Standing next to Benson Henderson, Gilbert Melendez looks totally out of his league.
Henderson, the UFC lightweight champion, is built like an NFL strong safety. He's got a deep, broad chest and thick, powerful-looking legs. He oozes strength, power and intimidation.
Melendez has a much more slender, normal-appearing build. Only his cauliflower ears and flattened nose provide a hint about his occupation.
Instead of that lithe body, though, lies a whole lot of destruction and rage to prove the skeptics wrong.
"I've been under the radar a little bit too long," Melendez said on "Road to the Octagon," the preview show on Fox about his match Saturday against Benson Henderson for the UFC title at the HP Pavilion. "I've been campaigning for years to be the No. 1 guy in the world, and now it's really happening."
Scott Coker signed Melendez to a promotional deal in 2005 as he was putting together Strikeforce, his mixed martial arts company that would debut in 2006 and go on to develop a series of high-profile fighters.
Insiders have long considered Melendez among the best two or three lightweights in the world, but he hasn't gotten much notoriety beyond the hardcore fan base.
In the eight years that Coker has known him, there has always been one constant.
"He's always fought with a little bit of an edge, because he's always had this attitude that he had to prove himself," Coker said. "His goal is to fight the best in the world. Well, let me correct that: His goal is to fight and defeat the best in the world. He's a guy consumed by challenging himself.
"Back in the day, he was always talking about, 'Get me this guy, get me that guy.' [Shinya] Aoki was out there submitting everyone and doing a lot of damage and Gilbert wanted him. For Gilbert, it's been a long road to get that. He's not a guy who talks about himself or calls attention to himself. The only way he calls attention to himself is the way he fights."
He fights at a high pace and with a style that is almost a perfect blend of all of the major components of MMA. He wrestled at San Francisco State, but he's not known as a pure wrestler the way, say, former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar was.
It's hard to put a finger on exactly what it is Melendez does best, except for win. At that, he is very, very good. His 11 wins in Strikeforce are the most in that promotion's history, and he held its lightweight belt on two separate occasions.
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He's 21-2 overall and enters his bout with Henderson on a seven-fight winning streak. He hasn't been stopped in either of his two losses – To Mitsuhiro Ishida on Dec. 31, 2007, in PRIDE and to Josh Thomson on June 27, 2008, in a Strikeforce title fight – and he's beaten a host of recognizable names.
Melendez may have escaped the notice of casual fans, but Henderson is certainly aware of his capabilities. Though the champion himself is on quite a roll – he's won six in a row and 16 of his last 17 – he's trained for Melendez as if it would be the toughest fight of his career.
"Gilbert's tough as heck," Henderson said. "He might not have like the biggest name. There might be bigger fights, super fights and all that, blah blah blah, out there, but I know how tough Gil is. I know he's the Strikeforce champ, [and has been] rated top two, top three, on the planet for a long time for a reason."
Melendez plans to show that reason. And while Coker went on at length about how impressed he is by Henderson, he conceded that he's learned the hard way not to doubt Melendez.
Henderson is a massively powerful man, but Melendez, Coker says, somehow finds a way.
"Gilbert's one of those guys who has a great overall MMA game and he's really dedicated himself to learning from the best and training with the best guys," Coker said. "He's a very smart fighter. If people are saying Ben's this much stronger, I know Gilbert will find a way to counteract that. He's a guy who time after time goes out and does what he has to do to win. He's fought a list of tough guys as long as my arm, so nothing he does any more surprises me."
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