Gilbert Melendez Goes from the Purgatory of Strikeforce to the UFC Promised Land

Damon MartinContributor IApril 18, 2013

HOLLYWOOD - MARCH 17:  Strikeforce World Lightweight Champion Gilbert 'El Nino' Melendez  (L) and attend the CBS' Strikeforce MMA Fighters Open Media Workout on March 17, 2010 in Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Valerie Macon/Getty Images)
Valerie Macon/Getty Images

UFC on Fox 7 headliner Gilbert Melendez never got involved with MMA to become a millionaire or to see his name on billboards.

Melendez has only had one goal in his career, and that was to be the No. 1 fighter in the world.  He's come close to accomplishing that feat in the past with victories over champions from several organizations all over the world, but he never had the chance to face the champion from the biggest promotion in the business.

The UFC has always had the one champion Melendez could never get his hands on because he's been in other promotions or fighting overseas.  He thought that all changed in October 2011 when UFC President Dana White announced (via that Melendez would be moving over to the Octagon from Strikeforce to compete in their lightweight division.

Unfortunately, contracts that were already in place from Strikeforce, with some blow back from Showtime (the broadcast partner of the promotion), kept Melendez from actually moving to the UFC at that time. 

The UFC then tried to persuade a top contender from their promotion to move over to Strikeforce to challenge Melendez, but even that effort failed.  Melendez points out that having that kind of reward dangled in front of him and then pulled away was a tough pill to swallow.

"You think you're going to be fighting a UFC guy and you're not.  You think you're going to be going to the UFC and you're not.  They switch up opponents.  You have to face a tough nemesis and you're not there mentally completely," Melendez told Bleacher Report.  "Then you're trying to get back on track and you get injured.  Since the injury and since the recovery, things have been back on track training wise. It was an odd year, a roller coaster ride, but it's alright.  It comes with the territory."

Instead of coming to the UFC, Melendez ended up facing Jorge Masvidal and then stared at a third fight with old rival Josh Thomson in a rubber match of their trilogy of showdowns.  Melendez won the battles, but seemed to lose the public relations war because as highly touted as he had been, most expected him to steamroll both fighters and make it look easy.  A shoulder injury subsided Melendez for the remainder of 2012, and even he admits motivation was tough to come by in those last few months competing for Strikeforce.

"The goal is always to be No. 1 in the world and I hit a brick wall," Melendez said.  "I had to re-evaluate things and focus on my business, and lost a little bit of the fire, lost a little bit of the motivation.  Those are all respectable opponents, but I just couldn't reach my goal fighting them or beating them.  It was great challenges, no disrespect to them, but you're trying to upgrade your stock.  They had everything to gain and I had everything to lose.

"It was safe to say maybe my motivation wasn't there the last year and a half."

The winds of fortune changed directions when Strikeforce folded earlier this year and Melendez, along with most of the roster, moved over to the UFC.  Melendez, however, is the only champion from the former San Jose-based promotion to get a title shot in his first fight with the UFC.  It reignited the flame for Melendez that was close to diminished for most of last year.

"It's excitement, but more it's a deep breath and you kind of just switch gears.  It was refreshing to get that message, that I'm finally going to be fighting in the Octagon.  I'm excited to unleash the beast," Melendez said.  "It's been hard.  I feel like I'm ready to send that message.  I think that a lot of people think that I am overrated, and I hope they are judging me from my last fights.  I hope Benson (Henderson) is as well, but I'm definitely going to be a different man.  I'm saying it here but more so I'm excited to show it."

Melendez doesn't mind pointing out that for every fight he's had over the last few years, he's always had an eye on whoever happened to be the UFC champion.  From B.J. Penn to Frankie Edgar and now to Henderson, it's never been about whom the champion happened to be—only that he wanted to wrestle the gold away from them.

Like all of the Strikeforce fighters coming to the UFC, Melendez knows he has a little something extra to prove against Henderson.  There is a perception that exists that if a fighter isn't winning in the UFC it doesn't mean as much.

Melendez wants to prove that theory wrong by coming in for his debut fight inside the Octagon and walking out as the best 155-pound fighter on the planet.

"I've been envisioning this moment for a long time," Melendez stated.  "I've been ready for this moment for a long time.  There's been some hiccups here, there's been some hurdles, but I've been ready for this.  The last four years I've been waiting to get this opportunity and I've tried to stay ready.  I've lost motivation, I've been up and down, but I've been ready for the last three or four years solid.  I'm ready to show everybody what's up.

"Nothing really matters until I prove everybody wrong and win.  Nothing really matters until April 20. All the talk is going to be finished there."

Melendez hopes to add the most important title he's ever sought to his resume when he faces Henderson in the main event at UFC on Fox 7 this Saturday night from the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif.

Damon Martin is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and all quotes were obtained first hand unless otherwise noted.