With the grinding, repetition and sacrifice of training camp now drawn to a close, the fires of war have been ignited for Gilbert Melendez.
The Strikeforce lightweight champion has put together an impressive six-fight winning streak and in one week, he’ll step into action against former champion Josh Thomson. While it will be their third go-around, the fight itself will provide Melendez the opportunity to put the finishing touches on a chapter a long time in the making.
The previous two clashes between Melendez and Thomson have been studies in all-out warfare. Both were action-packed affairs with the title belt exchanging hands when the judges’ scores were read. Thomson was the last man to defeat Melendez back in 2008, and while Melendez avenged the loss and regained his title a year and a half later, MMA fans have longed for the trilogy to be settled.
Everything appeared to be shaping up perfectly for a third showdown until news surfaced this week about an injury Thomson suffered at the end of his training camp. Rumors about the severity of Thomson’s injury circulated, as did the word he would be forced to withdraw from the fight. After making a call to the Zuffa brass, Melendez was assured Thomson would be standing across from him on May 19 in San Jose, Calif. But in a sport in which changes are made on the fly, Melendez stands firm and is ready for whatever or whoever comes his way.
“When I heard the news, I thought it was typical Josh Thomson,” Melendez told Heavy MMA. “He gets injured a lot and has had some issues with it. As far as I’m concerned, the fight is still on. Once I heard the rumor, I called (Strikeforce matchmaker) Sean Shelby, because he’s the man to call in these situations, and he said it’s a go. I’m anticipating Josh, and if not, I know they’ll find someone for me.
“The possibility of him getting injured before the fight was most definitely something I thought about. The first two times we fought, he was saying he was hurt coming into the fights and not 100 percent, but he came out guns blazing. This is something you hear from Josh a lot. Whether he had a (expletive) performance or his training wasn’t right, he always puts it out there.
“Who isn’t injured going into a fight? If you’re 100 percent going into a fight, then you probably didn’t train hard enough, to be honest. I have little injuries pop up here and there, but I don’t put them on blast. Fighting hurt comes with the territory in this business. I expected it coming into this fight, but I don’t expect him to be that injured. I’m anticipating he’ll be just fine when fight time rolls around.”
Thomson’s last victory over K.J. Noons may not have won him any fans, but it was enough to convince Strikeforce he was the right man to contend for Melendez’s title. Following the fight, Melendez told Heavy MMA he thought Pat “Bam Bam” Healy may be more deserving of the title shot and when the news of Thomson’s injury hit the public, Healy let Strikeforce know he was ready if the call came with a message posted on his Twitter account.
“Right now I feel ready for anybody, and if it ended up being Bam Bam Healy, I’d be pumped,” Melendez said. “If I have to call an audible and switch up game plans a little bit, I’m ready to adapt. Right now, they are saying Josh is a go, so my focus is on him. But Bam Bam is someone I’ve had my sights on for a while now. It seems like we are on a collision course, and it doesn’t matter to me. A matchup with him seems inevitable and I’m sure we will fight somewhere down the road.
“If I’m truly the best in the world, then I should be able to beat whoever they put in front of me. Everyone knows in MMA that styles make fights. Fighter A can beat Fighter B, and Fighter B can beat Fighter C, and Fighter C can beat Fighter A. The sport is crazy like that, but I have to be able to beat Fighter A through Z. It doesn’t matter if my opponent’s style is an easy or tough matchup for me. I have to get the job done. Josh is a tough matchup. He flies a little under the radar sometimes, but he is definitely going to be up for this fight. I have to be able to deal with every challenge I’m presented.”
A victory over Thomson may be locked into his sights, but Melendez is a man on a mission. His quest goes beyond the glimmer of championship gold as “El Nino” has battled to be recognized as the top 155-pound fighter on the planet. A win next Saturday will keep Melendez at the forefront of the lightweight debate, and his efforts recently were assisted by longtime friend and training partner Nate Diaz. Following his impressive win over Jim Miller at UFC on FOX: Diaz vs. Miller, the younger Diaz let it be known Melendez was the true No. 1 lightweight fighter in the world.
“I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of recognition from the media and my peers for a while now, and I respect and appreciate that,” Melendez said. “When I heard what Nate said, I was touched. On the biggest day of his life, he gives me the biggest shout out. He’s just as much the No. 1 in the world as I am in my opinion.
