SAN DIEGO – UFC president Dana White has long proclaimed his ambition is to bring all the world's top fighters under the UFC banner.
He has pursued this goal with the fervor of a religious zealot in recent years, whether spending the money to sign big-name fighters or simply buying competing promotions outright.
As long as Gilbert Melendez fights under the Strikeforce banner, though, White's vision will remain unfulfilled.
Melendez (20-2), the Strikeforce lightweight champion, was ranked No. 8 in the most recent Yahoo! Sports Top 10 poll. Saturday night, he cruised to his sixth straight victory, defeating a game Jorge Masvidal in the main event at the Valley View Casino Center. Melendez controlled nearly all 25 minutes of the bout, earning scores of 50-45, 50-45 and 49-46 from the judges. Yahoo! Sports scored the fight 50-45 for Melendez.
"I've been saying I think I'm the best in the world for a long time now," Melendez said. "I'm sick of saying it. Look at my record, my history. All I can do is keep proving it in the cage."
A move to MMA's biggest show seemed inevitable after the March announcement that the UFC's parent company, Zuffa, had purchased Strikeforce. Since that time, the latter company's big names have made a steady exodus to the UFC, including welterweight champ Nick Diaz and light heavyweight champ Dan Henderson. After Melendez smoked Tastyu Kawajiri in the same San Diego arena in April, the fight world was abuzz with talk about a potential title vs. title fight with UFC champ Frankie Edgar.
"It's been a roller coaster trying to stay focused," said Melendez. "I've got a kid, a gym, I've got people telling me I'm going to UFC. And I've got the [self-applied] pressure on me that I think I am No. 1. I have to do what I can to tune it all out."
But this week's announcement of a new Strikeforce deal with Showtime seems to have put a hold on the notion of a Melendez crossover. Strikeforce will have 6-8 shows in the cable network next year and badly needs headliners, of which the Santa Ana, Calif. native is one.
Melendez, for his part, is saying all the right things in the wake of the news. There's no doubting his sincerity. Melendez has been with Strikeforce since the company made the jump from kickboxing to MMA in 2006, and Scott Coker, Strikeforce's founder and CEO, has treated him well.
"When I first signed with Strikeforce, I said 'I dunno Scott, we're not on TV.' Then they got on Showtime. Then [Coker] went out and got me a match with the No. 2 guy [Shinya] Aoki. They've managed to deliver for me and I have to continue to keep having faith they'll deliver for me."
Coker has, in fact, delivered to Melendez to the best of his abilities. In the three years since "El Nino's" last loss, Coker has found him a steady stream of new challenges. Melendez has had rematches with the only two fighters who defeated him, Mitsuhiro Ishida and Josh Thomson, and handled them both. Coker lined up the bout with former Dream champion Aoki, and Melendez had little trouble.
"There are plenty of fighters out there," said Coker. "We'll find him a challenge."
Saturday's fight, though, demonstrated the trouble Strikeforce faces going forward in promoting Melendez.
Masvidal (22-7) is a well-respected pro in fight circles, training with the elite American Top Team. He's only been stopped once in 29 fights. But he's not a big name to casual MMA fans. So even though Melendez put on a clinic in using his head movement, jab, and counter combos to repeatedly fluster his foe, the danger is that fans will see that Melendez went the distance with a guy they might not have heard of and not be impressed.
"If someone looks at the fight like that, they're ignorant of MMA," said Melendez, who actually looked worse for wear than Masvidal at the post-fight news conference. "That what this sport is about. Fighter A can beat Fighter B and Fighter B can beat Fighter C. It's all about styles and matchups. Jorge is a bad style matchup for me and for me to go in and win all five rounds, that's a big win for me."
So where does Strikeforce go from here? Melendez and Coker both talked vaguely about finding Melendez top-notch bouts in 2012. But after Masvidal, all that's left of note in the lightweight division are journeyman K.J. Noons and promising Caros Fodor, who KOd Justin Wilcox in 13 seconds but shouldn't be rushed into a title shot with just eight pro fights. Is it fair to risk squandering Melendez's prime against such a level of competition when the UFC's lightweight division is bursting with elite talent?
Melendez let his guard down a bit in his postfight interview in the cage, saying he wants the UFC to send one of their top fighters to come fight him in Strikeforce next year.
"I was a little pumped up and maybe got a little ahead of myself out there in the cage," said Melendez.
Maybe "El Nino" was on to something. Likewise, so might be Masvidal.
"Melendez is for real," said Masvidal. "He'd clown a lot of guys in the UFC."
Are you listening, Dana?
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