The only opportunity Gilbert Melendez has ever wanted as a professional fighter is just around the corner. While finally making his UFC debut is certainly a highlight for the last man to hold the Strikeforce lightweight title, the chance to prove he is the number one 155-pound fighter in the world is the challenge “El Nino” has longed for, and on April 20th, the 30-year-old Team Cesar Gracie fighter squares off with UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson in a clash of MMA’s two top lightweight fighters.
It is a platform years in the making for Melendez. The Northern California-native has been on a quest for respect and recognition as the world’s best lightweight fighter -- a task not easily accomplished competing outside of the UFC. But with a title shot in place, and a showdown with the UFC champion on the horizon, the fires of motivation are raging and Melendez is dead set on settling the conversation once and for all.
“I’ve always wanted to challenge myself against the best,” Melendez said. “That has never meant fighting in the UFC necessarily, but finding out if I really am the best lightweight in the world. Now I’m going to get that chance to figure out if I am the number one lightweight in the world and I’m banking on doing it.
“This is what I’ve been waiting for. This is the goal right here. I felt like this moment was inevitable. It’s been a long time but this is exactly what I’ve been training and fighting for my entire career. It all comes down to this one moment and it’s time to zero in and do it.
“I feel a huge amount of respect coming from the UFC for giving me an immediate title shot. It also goes to show that people really want to see this fight. That also plays a big factor in putting this fight together and I’m really happy fans are coming out and really getting behind me in this. It feels great to get that kind of respect and I’m really happy to be a part of the UFC now.”
If an immediate title shot against Henderson wasn’t sweet enough, the opportunity comes with additional perks with the UFC on FOX 7 bout coming in Melendez’s backyard of San Jose. As a Bay Area native, Melendez was able to compete in San Jose numerous times under the Strikeforce banner, and he has built a passionate fan base in the San Jose/San Francisco area.
The bout taking place as the main event of FOX also plays a huge factor in the importance of the fight. Since the relationship between the UFC and FOX kicked off in 2011, the organization has begun transitioning some of their biggest fights off of their traditional pay-per-view model and onto free television. Melendez sees this scenario as the perfect opportunity to make a definitive statement to a brand new audience in the UFC.
“How can I not be excited about this fight,” Melendez said. “Fighting in San Jose, against Ben Henderson on FOX…it doesn’t get better than that. What a great platform for me to show the world what I got. It is an amazing thing and I’m honored to be a part of it. They know I’m ready to deliver. I’m coming out ready to fight and everybody is going to be in for a good show. With me they get a guy who always shows up to fight.
“I couldn’t ask for anything more than fighting in San Jose. It feels like [the UFC] is doing something really generous for me and maybe it’s because of all the things I’ve done for the sport. I don’t really know, to be honest, but it feels great. At least that is the way I’m taking it. Fighting in the Bay Area definitely adds more fuel to my fire because my fans are going to be there, they are feisty, and they are going to get in Ben’s head.”
The matchup between Melendez and Henderson features some interesting stylistic parallels. Both men are strong wrestlers who work behind high-paced attacks. Over his career, Melendez has displayed a brutal fashion of ground and pound that he blends with an increasingly accurate striking game.
Henderson, on the other hand, brings a unique amount of pressure which has allowed him to break the opposition he faces. While Henderson’s legendary cardio is difficult to prepare for, Melendez believes the UFC champion’s greatest attribute is not his physical skill set, but “Smooth’s” ability to stay relaxed under fire.
“Benson is a total athlete,” Melendez said. “He has a lot of strengths and very few weaknesses, if any. One thing I do see in him as a big strength is that he is very mentally strong. That is one thing I see in him that I don’t see in every fighter. He is very focused and keeps his game face on at all times. He gets dropped in fights but he recovers quickly and keeps the same face on.
“There is no look of desperation and he maintains his composure. I think it is going to be a tough mental battle for both of us. We are going to push each other hard and it is going to be just as much of a mental battle as it is a physical one.”
While Melendez has been around the UFC scene for years, cornering his teammates in their biggest fights, he is definitely looking forward to his first opportunity to make that walk to the Octagon. The moment is a long time coming and Melendez is excited to finally have the chance to show the UFC fan base what he can do.
“I’ve been around UFC events for a long time, cornering my boys and whatnot, but it is going to be a neat experience coming out of that tunnel for the first time, hearing my music bump the way it bumps,” Melendez said. “There is nothing like that feeling. It is going to be great to fight in front of the UFC audience.
“I’ve been around that atmosphere before, but it is going to be nice when it is all targeted at me. It is going to be a new experience but it is also going to be weird because it will be in a familiar territory in San Jose. Fighting in front of a hometown crowd is going to be awesome, but having the UFC brand behind it will only make it that much more magical. I thrive for that stuff and that is when I perform at my best. I don’t shy away from those moments at all.”
As the next chapter of his career is set to begin, Melendez can finally look back at everything he accomplished under the Strikeforce banner. For the past four years he was one of the promotion’s brightest stars, and Melendez took tremendous pride in being one of the most dominant champions in the organization’s history. With the doors forever closed on the promotion, Melendez is ready to take his career to new heights, but he will always appreciate the journey which has allowed him to reach this point.
“It was a little bit different for me since I didn’t fight on the final card,” Melendez said. “But once it was over, I finally was able to exhale and look back on my career in Strikeforce and all my accomplishments under that banner. I appreciate that part of my career and that portion of my journey as a mixed martial artist. Now that Strikeforce is gone I can look back on it, but I’m very much looking forward to great things ahead. It’s a rejuvenating feeling.
“The first highlight for me was winning the Strikeforce title against Clay Guida. It was nuts in there…like 11,000 or 12,000 people in there. The fight wasn’t televised and the main event was Vitor [Belfort] versus [Alistair] Overeem. It was crazy and I really put it all on the line out there. I represented for the first time and really got that NorCal crowd behind me. That was a really big spot for me.
“Beating Shinya Aoki on CBS was another big moment for me, and avenging my loss against Josh Thomson ranks up there as well. It was an awesome fight and I think it is one everybody in MMA appreciated.”
With his time in Strikeforce over and a UFC debut quickly approaching, Melendez’s focus now turns to proving once and for all he is the number one lightweight on the planet. Over the course of his journey, Melendez has battled for respect, grown as a fighter and a father, with everything leading up to this one pivotal moment in his MMA career.
The championship tilt against Henderson is precisely the type of scenario he longed for, and make no mistake about it…Melendez is coming after the UFC lightweight crown. It is the opportunity he’s given everything to earn and Melendez has one goal in mind when the cage door closes in San Jose.
“I am coming to take that belt,” Melendez said. “I’m not defending my belt anymore and I’m coming to take his. I’m coming with bad intentions and I’m not counting on squeaking anything out on the scorecards. People are going to see a focused Gilbert Melendez, ready to put it all on the line to get that title. I’m ready to entertain and I’m coming to win. I’m coming to get that belt.”
Gilbert Melendez: A Champion's Quest for Respect
"I’m not defending my belt anymore and I’m coming to take his. I’m coming with bad intentions and I’m not counting on squeaking anything out on the scorecards." - Gilbert Melendez