For years, there has been a quiet storm brewing outside of the UFC, and his name is Gilbert Melendez. The Strikeforce lightweight champion has scrapped his way to the top of the heap on the strength of an impressive seven-fight win streak which has earned him the recognition of being one of the world's best 155-pound fighters.
Aside from the challenges he's battled inside the cage, the current dilemma facing "El Nino" is his situation with the organization he's championed for the past three years. Over this time, Melendez has dealt with the frustration of not facing the caliber of opponent that would keep him in the conversation of who is truly the world's best lightweight.
It is a situation he has handled with class, but with Strikeforce's demise all but a certainty at this point, the 30-year-old California native has begun to address the obstacles waiting for him on the road ahead. If Melendez has his way, the next fight will be the biggest of his career, and his focus is locked on one man in particular.
"I want to fight Benson Henderson," Melendez told Bleacher Report. "I think a champion versus champion fight makes absolute sense right now. I think we already know how things are going to work out between Benson Henderson and a lot of other lightweight fighters in the UFC, but I'm that mystery fighter. No one really knows how I'm going to matchup with anyone. I have been around for a long time and have been the top lightweight in the world before Benson or any of these other guys.
"I think I have a lot of answers for his style. Sometimes he fights a wrestler like Guida who doesn't have great hands, and sometimes he fights strikers who can't really wrestle. Look at his fights against "Cowboy" Cerrone back in the day, or even Pettis. I have that wrestling pedigree where he ain't taking me down, and I'll be stuffing some shots. I'm not backing away, and I'll be dropping some bombs. I'm not an easy guy to stand with. I have a lot of power, and I'm not running away from kicks. I don't run away from anything. I hold my ground. I'll be coming for him, and anything he dishes out I'll be answering back twice as hard.
"I think everyone would be really excited for this matchup, and I guarantee it would be a great fight. We can do it in the Octagon or the Strikeforce cage—it doesn't matter to me. Henderson is the fight I want, and let's make it happen."
The idea of Melendez facing a UFC champion has lingered for quite some time, but the intensity ramped up this past weekend in Seattle. Following Henderson's dominant victory over Melendez's friend and training partner Nate Diaz, the topic of a potential champion vs. champion bout began to swirl around the press conference.
Despite falling short on his own title shot, it was Diaz who let Henderson know that sooner or later Melendez would be coming for his belt.
"It was awesome to hear what Nate said, and he wasn't bullsh**** about it either," Melendez said. "He was genuine For those who didn't believe it, he gave a funny little smirk, and that made me laugh. It's the truth, and it means a lot coming from a cool guy like Nate.
"It feels good to be in the conversation. It feels good to hear the media and respectable journalists who really take a genuine interest in the sport mentioning my name in that situation. It means a lot to me. Benson made his reply that he would fight whomever the UFC wanted him to fight, but I think this fight is what the people want. I think I'm the opponent people want to see face him next."
While the situation between Strikeforce, Showtime and the UFC remains unclear, Melendez has felt the fires of motivation return. With the recent announcement of Strikeforce women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey crossing over into the UFC, Melendez is hoping he will receive similar treatment. This was also a topic the younger Diaz addressed in the post-fight press conference in Seattle for UFC on Fox 5.
"I agree, and Nate said it about as classy as it could possibly be said," Melendez said. "They gave Ronda the title, all kinds of respect, and I feel I deserve just as much respect as she's getting. I think I've done a lot in this sport. I hold the Strikeforce title, and I feel it's a respectable one. They have always said it is the equivalent to the UFC belt, and hopefully I get the same respect.
"The fire has been lit, and it was lit a few weeks back. When you start feeling the vibes and hearing the word get out about the things happening with Ronda Rousey, you start getting excited. I'm not saying anything is done in that regard, but it doesn't stop me from getting fired up about the possibility. You get excited you are going to face big names and the possibility of big matchups. It will give me the chance to really prove something to people in this sport. That fire has definitely been lit, and it would be a real bummer if things didn't work out like I hope they do.
"These things play a lot on your motivation, and if everything works out, then it will be great. The fire has been lit because it's becoming a possibility, and I'm seeing the difference in everything I do. I'm running harder because I know it's there. It's true I wasn't super motivated for my past few fights, and it showed out there in the cage. I wasn't happy with my performance, but I was happy I got the "W." When things are handled a certain way, you get a certain performance. When the opportunity is right—you'll get the best I have to give."
For years, Melendez has struggled with the stark reality of having title defenses of the high risk/low reward variety. Should a crossover into the UFC come to pass, Melendez is excited by the thought of entering the ultra-competitive UFC lightweight ranks. The 155-pound weight class is one of the organization's premiere divisions, and in addition to Henderson, Melendez has his eye on a few other fights he respects and would love to mix it up with.
"If everything works out, it is going to be a really exciting," Melendez said. "I see all the toughest guys and a lot of tough tests. I actually think Cowboy Cerrone is going to beat Pettis. I've been watching him for a while, and I think he's a guy who is really tough. Gray Maynard is another amazing guy I would love to fight. I'm also impressed with Benson Henderson, and those are some of the guys on my radar in the UFC. I think they would all be great matchups and give me the chance to prove that I'm the best. It's exciting to think about it, and I'm getting jazzed just talking about it now."
For the moment, all Melendez can do is wait. The biggest difference this time around is that he has a sense that something greater is looming around the corner. The only thing he's ever wanted is the chance to prove he is the best lightweight in the world, and if everything works the way he hopes, Melendez will get the opportunity to prove to the world what he's been saying all along.
"This is seeming more possible every day and feeling like it could really happen," Melendez said about his potential transition into the UFC. "With that on my mind, the fire is light, and I'm ready. I should be medically cleared in the middle of next week. After I see the doctor, that should give me that five- to six-week marker. I have been doing a lot of drilling, technique and running. You can't help but get out there and do things. I've been staying busy, working on a lot of my strategy and tactics. I'll pick it up a lot more once I get cleared. But you could definitely say I'm prepped.
"The timing is right for this fight," he added in regard to a potential bout with Henderson. "I'll be healthy by the time he would be ready to go, and it just makes sense. That is the fight I want. I really want to test myself, and I really want to find out if I'm the best. If Henderson really wants to find out, this is the fight for him to really prove he is the No. 1 lightweight fighter in the world. I say let's do it."
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