Photo via Sherdog
It has been said that in order to become the best you must beat the best and Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez simply wants the opportunity. Melendez has been on a mission to gain respect and stake his claim as one of the top 155 lb. fighters in the world but with the bulk of recognized fighters in his weight class residing under the UFC banner, he is consistently running short on options.
After cleaning out the Strikeforce roster, including an impressive dismantling of Josh Thomson that allowed Melendez to reclaim the title, "El Nino" had to tread into cross promotional waters in hopes of raising his stock. Strikeforce lined up a high profile bout with the number two ranked lightweight in the world, Dream's Shinya Aoki in what was supposed to be a classic for the ages. Melendez came out of the gates with controlled aggression as he battered and tagged the Japanese superstar all the while keeping out of danger. Overall the fight was largely panned by MMA critics due to Aoki's showing or lack thereof and despite the victory, Melendez found himself once again looking for respect.
Following the win over Aoki in Nashville Melendez seemed poised to take his position in the upper tier of the division but after a post-fight brawl on CBS and Strikeforce pulling the lifeline on a possible super fight with Bellator champion Eddie Alvarez, Melendez once again found himself as a man not just in need of a challenge but a high profile one at that. I recently caught up with Strikeforce's lightweight champion and in this Bloody Elbow Exclusive interview Melendez gives the latest word on the bout with Alvarez and confirms he will do whatever it takes to get the big fights...even if that means jumping up a weight class to do so.
"Honestly I'm ready for some new blood," Melendez stated. "I've cleaned out a lot of guys in the 155 lb. division so I will probably have to fight a couple of guys again who are in my weight class. I know that is a possibility so I'm prepared to deal with that. Then I hear Paul Daley called out K.J. Noons and Nick Diaz and while I know that Diaz is down...Noons says that Daley isn't worthy and I think that Paul Daley is a Top 10 guy. I would love to jump up and fight somebody with a high profile like that who would raise my stock in the pound for pound rankings. Something like that interests me and those are the kinds of things I want to bring to the table."
Less than a year ago Daley was on the cusp of a title shot in the UFC welterweight division but after a post fight sucker punch lead to his firing, the British slugger has now come to Strikeforce. The addition of "Semtex" was an immediate boost to the organization's roster and in his debut Daley scored a monstrous knockout of slugger Scott Smith. While Daley is calling out the top welterweights, Melendez is now the one calling on him and is willing to put on the weight to make it happen.
"We can do a catch weight bout at 165 lbs. but if he has a problem making that and we would need to do 170 lbs. then let's do it," Melendez declared. "I want to challenge myself, stay motivated and that's something that I would be totally up for even if nobody else is. No one in Strikeforce is calling my name out after the fights. Nobody is looking for a fight with me. They are all calling out K.J. Noons. What about me? I'm the champ...let's get to it."
Melendez has used every opportunity to request the biggest fights during his run through Strikeforce's current roster of 155 lb. competition. The Team Gracie Fighter has stated time and time again he is happy with his treatment from Strikeforce but it still remains to be seen if the organization will put the necessary effort and money into going out and getting their champion high profile competition. Having been inactive for nearly a year it has become frustrating for Melendez to see CEO Scott Coker putting nearly all of the promotional focus on building the heavyweight division.
"I don't feel like there is too much left to prove at lightweight," Melendez stated as the discussion turned to the state of affairs with Strikeforce. "I mean...there are things that can be done and I'm willing to prove whatever I need to. I'm willing to fight Billy Evangelista. I'm willing to fight Lyle Beerbohm. I'm willing to fight Justin Wilcox and these up and comers but they're not giving me an opportunity. Like I said man...everybody is calling out everyone else but me and I'd love to check these guys and defend my title against them but apparently Strikeforce either doesn't think they are ready or are not worthy. I'm their champ, get me a fight and put me to work. I do feel they could put in a little more effort into getting me something going and I think Josh is the most worthy opponent right now. I would love to fight JZ before him but that doesn't look like that's going to happen. Overall you are right though...Strikeforce does have a lot on their table and they do need to focus on everybody and not just beefing up the heavyweight division. Once again I am happy with Strikeforce but any fighter would get eager or aggravated with sitting idle. I'm trying to get some new things going here and brand myself in this sport and I need their help in doing it."
After defeating Shinya Aoki in Nashville Melendez looked to keep his momentum as he turned his focus to another high profile opponent in Eddie Alvarez. Melendez issued the challenge on several occasions expressing he would love to do a "champion vs. champion" matchup with Alvarez. While talk of the potential matchup stirred a small buzz the rumored bout did not become headline fodder until a game of promotional cat and mouse played out publically between Scott Coker and Bjorn Rebeny. The Bellator CEO made a very public campaign to draw the interest of the MMA fan base in a series of texts to Coker made publics as he hoped to urge Coker into agreeing to a co-promotional super fight between the two champions. After Coker scorned Rebeny in the media for his tactics talk of the fight slipped off the headlines and into the back pages.
"I think the Alvarez fight is dead for now," Melendez replied when asked about the status of the rumored super fight. "It had more to do with business and I know Eddie was definitely down just like I expected him to be and I was trying to pump something up that I believe would be the biggest fight outside of the UFC, maybe the biggest fight in MMA right now. I think that Eddie and I are two of the most electric fighters in the game and that's why I wanted the fight and tried to make it happen. But for now it seems like a business thing so I'm going to pull back from that and I want to apologize to Eddie and all of the fans out there for getting everyone hyped up. Maybe I jumped the gun a little bit early so for now I'll stick to fighting and not being a promoter. I did want to fight him and he wanted to fight me so it would have been exciting but that's that. I'm hoping that down the road we will get to do it but that's the shitty thing about this sport where sometimes you can't make those things happen."
