The Melendez-Thomson trilogy: Remembering Strikeforce's signature series

A look back by the participants at one of the greatest trilogies in Strikeforce and mixed martial art's history - Gilbert Melendez versus Josh Thomson.

During the Secret History of Strikeforce series (for the full series click here) readers may have noticed that there was only a brief mention of the Gilbert Melendez-Josh Thomson trilogy. A glaring ommission considering the fact that their meetings were not only so good that it was rated by Tim Burke as one of, if not the, best trilogy ever in mixed martial arts, but that they were in many ways the definitive rivalry of Strikeforce.

Both Thomson and Melendez have been referred to by Scott Coker as two of the four pillars upon which Strikeforce was built (the other being Frank Shamrock and Cung Le) They both fought on the very first Strikeforce show in San Jose, remaining with the promotion until the end. They each came from one of the two most successful camps in Strikeforce and Northern California: Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and American Kickboxing Academy.

They also held the promotion's record for most fights (13 held by Thomson) and wins (11 held by Melendez). Each and every one of the eleven lightweight title fights to be held in Strikeforce (including those for the interim title) involved at least one of their two names. Three times it involved both of them.

In addition, not only were Gilbert and Josh's three fights incredibly entertaining but each meeting also took place in a different era of the promotions life. The first one, held on June 27, 2008, took place shortly after Silicon Valley Sports and Entertainment formed a partnership with Scott Coker, while the promotion was still a live product centered on San Jose. Their second fight took place on December 19, 2009 and was aired on Showtime when Strikeforce was trying to expand into a national player. Their third and final fight took place under the banner of the Zuffa subsidiary Forza, when the promotion's days were numbered. Three different fights in three different periods of time, with the one common denominator being that all three contests were great.

The contests have only grown in importance since they originally took place. While at the time members of the media could write that while Melendez and Thomson produced an entertaining show they were "nowhere near as good as [UFC lightweight champion BJ] Penn" nor even as "good as [Diego] Sanchez." Such views have changed dramatically since then, as Dave Meltzer observed:

...what did happen over the past year, without any question, is the legacy of the Melendez/Josh Thomson lightweight era in Strikeforce was clearly established as being a lot stronger than it appeared to be when it was actually going on.

Before last year, [Thomson] may have believed he was as good as any lightweight fighters in the world, but it was only supposition, with no tangible evidence to prove it. The success of both Melendez and Thomson, both have gone into UFC and established they are championship level main event fighters, forces an assessment of both men's careers to be significantly more favorable than just being big fish who feasted on lesser competition.

Here then is the story of their rivalry as told by Josh Thomson and Gilbert Melendez themselves, along with the promoter, announcer, and the trainers that witnessed it firsthand.

JAVIER MENDEZ, head trainer and co-founder of American Kickboxing Academy:

Gilbert Melendez and Jake Shields use to come train with us all the time. Gil and Josh were really good friends. They hang out together and chat all the time. At the time Gilbert was the Bushido 145 champ and I told Scott you need to recruit this kid because this kid is the best. So he took my advice on that and went out and recruited him.

JOSH THOMSON, former Strikeforce lightweight champion:

Before our first fight he used to come down with Jake Shields and used to train with us [at AKA] for I would say about two years while he was fighting over in PRIDE. He was fighting over there and I had a fight over in PRIDE, and we thought we were going to eventual fight each other in PRIDE but then Strikeforce came and Scott [Coker] said "Look, my master plan is for you guys to eventually fight but I kind of want to build you up as stars first." So we basically jumped on Scott and said "Ok, we see your plan, lets make it work."

GILBERT MELENDEZ, former Strikeforce lightweight champion:

Scott might have had plans right from the start, but I was young and didn't pay attention to that stuff at the time, so I really don't know. But I did feel that [Strikeforce] liked me and wanted to work with me.

After [Josh] lost to Clay Guida, I was scheduled to fight Clay, and I went to [Josh's] gym with the understanding we weren't going to fight each other, so lets train together and help each other and try different thing. Maybe I was a little young and naïve, but it just was inevitable that we were going to fight.

CESAR GRACIE,  founder and owner of Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu:

[Gilbert] did some training with Josh and some guys were against it. Nate Diaz wasn't keen on Gilbert Melendez training with Josh Thomson, because at the end of the day he knew they'd end up fighting each other and look what happened. Josh fought both of them [Nate and Gilbert]. After that Gilbert never again trained over there.

And those guys [at AKA] were really smart about it. They filmed all the training, and studied it later, so their guys got better and better.  We were thinking it was helping them but what were you getting out of it. It was helping them but you might lose to them. And look what happened, he beat Gilbert and that was a hard lesson Gilbert learned.


I felt like I helped him, I felt that I showed him a little of my game and helped him get a little better, and sure enough he came back and beat me. That was definitively the last time we trained together after that...


