The last few months have been a roller-coaster ride in Gilbert Melendez's career.
Melendez, the Strikeforce lightweight champion the past two years, is the lone member of the Yahoo! Sports pound-for-pound top 10 not on the UFC roster. He's currently ranked No. 8.
He’s also the only male fighter in the world outside the UFC with a legitimate potential claim to being No. 1 in his weight class.
But in March, when Zuffa, the UFC’s parent company, purchased Strikeforce, Melendez looked like he was finally going to have his cake and eat it, too.
He had already signed a lucrative long-term contract with Strikeforce, the organization he had been with since the company’s first MMA show in 2006, with a $150,000 per-fight guarantee. He was at first given the deal to keep him from going to UFC when the two companies had separate ownership.
But with the purchase, Melendez believed he'd finally be able to finally achieve his long-term goal of at least being in the mix and getting a chance to fight the best to prove he belonged at No. 1 in his weight.
From the day the purchase was announced, a fight with UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar was one of the biggest potential fights discussed on the MMA scene. The obvious match-up has come up numerous times. A few months ago, UFC president Dana White outright said they wanted Melendez in UFC as soon as possible, and the belief was he’d walk in and do a title unification match.
But in the past week, when Dana White announced that Showtime had reached a new deal to carry Strikeforce programming, he also said that all the current Strikeforce fighters would stay with the organization.
So even though life is still going great for Melendez – he’s still champion and ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the world at lightweight in most places; he has a 16-month-old daughter and has just opened a new gym in San Francisco, the El Nino Training Center – he’s going to have to settle for having his cake, but still going a little hungry.
Saturday night in San Diego at the Valley View Casino Center, Melendez defends his title against Jorge Masvidal (22-6) in the main event of a Showtime-televised card. Masvidal, an American Top Team product, has shown strong boxing and strong balance and takedowns to take out Billy Evengelista and K.J. Noons in his last two fights.
"I understand it and feel it as well," said Melendez when asked about elusive matches with the likes of Edgar, Ben Henderson, Gray Maynard, Donald Cerrone, Clay Guida and the plethora of top names in his division that he’s not going to be facing any time soon.
"I’ve got no time to be a complainer. I’ve got a tough match in front of me. If I do look good, it makes sense for me to fight someone in the UFC. Strikeforce has always come through to give me someone new. They gave me [Shinya] Aoki, a rematch with [Mitsuhiro] Ishida and a rematch with [Tatsuya] Kawajiri. I’ve got to let things roll. I’m happy, I’m getting paid well. I want to fight a little more often and if I have to stay in Strikeforce, so be it."
Melendez, 29, has a 19-2 record and has been world ranked for seven years, starting as a featherweight and then moving to lightweight. Both of his losses, by decisions to Josh Thomson and Ishida, he avenged in rematches. He never looked better than in his last fight April 9 in the same Valley View Casino Center, where he ran through Kawajiri, finishing him in 3:14 after two knockdowns, takedowns and hard ground and pound in a manner nobody before had ever done to the Japanese "Crusher."
"The goal is to be No. 1 in the world," he said, a goal he’s talked about for years. "Some people say I am. I’d really like to find out whether I am or not. I’ll try to be No. 1. I may lose along the way. Manny Pacquiao’s lost, but he’s come back to prove he’s he best.
"There’s some dialogue going on, and I mean the goal is to be UFC champion at the end of the day. The goal is to be No. 1 in the world at the end of the day, and the only way to be that is by getting the UFC title."
The guy who has caught Melendez’s eye of late in UFC has been Ben Henderson.
"The most impressive thing is Ben Henderson’s improvement since he lost the [WEC] title to Showtime Pettis," he said. "I never thought he was that great. But in his last few fights I’ve seen a dramatic improvement. Do I think he’s the best? No, but I like how he’s consistently getting better. I still holes in his game, but I also see the eye of the tiger. I don’t know if I should be telling him that. I don’t think he’s the best, but he’s a guy I’m really interested in."
A lot of fighters in Melendez's position can let their ego get out of control, but Melendez noted that any ego is beaten into check during sparring. He trains with the likes of Jake Shields and Nick and Nate Diaz, the "Scrap Pack" who all came up together under trainer Cesar Gracie in the sport and became top names.
"I’m always testing myself in the gym," he said. "I lose against these guys all the time. You doubt yourself. You think, `Am I ready?’ There isn’t a better grappler than Jake. There aren’t better boxers than the Diaz boys. It’s hard to find the same training partners that I have. It’s awesome. We’re constantly evolving, always challenging each other, always raising the bar. One day one guy has a good day. The next day another guy has a good day.
"It’s fun because we all started from scratch, almost as white belts. Well, Nick and Jake were blue belts when I started. It’s amazing to see us all do it. We have had a lot of hurdles in front of us. It’s not what people would think. When we started, we had crappy gear, crappy equipment, sometimes no equipment. We sparred without mouthpieces at times. It’s great to see us make it to this point together. Me and Jake train all the time. He teaches at my gym. We train three to five times a week. Nick and Nate, I see them weekly, sometimes every other week. Cesar Gracie brought us all together."
Melendez looks at the Kawajiri fight as his measuring stick. Kawajiri, who has been the No. 2 lightweight in Japan for years, lost a close decision to Melendez five years ago that could have gone either way. But in the rematch, Melendez steamrolled him, and made both Kawajiri and the even more highly touted Aoki, who some saw as No. 1 in the world when they met, look like they weren’t even near his level.
Masvidal, 27, who has moved back-and-forth from welterweight, is in easily the highest profile fight of his career.
"It means a lot," Masvidal said. "Fighting not just for a championship but fighting a top-brand guy. He’s the No. 1 or No. 2 in most people’s opinions. That’s what really matters to me. The belt, I could really care less for it. … Sometimes you fight a guy that has a belt that’s not a top-brand guy, that could be a scrub or something. But I’m actually fighting one of the top lightweights in the world, and that’s what really means something to me."
"Man, he’s a tough fighter," Melendez said about Masvidal. "He’s an underrated guy. He’s been on the circuit for a long time. He’s one of the top 155 pounders outside of the UFC. He fought tough at welterweight against Paul Daley. I thought he won that fight [a decision loss in September 2010]. He has straight punches, good moves, he’s got a good sprawl and if he’s taken down, gets back to his feet.
"Jorge is someone I’ve watched for a long time. I’ve always anticipated fighting him. He’s been someone really dangerous in my weight class for a while and I assumed I’d fight him eventually. I wasn’t 100 percent positive, but I was pretty sure he’d beat K.J. K.J. is a great athlete, and a great boxer but at the end of the day, I knew Jorge would win."
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