LOS ANGELES – A few years back, Gilbert Melendez took a trip with his teammate, Jake Shields, to train with Diego Sanchez in San Diego. Sanchez, at the time, was a welterweight in the UFC. The Bay Area-based Melendez was the Strikeforce lightweight champion.
While Melendez stayed only a week, then returned later for a second visit, he and Sanchez came to a consensus after their short time working together: If they ever fought one another, it would be something the fans would remember for a long time.
"We used to say to each other, 'If we ever get to throw down, it's going to be one hell of a fight,' " Sanchez said. "The true warriors that both of us are, we're looking forward to that type of fight."
Melendez agreed. "I think our closed-door sessions were something people missed out on," he said. "People would have paid money for that."
Fast forward to October 2013, and the fans will finally have the chance to plunk down their cash and see two of the sport's most enduring sluggers go toe-to-toe. Melendez and Sanchez will meet in a key lightweight showdown Saturday night on the main card of a stacked UFC 166 at Houston's Toyota Center.
Speaking at a media luncheon Monday in downtown Los Angeles, Melendez said he's happy he finally has his chance to face Sanchez.
"This is a big fight for us," Melendez said. "Diego's a pioneer in the sport. He brings a lot of respect to the cage and that's something I like about him."
The politics of the fight game kept Melendez and Sanchez from crossing paths in the cage for years. The eccentric Sanchez (24-5), the middleweight division winner on the inaugural season of "The Ultimate Fighter," developed a reputation as one of the sport's most exciting fighters through wild brawls with the likes of Karo Parisyan, Clay Guida and Martin Kampmann. Melendez (21-3), who is affiliated with Team Cesar Gracie along with Shields and the Diaz brothers, holds several Strikeforce records, including most wins (11) and most successful title defenses (six).
But it was divisional issues, not promotional ones, which kept Melendez and Sanchez from furthering their relationship. Once Sanchez informed Melendez he was dropping down to lightweight to make a run at then-champion B.J. Penn, Melendez put the brakes on things.
"It got a little weird when he was like, 'I'm going down to 155, going on a title run there and maybe you can help me get ready,'" Melendez said. "I was like, 'Ooh, that's a conflict of interest.' … It's hard to fight a friend, so I choose not to build relationships with people I might fight. It's kill or be killed, especially here."
This was a lesson Melendez learned the hard way. At one point, Melendez trained with San Jose's American Kickboxing Academy, where he found himself a frequent sparring partner of Josh Thomson. When the two had to fight for the first time, Thomson easily lifted Melendez's Strikeforce title in 2008.
"I learned my lesson the first time I was training at AKA with Thomson and I gave him everything, like an idiot," Melendez said. "And you know, then he goes and beats me."
Melendez opened his El Nino Training Center gym in San Francisco near Candlestick Park, then went on to win both a rematch with Thomson in 2009 and a trilogy fight in 2012.
Nowadays, though, both find themselves gunning for the gold in the UFC lightweight division. Thomson receives the next shot at current champion Anthony Pettis in December, while Melendez lost a razor-thin split decision to then-champ Ben Henderson on April 20, in a match a majority of onlookers felt Melendez won.
For Melendez, though, while his hand wasn't raised in the end, the bout itself validated his long-held belief that he was among the world's top 155ers.
"The majority of people think I won," Melendez said. "Seventy-five/25 percent think I won that fight. I've gotten more recognition than ever, really nothing to be bitter about aside from not getting the scorecards in a competitive fight."
Which brings us back to Saturday night's fight with Sanchez. After Melendez came so close to taking the title, he knew his next opponent was going to have to be one which kept him relevant.
"Right after my [Henderson] fight I was like, 'Who should I fight?' " Melendez asked. "Number one was [Donald] Cerrone. 'Cerrone seems like a relevant fight.' Then he lost to [Rafael] dos Anjos. Then next is Diego, the mystique and the bigger name. I know Khabib [Nurmagomedov] was a tough guy, I knew [Pat] Healy was suspended and was a tough guy, but I kind of figured out myself before they even offered me that [Sanchez] was what I wanted."
While no one has promised him a title shot with a victory, Melendez understands the UFC's system and plans on going out and making his case in Houston.
"I think it's important to fight and win in impressive fashion," Melendez said. "I think I have to sell it, I think the fans have to have the desire to want it. There's no real rankings system or set-in-stone thing, so it's what's good for business. Hopefully after my performance, if I fight right, another title shot will be good for the UFC's business."
And the ability to put on a show-stealing performance is the sort of thing on which the former training partners can both still agree.
"Those are the kind that you remember the rest of your life," Sanchez said. "Everyone remembers the quick, fast KO and the brilliant submission, but in the kind of fight where you have to bring out the heart of the warrior, where two fighters go in there and have to drop their hearts and lay it all on the line and show who has more cojones, that's kind of what I think me and Gilbert will be all about."
"There are times in the middle of the night when you wake up and you know you're getting in a fight and it gets a little nerve-wracking," Melendez said. "But I laugh at it. I embrace it. It's a privilege to step in there and get to do what we do for the fans."
Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter: @davedoylemma.
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