When the fight came together we were the main event. The first fight never lives up to the hype of the second, but it's my favorite memory of Strikeforce. I destroyed him in the first fight. I picked him apart, which a lot of people didn't expect with me being the underdog, like four-to-one I think was the betting line. I came in ready for that fight. I had done a great job of training and preparing for it. So it's probably my best memory of my time in Strikeforce, when I won the title.

The San Jose Mercury covered the event and detailed some of the action.

The action exploded early in the second round, as Thomson landed some brutal knees while taking some vicious overhand rights to the face from Melendez. Thomson continued a barrage of powerful strikes and knees to Melendez's body, while Melendez continued to fight with his hands.

Both fighters traded straight-forward punches and body strikes for the majority of the third round.

Thomson continued to keep Melendez at a distance with a variety of left- and right-footed strikes to the stomach and ribs early in the fourth. By that time, the damage had been done. Melendez never backed down, but was too far behind on points.

Thomson would score the upset, capturing the Strikeforce lightweight title in the process.


I wasn't so much disappointed I lost, I was just disappointed to the fact I didn't perform to the best of my abilities and didn't take it as seriously as I should have. Although I did train hard, I felt like I could have been more professional about it, and it was definitely a turning point in my career where I said "Am I going to do this as a career and do it right, or am I going to just half-ass it and not do it, because it is not going to work out if you just half-ass it." So I decided to treat it as a profession and kind of reinvented myself. In the end I felt like [losing to Josh] was one of the best moments in my career.

A rematch was booked for Strikeforce's inaugural event on April 11, 2009, for their new Showtime deal, but the fight was called off when Thomson broke his leg during a sparring session. While Thomson was out Melendez would capture the interim title, setting up a unification bout at the end of 2009 in the HP Pavilion in San Jose.


I felt that it was a great fight for the local arena here and I thought it would be great television. I knew it would be a great fight, but the magnitude and how epic that fight become, I was shocked at the performance level of both those guys. That second fight - and the third fight - was just phenomenal.


The second fight was the most memorable fight. I felt like I was really prepared and had something to prove. He had pulled out on me twice before, so it was great to finally get in there with him, and I knew at that point I was as prepared as I could be and I said "If I lose this one I will be able to sleep just fine at night".


For the second fight, I was very well prepared, and I came out and fought a great fight for the crowd, and I came up losing. I think he almost shut me out like I shut him out the first fight.

The second fight would be chosen by many sites as the "Fight of the Year" for 2009. Bleacher Report provided a summary of the fight.

A no-doubt Fight of the Year candidate, both guys just unloaded on each other for 25 minutes, one in a more calculated approach while the other in a frenzied energetic burst approach. After a quiet first round, Melendez started pouring it on in Rounds 2-4 to take over the fight, winning a unanimous decision to become the undisputed Lightweight champ.

Michael Rome of Bloody Elbow at time reported

Fight of the year level atmosphere for an amazing fight. Crowd was going nuts, and for good reason.

After the fight, both Melendez and Thomson mentioned the possibility of a third fight as well as the toll their matches were taking on them.

Following their show-stealing slugfest Saturday night at "Strikeforce: Evolution," the general consensus seemed to be that a third installment was in store for the now-epic rivalry between Josh Thomson and Gilbert Melendez.

"There's going to be a third (fight)," the Santa Ana, CA native said. "I'm not looking foward to it."

Melendez may not find too many people who share that sentiment-aside from perhaps Thomson-as once again the two Bay Area-based fighters waged battle for five action-packed rounds. It was a fight that assured Strikeforce promoter Scott Coker that he has a built-in main event gem as long as these two are on his roster.

Thomson admitted to trying to have the fight of the night with Melendez.

"We had a plan," said Thomson. "We talked about it at the weigh-ins and said we planned to come out here and have the fight of the night, and I think we accomplished that. And from what I hear, we may even be a candidate for fight of the year."

"When you look at their first fight, I thought that was an amazing fight," Coker said. "And this was even more ferocious."


Every time I do an interview about it, I am like "You know what? After each fight we've probably knocked off about five years from off of each of our lives." And to be honest, after that second fight I had a hard time sleeping for a week and a half. I had lumps on my head that wouldn't go away, I had a couple of headaches for another two weeks. That was the first time I ever had taken some serious punishment in a fight. That hurt. For a couple days after I hurt.

Normally after a fight, the next day I am having breakfast with family, going to have lunch, going out to watch a movie, get out and about, but this was one of those fights for about a week I was laying in bed and felt exhausted for about two weeks after the fight.


It was definitely one of the toughest fights I have ever been in. He is definitely a tough competitor and we brought the best out of each other. It definitely took some time off of the career but it also made me stronger mentally and in my heart it made me feel like I am one of the top in the world, and I can really excel in this sport now that I treat it as a profession.


