When most fighters claim championship gold the list of things to prove dwindles considerably. The hard road taken to the top of the division and the glory that comes from victory leave few stones unturned as the focus shifts to defending the belt they have worked so hard to claim.
Gilbert Melendez isn't your typical champion.
The Strikeforce lightweight king has been on a constant push for respect and recognition as he has ground and hammered his way to becoming one of the world's best 155 lb. fighters. With that being said Melendez has no interest in being considered as one of the best...he wants to show that he is the top lightweight fighter in the world and he is on a mission to prove it. Melendez's shot into the top of the rankings after a five round smashing of Japanese superstar Shinya Aoki but after serving his suspension for the post-fight ruckus in Nashville and Strikeforce unable to place a considerable challenge in front of him, Melendez sat on the sidelines hungry and waiting. After Tatsuya Kawajiri defeated Josh Thomson on New Year's Eve an opponent was born and despite having already defeated Kawijiri under the Pride banner, Melendez is taking nothing for granted. The two fighters are set to collide on April 9th and I recently caught up with Melendez as he prepares to begin the next chapter of his career. In his Bloody Elbow Exclusive interview, "El Nino" spoke about how surreal it is to finally be a part of the Zuffa family and while he's ready for all comers, Kawajiri is the first order of business on his list.
"He beat Josh Thomson, wanted a rematch and since the first time around was a great fight I said let's do it," Melendez stated. "I think he's definitely one of the top guys and his last loss came when Aoki tapped him out but I think he deserves it. He's definitely one of the most worthy guys out there and it's definitely going to be a challenge."
When Melendez steps inside the cage on April 9th it will be just slightly under a year since y his last fight against Shinya Aoki. Anytime a high level fighter takes that much time away from the action it can have an impact on his ability to perform but Melendez feels that the level of adversity he faces on a daily basis from his teammates have been enough to keep his skills razor sharp.
"I've taken the layoff into strong consideration," Melendez stated. "I don't think its going to be too much of an issue because I've been fighting for free the entire time I was off. I've been fighting Jake Shields, Nick Diaz and Nate Diaz for free and putting on shows every day in the gym so I don't feel there is going to be too much ring rust and I'm not too concerned with the nerves. There is a little anxiety starting up about getting back in there but I've definitely taken the layoff into consideration and have been training extra hard. Overall those kinds of things never bother me too much and I feel great right now."
The first time the two fighters squared off came under the Pride banner as Melendez defeated Kawajiri by unanimous decision. In the four years since the first meeting everything about Melendez's fight game has become bigger faster and stronger and while he is aware of the improvements in his own fight game he knows that Kawajiri has been on the upswing as well.
"Since the first time we fought my training partners have become world champions and have evolved with the sport which in turn has me made that much better," Melendez explained. "We have a great stable, a great group of guys and we have all evolved so much over the past few years. I think Kawijiri has maintained his strength and skills, improved his grappling game but I don't think he has evolved as much as I have. I hope all the hard work shows when it comes to fight night."
Since the loss to Melendez the Japanese fighter has won 10-12 bouts. Those two losses have come against Shinya Aoki, who Melendez smashed up in Nashville and Eddie Alvarez, who is considered to be one of the top lightweights in the world. It is no secret that Japanese fighters have struggled stateside and with Kawajiri already having been defeated by Melendez, the Strikeforce champion knows it is possible both will be a factor.
"I'm not banking on it but I am pumped up that I don't have to go to Japan and he has to deal with the crap of traveling," Melendez stated. "I get to fight in southern Cali where I was born and raised. I'm from Santa Ana and I have a lot of family in TJ and San Diego and he's coming to my turf. The crowd will be on my side and I'm definitely pumped about that it. It's not that I'm counting on him to be at a disadvantage because of the travel or having already lost to me...he might handle it perfectly who knows? But I love when the crowd cheers for me and not the other guy so I'm going to take that energy and use it. I've always said that I would fight him if he came over here and I've been to Japan so many times so I think that it's cool that Kawijiri is stepping up and coming out here."
The only other thing on Melendez's mind besides Kawajiri is the recent announcement that Strikeforce, his home for the past three years, was recently purchased by Zuffa. While most fight fans instantly began to think of dream matchups involving Fedor and Alistair Overeem, Melendez possibly entering the UFC lightweight division would be guaranteed fireworks.
"I was really happy about the whole situation," Melendez answered when asked about the Zuffa purchase. "I've been at Strikeforce for a long time, Scott Coker has done a great job and I don't know how that whole thing is going but for me...as a fan and a fighter I'm excited. I needed something to motivate me a little bit more and the fact that I'm under Zuffa now makes me happy and makes me want to train that much harder."
While fighting under the Strikeforce banner Melendez has been around the UFC for years as he has cornered teammates Jake Shields and TUF winner Nate Diaz. The UFC wasted no time after the announcement was made as they immediately began to promote the upcoming Strikeforce card, an event Melendez will be fighting at come April 9th.
