A weird corollary of Nick Diaz's transfer into a championship unification fight against Georges St-Pierre (metaphorically, not actually) is the question posed about the future of his Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy's teammate, Gilbert Melendez. Gil is the last of the champions coming from that specific Gracie camp that hasn't in some form or another made his way under the UFC banner- Jake Shields became a free agent and was signed by Zuffa, Nick Diaz abdicated his Strikeforce gold for a potentially more lucrative shot at Georges St-Pierre, and the younger (non-champion) Nate Diaz was brought in through the Ultimate Fighter- but I think the argument can be made that Melendez's transition would arguably be the most important in terms of "sport." Allow me to elaborate.
Melendez is coming off a career-defining TKO win over Tatsuya Kawajiri in April- it was his fifth straight and yet only his first fight in an entire calendar year. Is this ridiculous to anyone else? Gilbert was forced to sit around because of Strikeforce's swiss cheese roster at lightweight, and the fact that noone wanted to see him face Josh Thomson again. He is yet to have another opponent set, but the most likely choice will be- wait for it- Jorge Masvidal, riding high on a two fight win streak. I saw Masvidal's victory over KJ Noons; yes it was a pretty fantastic scrap, but is Jorge really someone that Melendez should be fighting in his eighth straight title fight?
I suppose this matchmaking begs a similar question to why Melvin Guillard is facing Joe Lauzon- I understand Melvin called Joe out, but this is another fight that makes no sense. Melvin has the type of streak going that shouldn't be risked against Lauzon (2-2 in his last 4), whether he called for the fight or not. The UFC doesn't consider itself a tournament, but in a sense that's exactly what it is. Fighters get buys if there is reason enough for them to jump into a title fight, but for the most part you have to develop a long, credible winning streak over other guys with solid resumes to reach title contention (unless you're Dan Hardy). If Guillard somehow loses to Joe, or Gil potentially loses his belt (I don't really know how he could) it all but eliminates any hope we have of him achieving title contention in the next two or so years, when in reality he should be fighting for the title next (if we didn't have something so idiotic as draws in title fights). This is the exact situation that we just saw for Rick Story- and now instead of having a fresh contender, we have another welterweight mired in the muck. The situation would be different if Rick had lost to Nate Marquardt, Guillard was matched up with Siver, or Melendez was brought in against Clay Guida- because these scenarios create immediate contenders and the person who loses the contest isn't necessarily hitting the career E-brake.
Both Melvin, Gilbert, and Jim Miller are ready for title fights at this stage in time, but because Frankie Edgar staged one of the most incredible comebacks we've seen in combat sport and there is such a dumb thing as a draw in a title fight we have had to wait for both of the combatants to nurse injuries just to rematch one another. The argument to this of course that all Story had or Guillard has to do is win his next fight to be granted a title shot, so let's start with the premise that anything can happen in MMA and derive a second absolute- if you lose a fight even after some career defining victory you are basically an Acela Train decelerating from 150 miles per hour to dead stop. All the momentum you built is gone the SECOND your opponent is announced the winner, unless it is a #1 contender matchup and ESPECIALLY when the person you're facing is ranked significantly lower than yourself. The UFC needs to step in and cash out on the fighters who are marketable in terms of both the sport and of strict marketability- athletes like Melvin Guillard and Gilbert Melendez. Melvin's story of redemption makes for one type of marketing and Gilbert's nationality as a contrast, but both possess the charisma to go along with selling pay-per-views, and the skills to be a great matchup against whoever should win the belt at UFC 136.
Super fights and crossover fights were the buzz of the fans at one point, and honestly who wouldn't wanted to have seen Alistair Overeem versus Brock Lesnar or Eddie Alvarez versus Gil Melendez? It's a rhetorical question, because the answer is either a. the "analysts" for ESPN's Pardon the Interruption, b. someone who doesn't have a soul, or c. someone who hates fun. 'D' is all the above, and is represented by Tony Kornheiser. The thing about these "super fights" is that they couldn't exist because the major organizations could not risk their bread and butter athletes against competitors because it exposes their brand to potential damage.
However, Zuffa is now in the fantastic position that they can put on these super fights because both rosters are under their sphere of influence. Nick was able to leverage his contractual allotment for boxing into a pilgrimage to the UFC, but unless Melendez has some unknown clause in his own contract we are all unaware of he may have to sit in limbo- fighting opponents simply for a paycheck and for a useless, glass-house belt. I don't want to take anything away from Jorge Masvidal or KJ Noons, but those are just not fighters we would see in the UFC vying for a potential shot at a top 3 lightweight. At 29, Melendez is 19-2 with both losses avenged and has a stout 5 fight win streak against some top ranked international competition. He is in the prime of his career, and should not be waiting a year between fights.
I think there are two main reasons that Gilbert might not be moving to the UFC anytime soon- first, his contract for Strikeforce was negotiated before Zuffa purchased the organization and he is making more at this point than Gray Maynard, at about 150,000 a fight. I'm not sure that his six figure contract isn't justified, though- like Nick Diaz's contract he doesn't carry a win bonus, and he is a defending and reigning champion. He's been in the sport for close to a decade and has proven himself against top competition (at least international competition). Second, will the remnants of Strikeforce and its relationship with Showtime be a barrier for the UFC absorb the contracts of Strikeforce's fighters? A lot of people brought up this point when Diaz vs. St-Pierre was being discussed but frankly I don't think anyone can impede Dana White when he has his mind made up. So of these two reasons, neither is really a high barrier towards Gil joining the market.
Melendez is actually in a position different from Nick Diaz, in that he is actually viewed as legitimate opposition to every top fighter at lightweight, regardless of promotion. Diaz is being given a title shot at welterweight because he's earned it, but is also being brought directly into that fight (foregoing the Jake Shields route of a tune-up fight) possibly because the UFC is worried that another top contender such as Jon Fitch could grind out a decision against Nick, thereby initiating the aforementioned second absolute of mixed martial arts. In this case, they didn't risk the visibility and marketability that Diaz brings to the table along with his win streak and capitalized on the availability factor to make a very fan-friendly fight that is definitely justifiable to all but the most cynical fans who are convinced Jon Fitch should fight GSP for the title three times a year (hyperbole). However, you'll be pressed to find a well-informed fan of MMA that wouldn't give Melendez a great chance against the current big 4 at lightweight (in the UFC)- Miller, Guillard, Edgar, and Maynard. He has fantastic wrestling, an unbelievable pace, a capable striking repertoire, and trains with three of the best jiu-jitsu players you'll find at 155 or 170.
So what exactly is keeping Gil in in Strikeforce? Is it possible that it's us? In our current blogosphere of the twitterverse, I think that fan interest has certainly proven itself to be a driving force for the UFC, and if enough people want Melendez in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, it will happen. And that's an exciting possibility- that enough voices can change the progression of a sport (even if you're Jon Fitch).
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