If you watch Gilbert Melendez compete, you could be excused for believing he was an Olympic gymnast.
He's one of the most acrobatic fighters in mixed martial arts with a style that defies convention.
He's got a wrestling background, but he's hardly a fighter who looks to spend every possible moment grappling on the mat. He's a little of this and a lot of that and, like a gymnast, Melendez can do the all-around.
The unbeaten Strikeforce lightweight champion will face Tetsuji Kato in a non-title fight Saturday at the Playboy Mansion in Beverly Hills, Calif., on a card that will be streamed live exclusively on Yahoo! Sports beginning at midnight Eastern/9 p.m. Pacific
It will be the first fight in 2007 for Melendez, who was poised to make a run at the Pride lightweight championship this year before the company was purchased by the owners of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and left in limbo.
Melendez, 25, defeated Tatsuya Kawajiri on New Year's Eve in a bout he hoped would push him up the lightweight rankings.
Instead, it turned to be his final fight in Pride as the company has been dormant since Zuffa purchased it.
He's come a long way since his friend, Jake Shields, first convinced him to give MMA a try six years ago.
His first two bouts, which aren't recorded on any of the MMA sites that compile fighter records, came in the same night. He won both bouts and took home a cool $500.
While it's not much money for a fight by any standard, the-then 19-year-old Melendez had few complaints.
"At that time, $500 meant a lot to me," he said, chuckling. "It paid my rent for the month. That was a big then back then."
When he dropped out of San Francisco State to turn pro at 21, he said he dreamed of making $10,000 a fight.
His family preached the value of education, but Melendez said he had to go with his heart.
"It was definitely a tough decision whether to quit and turn pro or finish school, but I knew this was what I really wanted to do with my life and if I was going to do it, I had to go and commit to it," he said. "And I knew I wasn't going to make a lot (of money), at least at first. I used to dream of making $10,000 a fight.
"Now, here I am, I'm making a lot more even than $10,000 and yet I still feel like I have so much to do. I have so much I want to accomplish."
And though he wants to win more titles and beat more respected opponents, one of his goals is something a little less easy to define.
He wants to earn a reputation as a guy who will take on all comers and will be fearless in the face of any challenge.
"I want to be the best fighter in the world," he said. "I want to challenge myself. I want to win every world title. I want to beat every champion. I want to be seen as a warrior who never said no but also who brought respect and dignity to this sport."
Part of the way he does that, he said, is by putting the accelerator to the floor when the fight begins and never letting up.
If he's going as hard as he can as long as he can against the best he can face, he's doing the sport a favor, he reckons. And that's where his ability to adapt in the ring comes in.
"The way I'd describe myself is relentless and always on offense," he said. "I believe that the best defense is a good offense. But I also like to think I can put everything together. My transitions are pretty good.
"People will ask me what my strength is, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, whatever. But I always say no. My strength is fighting MMA. I have learned to put them all together. As many good fighters as there are out there now, no matter how good you are in one (discipline), if you can't combine them and be a complete mixed martial artist, you can never really be great. And I want to be great."
- Gilbert Melendez