Watching that second fight and seeing Gilbert so determined to get his title back, I was very impressed with that.


My memory of the first fight was how disappointed I was when Gilbert lost that fight. But you know Gilbert bounced back and he actually became a lot better from that lost. He learned so much from losing and what he had to work on and he went back and had a dominating performance against Josh in their second fight and was able to regain the belt.

It was technically violent and Josh is a really good fighter and he's a tough guy to beat for sure. But Gilbert had worked on what he needed.

From training together, they know each other really well and it showed in their fights. They also brought out the best in each other and made each other better fighters.

It would be over two years until they were matched up again for the third time in what proved to be another classic as evidenced by Dave Doyle of MMAFighting's description of the action in the championship rounds:

Round 4: Melendez's right eye nearly closed as the round starts. Melendez measures Thomson and connects with a right hand. Thomson registers with a sharp straight left, followed by a head kick. Melendez goes for a double leg, picks up Thomson, and slams him. They get up and Melendez hits a standing elbow. Midway through, Melendez goes for a double leg but can't take Thomson down. Thomson drops Melendez and ends up in Melendez's guard. Gets Melendez's back as he tries to get up, gets a rear-naked choke. One minute left. Melendez breaks it but Thomson sinks it back in. 30 seconds left. Melendez breaks it a second time. Melendez gets to his feet, Thomson slams him, but still Thomson hangs on. Melendez survives. Tremendous sequence to finish the round. MMAFIghting scores the round for Thomson, 10-9 (39-37 Melendez overall).

Round 5: Biggest ovation from the crowd all night as round five starts. A "Gilbert" chant breaks out. Thomson looks confident. Melendez scores a takedown. Thomson back to his feet. Two minutes in. Thomson steps into a huge right that just misses Melendez. Melendez blocks a high kick. Thomson registers a flurry. Two minutes left. Thomson once again claims an eye poke. Brief break. Back to action. Hellacious flurry by Thomson, finished off with a knee. Crowd now chanting for Thomson. One minute left. Thomson with a takedown. Thirty seconds left. They finish with Thomson in Melendez's guard. Got a feeling this one will come down to how the judges scored a close round three. Big ovation from the crowd at the finish. MMAFighting scores the round for Thomson, 10-9 (48-47 Melendez overall).

Melendez would win the deciding match in the trilogy and retain the belt via a split decision judges decision. Each would also be the final fight for both of them within Strikeforce.


We were going to pull him out before the fight because Josh was having problems with his knee, but he kept telling us to wait and give him one more shot. "Lets wait and see what happens on the next sparring day." Josh didn't do too well in the first few rounds he was sparring but in the last round he looked fantastic so Crazy Bob and I said he looks ready to fight so we let him fight. And then god dang it it happened in that fight too he didn't get warmed up until the third round.

Had he not had his knee messed up who knows what would have happened? But you know no fighter goes in healthy, that's the way it is. Even then it was really close and we thought he won.

All three fights were great fights. They both had to dig deep every time. There was no easy fights for either one of them.


I said it numerous times on broadcasts during this period that Gilbert Melendez was the number one fighter in that weight class in the world, and those two had wars so it obviously showed they were two of the best.

Those fights are insane. To be ringside calling one of those fights is absolutely nuts.


If you look at any of the other trilogies, they weren't as good as ours. Not a chance. And the third fight it was a split decision. So, from a fan perspective you really couldn't ask for a better outcome. We actually left them with a trilogy where they wanted more.


I really believe [trilogy with Josh Thompson] is one of the best, if not the best, in history. I look at it as different stages of my career. It was a great fight and I am really happy that happened. Fighting him a third time wasn't something I was looking forward to but once it was all said and done, and I got the belt I got the W and fought really hard and it really worked out for me.

We just got lucky, we know each other so well. But we always put in 110% effort training and making sure that we lived his dream. And it worked out well for us both, we are both doing well and we made ourselves better over our careers.

SCOTT COKER, founder and former CEO of Strikeforce:

I loved those guys because they always brought it to the table. No matter who they fought, and as a promoter you really appreciate that. They brought it every time and put on an amazing show, every time they fought.

I want to see a fourth fight. How often do you say that? That you want to see a fourth fight? They could fight once a month and I would pay to watch it once a month.


If I take [the belt] from the Pettis and I get to meet Thomson for the title, I'm bringing out the Strikeforce belt. It would only be fitting for me to bring that to the cage and put that on the line again against Josh.


Hell yes that'd be great. Unless he's fighting one of my guys I always cheer for Gilbert, And him against Josh is a guaranteed barnburner so they should definitely do it. You me and everyone else would love that.

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