"That was crazy to see," Melendez replied when asked about the promotional spot that ran during UFC 128. "I saw that commercial when I was watching the fights and it tripped me out to see the UFC promoting Strikeforce. Just knowing that I'm going to have the marketing machine of the UFC behind me now is going to help me brand myself so much more as a fighter. Nothing against Strikeforce but the exposure was always the advantage of fighting for the UFC, gaining that recognition and now I'm going to be able to brand myself that much more and that will allow me to have a future after fighting is over. That's how people are going to want to come to my gym because they know who I am. It's not because I want to be famous, it is just that I want to brand myself and put my career in the best possible position for the future."
Zuffa's purchase of Strikeforce was not the only MMA news making waves as a recent high profile dispute at Greg Jackson's camp has created a debate that has resonated throughout the sport. With Melendez being a member of Cesar Gracie's Fight Team alongside other top fighters such as Shields and the Diaz brothers, Melendez shared his thoughts on the issue.
"I read a little bit about it (Evans/Jones/Jackson) and I don't know the entire situation but I feel like they do have a big team out there and things are going to happen," Melendez replied when asked about team factor being put under the microscope. "You come to Greg Jackson and I think he structures great practices and I think he's a great coach and all but for us it's more than that. For us it's not just joining a team, you are joining a family and it's a blessing to be a part of it. There is not really a price that you could put on it for us. You have to earn your way to be a part of this place and there are a couple things that come along with it. No, we don't fight each other and we hold you accountable for the things you say and do. Other fighters can make their own schedules, do this, do that, but when we get together it's a lot tighter of a unit and a lot deeper as far as relationships go. It's a privilege to be a part of it and just because you are a great athlete or a great fighter doesn't mean that you get to be included. It becomes family and we hold each other accountable for everything. Why would I want to fight Nate Diaz? He has helped me become a great fighter and at the same time why would he want to fight me? We know all each other's sh*t and without them I wouldn't have become a champion. Why would I want to help a guy get better who is going to want to fight me? Why would I even want to put myself in a situation where that was possible? You have to be selective as to who you put on your team and I think we definitely are. I think I've learned lessons as far as that goes just seeing how some fighters act and don't stick around. They can't dedicate themselves to making every practice or they can't show their loyalty or hold their weight on the team and it just doesn't work out."
Melendez couldn't discuss his teammates without giving credit to his mentor and current number one contender to the UFC welterweight crown Jake Shields. For years Shields has been considered to be one of the best fighters outside of the biggest organization and in fact it was Strikeforce's lack of promotion during his highest profiled bout against Dan Henderson that lead to the eventual unraveling of Shield's relationship with Strikeforce. After his contract ended he quickly signed with the UFC and after defeating Martin Kampmann by split decision, earned his title shot against Georges St. Pierre. With the bout rapidly approaching the UFC has put their promotional power behind Shields and Melendez is happy to see his friend finally get the recognition he has long deserved.
"We saw the promo on Saturday night. We've seen it over and over and we do not get tired of seeing it," Melendez laughed. "We see it and laugh about it because it's crazy to see how far this has come. I know Jake is proud and I'm proud for him. He came over to my house to watch the fights and was holding my daughter and it was just a good time. We see that commercial come on and we sat back and laughed because we can't believe this sh*t you know? It's almost unbelievable to be honest. Jake is the guy who has always had the vision and has always believed it, willed it and done it. He has silenced everybody who has ever doubted him and he's still on that mission. I was the guy who just followed along because I saw that he knew what he was doing. Sometimes we sit back and think about the journey and it's amazing. Jake's the man and I'm so happy that he's finally getting the recognition he deserves. We're happy about it and there is a good chance he may become the next UFC welterweight champion."
With so many new challenges and opportunities on the road ahead, Melendez is looking forward to what comes next. The first order of business is Tatsuya Kawajiri and Melendez plans on making his performance on April 9th the first step in a great new chapter for the Strikeforce lightweight champion. While Melendez may be the number one lightweight in the Strikeforce organization, he welcomes any other fighter out there to prove that he isn't the best 155 lb. fighter in the world.
"With me resigning the contract with Strikeforce and not knowing that Zuffa was going to buy them out I said that I would take all comers to prove the I was the best lightweight fighter in the world and I stand by that," Melendez stated. "I have to dominate all of them and show that I can handle every style, every bad matchup and come out victorious. I'm not just looking to ride out the win I plan on dominating everyone they put across from me. Not just squeaking out a close decision or the tie goes to the champion...I'm here to prove I'm the best and you do that by not leaving questions. For me to become that great fighter I have to have the mentality of give me whoever you think is better than me. I don't want to handpick my opponents. I truly want to figure out if I am the best lightweight fighter in the world and I know sometimes it comes down to making the right decisions but by taking all comers it keeps me honest with myself and true to the sport. It also keeps me honest with my training and staying on top of my game. I want to make it clear that I take all comers...bring me whoever."
Melendez continued, "Fans can expect a Gilbert Melendez who is ready to back up the talk. I've been doing a lot of talking out there saying that I'm the number one ranked lightweight in the world and I put that pressure on myself willingly. I know what it means to do that and now I'm ready to shut up and prove it. I'm excited to do and I want to stay very busy this year. Don't get me wrong I know there are bumps in the road here and there but at the end of the day and by the end of my career people are going to know why I think I'm the number one fighter."