More from Melendez in the full entry.
Without Alvarez in his sights and the bulk of noteworthy competition residing in the UFC, Melendez's options are limited. After close friend and Gracie teammate Jake Shields made his exodus from Strikeforce the attention then moved to see if Melendez and possibly Nick Diaz would eventually follow. Melendez is quick to say he's happy with Strikeforce but with competition thin the question lingers if a move to the UFC is only just a matter of time.
"It's not so much even the UFC it's just that when you are with them you can brand yourself a lot better," Melendez answered when asked about a possible move. "It seems like a guy who is 0-2 in the UFC gets more respect than Gilbert Melendez who is number two in the world because I'm not in the UFC. Yeah...sometimes that bothers me but the other fighters give me respect and the media gives me respect so that's really all that I can ask for. It's not so much going to the UFC it's more of fighting the other guys out there that people think are better than me. They may be better than me, then again maybe not but I would love to find out. I would love to fight Kenny Florian. I would love to fight Gray Maynard or Frankie Edgar. I would love to fight B.J. Penn and those tough guys out there because that's what it's all about for me. It's not about the organization it's about me challenging and pushing myself."
While Melendez has been vocal about wanting big fights another topic he is quick to discuss is his world ranking in the 155 lb. weight class. After defeating Aoki, the fighter many believed to be the number two ranked lightweight in the world, Melendez moved into the top five slot on most lists...even going as far as number three on a few. This of course came during the reign of B.J. Penn but after Penn was defeated at UFC 112 and then battered at UFC 118 by Frankie Edgar, the top tier of the list experienced a shake up. With Edgar owning back to back wins over "The Prodigy" and Eddie Alvarez continuing to win, Melendez has company at the very top of the weight class.
"I think it's debatable," Melendez responded to the question of top ranking in the lightweight division. "I think it's debatable that I am number one but right now I'm not the guy who beat B.J. Penn twice so right now I think Frankie Edgar does deserve the top spot. At the same time though I think people like Eddie Alvarez and myself...well this is my opinion because Alvarez got tapped by Aoki, I really see Frankie, Eddie and I as the top three guys in the world and on any given day anyone of us could be number one. I also think Frankie will beat Gray and Gray's a great fighter who beat Frankie the last time out but I think that Frankie will win. I think it's debatable for sure and there are a lot of tough guys at 155 lb. It's possible even the Top 5 guys could claim the top spot on any given day."
In order for Melendez to solidify his place in the rankings he is going to need to get back inside of the cage. The champion was recently ringside to commentate a matchup between former champ Josh Thomson and JZ Cavalcante to decide the next number one contender. Thomson walked away with the victory despite a strong showing from the Brazilian in his Strikeforce debut and while the crowd seemed to disagree Melendez accepted the idea of facing Thomson for a third time.
"It was really clear that JZ finished the strongest and won the third round and it's very clear that Josh won the second. The rounds were almost identical. It came down the first round which was also fairly close but Josh Thomson got dropped, put in a guillotine, he escaped the guillotine and the rest of the round was spent in the ground and pound. I personally gave the fight to JZ but I think it's debatable and they gave the win to Josh," Melendez replied when asked about the outcome. "I like to give the fight to the person that finishes the strongest so in my opinion I think that JZ won that fight and Josh didn't have his best performance but still did really well and could have been a draw. I know that you can't really focus on a draw in this sport but it was at the least very close. I think it came down to who wanted it more in that final round and that in my opinion was JZ. For Josh Thomson having a bad day I think he did a good job but I believe that JZ pulled it off because he's my boy and I'm happy that he won in a manner of speaking. I cheer for him you know?"
Another rumored bout for Melendez was a second matchup with Aoki at Dynamite's New Year's Eve show. After speculation of the fight swirled for a bit the fire was extinguished as word came that Melendez would not be going to Japan for the fight.
"I heard about the fight six weeks out from the event and when I got the call it was just too close to make happen," Melendez stated. "Strikeforce called and said that Japan wants me to come over for New Year's and face Aoki but I'm a champion man and I don't have to take fights with six weeks notice anymore...not big fights in Japan at least. For a fight like this I would need eight to ten weeks of camp to get prepared not six. It was brought to me a little bit late so I said no. Give me two months, maybe three months notice and let's do it. I would be more than happy to go to Japan ...just not on six weeks."
With potential bouts against Alvarez and Shinya Aoki scrapped and Josh Thomson signing on to face Kawajiri at Dynamite the door remains wide open. The questions continue to stack up not only as to who Melendez will face but when his next fight will happen and after nearly a year lay off the Strikeforce lightweight champion is chomping at the bit to get back to work.
"Because of the rumor that I was going to Japan and possibly fighting there I was staying busy. I'm in pretty good shape and I hear there is a show on January 29th so I say I'm the champ who needs more than six weeks notice so that show is seven weeks away. In my head I've been thinking that I am going to fight on that show so I'm staying mentally and physically ready for whatever pops up. I'm trying to stay ready for anything and I would fight as early as January 29th. Just learning from my experiences I'm trying to stay ready and if this six or seven week thing comes up maybe I can fight anyways because I can't sit around and wait forever."
With the interview coming to a close Melendez made sure to thank the people that have made the biggest difference in his career. Whether he is fighting to defend the belt he has worked hard to obtain or if he is battling for his place as one of the best in the world, Melendez knows it is the support that gets him through.
"I love my fans so much and I go out there to fight my heart for them every time. I love the energy they give me and if it wasn't for them I wouldn't be able to live my dream and I thank them so much for it," Melendez finished.