“It’s great to get recognition and it’s great that he gives me love like that, but I think the common fan still hears my name and says, ‘Who the hell is that?’ I think the reason is because they haven’t seen me fight or that I’m not in the UFC. I get respect from my fellow fighters, but the common fan doesn’t know who I am because they don’t follow Strikeforce the way they follow the UFC.”
In order to achieve the goals Melendez has set out for himself, he knows the level of competition he needs to face has to be at the top of the sport. Fighting outside of the UFC has presented some difficulties, but Melendez has remained vocal as he’s issued open challenges to the fighters on the UFC roster.
In recent months, the open challenge became specific as Melendez sought a matchup with former multi-divisional champion BJ Penn. Following his loss to Nick Diaz, “The Prodigy” shot venom toward team leader Cesar Gracie and Melendez offered to take up the cause. This past week on “The MMA Hour,” Penn revealed that a bout with Melendez was offered to him, but ultimately it didn’t make sense. Questions regarding whether or not fighting in Strikeforce would be a step down and the potential backlash he would receive should he win the Strikeforce title were enough to tip Penn’s decision.
“Those are all good points,” Melendez said. “What can I say? Those are all good points. BJ not wanting to come to Strikeforce is his decision. I wish someone would man up, though. I’m glad Josh is manning up and he’s fighting me. I wish some of these guys in the UFC would take the risk, but at the end of the day I understand the business moves. I’m sure their managers tell them fighting me in Strikeforce isn’t the best business move, and I understand.
“I know where I’m at and I’m okay with it. I’m going to be with Strikeforce for a while, or at least until my contract is up. I have this fight plus three more, and I respect that. It’s good to know where I’m going to be and know what the future holds. I think all this BS is making its way out the door, and now we know what is going on with the next year of my life and it’s refreshing.”
As Melendez’s profile has grown in the sport of mixed martial arts, opportunities and avenues have opened in other areas that have allowed him to explore endeavors outside of the cage. Early last year, the Strikeforce champion accepted an invite from former champion-turned-action star Cung Le to take a role in an action movie called “Dragon Eyes,” and he is excited for its release.
“Cung Le was nice enough to bring me aboard and allow me to practice my acting skills on the set of ‘Dragon Eyes,’ ” Melendez said. “Of course, I was typecast as a ‘cholo’ Mexican gangster, and I think I played it just fine. I had a good time out there. I’m excited to see myself on the screen, but moreso the fight scenes because I think Cung did a great job of choreographing some great action sequences.
“Doing the fight scenes was a cool experience. When your adrenaline is going, it is a lot easier to take hits but when you know it is coming and you have to take it — that’s when it becomes a little different to deal with. You’re standing there knowing you are going to get thrown by Cung Le, and you have to prepare for it as opposed to when you are in a fight and anything can happen. It’s definitely a little different.
“Anyone who loved action flicks from back in the day is going to love it. This movie has a throwback style, but there is an evolution to the action and the fights have a lot more MMA involved in them. I think these movies are going to make a comeback. I’m pumped to be a part of it and I’m pumped to check it out.”
As the world around him continues to shift, Gilbert Melendez remains focused on becoming the best he can possibly be. Whatever the task at hand, his close-knit family and friends help him draw the motivation and inspiration to reach new heights. As a father, Melendez has come to appreciate the moment and that his hard work will allow his daughter to have the quality of life he dreams for her.
Other inspirations are more direct, and Melendez credits fiancée Keri Ann Taylor’s recent victory in her return to Muay Thai for helping him make sure the fires of war are raging by the time he steps into the cage in San Jose.
“She inspired me for this fight,” Melendez said. “She went out there and put on a vicious performance, and it made me turn it up. It made me want to put more aggression into the way I fight. She did really good, and yeah — you have to be tough in this family.
“I have shown Josh respect in the past, and I respect him now, but I feel my skills are good enough for me to take control and show I am the better fighter. I’m going to be aggressive in this fight. Fans watching can expect me to take some risks and show a few new tricks. I’m just trying to represent my team and trying to represent for my family and friends. I can’t guarantee victory, but I can guarantee I’m ready for five rounds of battle.”
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