’ve dominated.”
A big difference in the fight, particularly in the finishing sequence, was the use of elbows on the ground, something previously not allowed in Strikeforce. It was also an attack Kawajiri never had to defend against in Japanese rules, and it changed the game.
“I could have been a little more technical with my elbows,” Melendez said. “But I was pretty vicious with them. I think it’s a great part of the sport. I think we should be able to use all our weapons. Jake Shields was one of the pioneers of elbows for ground and pound. I haven’t used them since my sixth fight because I fought in Japan and in Strikeforce, where they didn’t allow them.”
Diaz vs. Daley was everything it was cracked up to be and then some. Diaz taunted Daley from the start, holding his hands wide at first and then low, and stuck his chin out and dared Daley to attack. Diaz continually beat Daley to the punch and kept him off balance with his constant blows.
However, when seemingly getting the worst of things, Daley dropped Diaz on two occasions and, even though Diaz would not admit it after the fight, seemed to be hurting him on the ground both times.
“If I go down, I go down, what are you going to do down there?” Diaz asked. “He couldn’t hit me when I was down.”
The key was Diaz’s recuperative powers, because once he would get out of trouble and back to his feet, it was like all the damage never happened.
Still, Daley was clearly winning the round in the waning seconds as both were swinging. Daley went flying from a punch and Diaz was on top pounding on him when ref John McCarthy stopped it.
“It reminded me of those electric fights I watched growing up like Hagler-Hearns,” Coker said. “It had that electricity.”
Coker noted that Diaz, who had previously fought on January 29, would be given some time off for fighting on such short notice. He also noted that Tyron Woodley (8-0), a two-time All-American wrestler at the University of Missouri, would likely be his next opponent.
The performance by Diaz couldn’t have come at a better time for Zuffa, given that if St. Pierre beats Shields, he would have pretty well cleaned out the welterweight division. But with the Strikeforce buyout and Diaz’s performance, that is no longer the case.
And it capped off a perfect night for Melendez, who was able to win, sit back, and watch his teammate follow suit. About the only damper was in the ring when he did an interview and mentioned that Shields was going to win the UFC title, and even the heavily partisan crowd turned on him. The crowd booed heavily every time Shields was shown on the screen.
“Nick and Jake have been role models to me from the start,” Melendez said. “Cesar put us all together. I started from scratch, I’m a Nick Diaz fan, a Nate Diaz fan, and a Jake Shields fan. It gets emotional for me. It gets real discouraging in camp when I get my butt kicked and it makes me think I’m not ready for a fight. But then when I fight, it’s ten times easier than fighting my teammates. We’re more than a team. We’re a family.”