Bellator pulls a stunner, signs top lightweight Gilbert Melendez to multi-year deal

Kevin Iole

On Thursday, with contract talks between the UFC and free agent lightweight Gilbert Melendez at an impasse, UFC president Dana White suggested during a news conference in Las Vegas that Melendez should test the market.

Melendez apparently took him at his word and on Friday, signed a multi-fight, multi-year deal with rival Bellator. The UFC has the right to match, though so far there has been no indication of its position. A UFC spokesperson told Yahoo Sports the company would have no comment on the signing at this point.

Via text message, White told Yahoo Sports he had not yet seen the Bellator/Melendez contract.

Melendez announced the deal via Twitter. Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney said he has long sought to land Melendez, ranked No. 2 in the UFC's deep lightweight division. But Bellator also has several outstanding lightweights that Melendez could fight, including champion Eddie Alvarez and former champion Michael Chandler.

In a statement, Rebney said, "The moment Gil was legally able to explore the free agent market, Gil's management team reached out to me and we began figuring out how to bring Gil to Bellator. It's no secret that I've been a big 'El Nino' fan for many years. Gil was one of the first fighters I tried to sign when I launched Bellator back in 2008, and he's grown and developed into one of the best and most exciting lightweights on earth.

"Gil has a vision for what he wants to accomplish both inside and outside the cage and we can help make his vision a reality. We are in the business of developing and showcasing the greatest fighters on earth. That's what we intend to do here with Gil and it's what we'll continue to do in the future."

White said at a Thursday news conference that he'd been unable to make progress with Melendez representative Rodolphe Beaulieu. He said he had handed over talks to UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta.

"I like Gilbert Melendez," White said Thursday before Melendez signed the Bellator deal. "I have absolutely no problem with Gilbert Melendez whatsoever. I think he's a great kid. I think he's smart. I think he's a talented fighter. We've just got to get a deal done. It's not about him. Let me just remove myself from that. Let Lorenzo deal with that. I don't give a [expletive]. I'm over it. Lorenzo's dealing with that, not me."

Melendez, a former Strikeforce champion, last fought on Oct. 19, when he beat Diego Sanchez at UFC 166 in Houston in one of the great matches in UFC history. He was 22-3 overall in mixed martial arts and 1-1 in the UFC.

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