Perception Not Reality for ‘El Nino’

By Jason Probst Apr 4, 2011
Gilbert Melendez is a rarity -- a Top 5 fighter who has never competed in the UFC. | Dave Mandel/

If a fine line between being technically sound and fan-friendly exists, Gilbert Melendez has walked it with unerring consistency.

The Strikeforce lightweight champion fights one way -- all-out -- and wears down opponents simply through the frenetic procession of his attack. “El Nino” can string together a feint, strikes, clinch and takedown attempt in a dizzying sequence, and in a five-round fight, he has shown top-notch conditioning.

Melendez will defend his title in a rematch against Tatsuya Kawajiri in the Strikeforce “Diaz vs. Daley” co-main event on Saturday at the Valley View Casino Center in San Diego. He figures his opponent will have improved some off their first encounter in 2006, which ended in a unanimous decision victory for Melendez.

In wake of the UFC’s acquisition of Strikeforce, Melendez seems excited to ultimately get a chance to dance with the game’s top lightweights, opponents the world’s No. 2-ranked 155-pounder has been unable to face because of promotional walls. Those figure to be knocked down in the months and years ahead.

In short, the fighting life of Gilbert Melendez has never looked better, given the opportunities at hand. After a long process of looking outside, he appears ready to bust down the door now that he has gotten to the biggest party in town.

It starts with Kawajiri.

“I think Kawajiri’s maintained. He’s strong, and I think he’s gonna try and use that on me,” Melendez says. “But I believe we’re in a little bit of a different situation. I’m a completely different fighter than I was three or four years ago. I don’t think he’s evolved as much as I have. I know he’ll want to put me on my back, mount me, and he’s strong in the clinch.”

Both have decisioned Josh Thomson in recent outings -- Melendez in December 2009, Kawajiri in his last fight on New Year’s Eve. Melendez sensed a potential weakness.

“He looked gassed a little bit in that Thomson fight,” Melendez says. “He had to get takedowns and didn’t look like he wanted to fight on the feet as much. It’s definitely not an easy task for me. Kawajiri is definitely a Top 7 [lightweight]. He’s been around for the long time.”

Tatsuya "Crusher" Kawajiri file photo

Kawajiri stands in Melendez’s way.
“El Nino” is a rarity -- a Top 5 fighter who has never competed in the UFC. As of Sherdog’s March rankings, in the five divisions from heavyweight to lightweight, Melendez is one of four of the 25 fighters ranked in the Top 5 of those weight classes that has never fought in the UFC -- the others are Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, Shinya Aoki and Eddie Alvarez.

It chafes a guy in his elevated position, to say the least, being universally respected among fight insiders and hardcore fans, yet being virtually dismissed by the general public. The UFC’s purchase of Strikeforce can change that.

The news hit Melendez on a visceral level. Now, finally, he would be given the chance to lock horns with the considerable talent in the sport’s deepest division, most of it residing in the UFC.

“To be honest, I sat back and laughed a little bit. It’s funny, because I was renegotiating with Strikeforce and designed a deal with them,” he says. “My other option was to sit out and go with the UFC. I was happy with Strikeforce and wanted them to show they
were really serious, so I was happy with my decision.

“One of the things I was sad about was it’s hard to brand, market and get respect for yourself in Strikeforce,” he adds. “Now, I think I’m going to get the best of both worlds and have the marketing machine of Zuffa behind me. And I look forward to the bonuses. I feel like I’ve been a pretty well-kept secret to MMA fans. I’m not saying I’m gonna walk in and be champ, but I think I can get ‘Fight of the Night.’ I want to put on a show.”

It will also change the never-fought-in-the-UFC perception pervasive among fans that have never heard of any other promotion, yet wear that ignorance as a badge of authority when assessing fighters.

“[Non-UFC fighters] seem to get respect from journalists and peers, but it’s a little frustrating with the common person -- Joe Schmoe at bars,” says Melendez, who will carry a four-fight winning streak into the cage against Kawajiri. “The guy says, ‘Do you fight in the UFC? You’re No. 2 in the world? In the amateurs, right?’ Now I get a chance to prove myself.”

Melendez is one of the game’s best lightweights today, but when he decided to turn pro in 2002, Cesar Gracie treated him like every other wanna-be tough guy, throwing him in with experienced vets like Jake Shields and Nick Ertl for his first workouts.

“I met him through Jake, as they were wrestling on the same team,” says Gracie, who, along with Melendez and Shields, also trains Nick Diaz and Nate Diaz. “Jake got him into a little bit of jiu-jitsu and brought him to my place when I was teaching in San Francisco. No matter how many times you tapped him out, he’d come back for more. He just got tougher. He gets in there and puts it all on the line and tries to finish people.”

In the deep UFC lightweight division, where Melendez will ultimately compete as Strikeforce is folded into the larger promotion, Gracie knows his charge will be put to the test. It is something with which he is comfortable.

“It’s just probably who wants it more,” Gracie says, assessing the lightweight pecking order. “All the guys work really hard. Gilbert is 27 and has youth on his side, but he’s such a veteran.”

...I look forward to
the bonuses. I feel
like I’ve been a
pretty well-kept
secret to MMA fans.

-- Melendez on "the purchase."

Melendez recalls those early days of learning amidst Gracie’s then-emerging bunch, which to this day has a reputation for hard-nosed training sessions, heavy blows and no hard feelings attached. It was -- and is -- strictly business. It is a big reason why Shields, the Diaz brothers and Melendez carry that instinctive spark when pushed to the wall and are exceptionally tough.

“I was able to take down [Nick], but he armbarred me several times. It was a lot of desperation and anxiety. Being one-dimensional, able to wrestle, it had worked in the street,” says Melendez, who has never been finished in 20 professional appearances. “Jake just busted me up and tapped me out.”

There were also sessions with David Terrell and Gil Castillo, then top professionals who made no distinction between fighting the best of their day and thumping a newcomer willing to supply fresh meat for a training session.

“It’s pretty ruthless. I’ve seen guys get knocked out and dragged out of the cage. It’s the old-school mentality. Back then, it was let’s just get in there and do it,” Melendez says. “Training has become more structured, but we still keep some of the old-school ways. You’ve got to be able to take that beating and keep coming.”

Now that the biggest door is finally opening, Melendez plans on doing just that.

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