Gilbert Melendez will make his second pass at a UFC victory. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
Gilbert Melendez fancies himself the uncrowned king of the Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight division.
Six months after he failed to dethrone then-champion Benson Henderson in a controversial split decision, Melendez will toe the line against “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 1 winner Diego Sanchez in a 155-pound showcase at UFC 166 “Velasquez vs. Dos Santos 3” on Saturday at the Toyota Center in Houston. The man they call “El Nino” has no trouble finding motivation.
“I’m looking to make a statement here,” Melendez told Sherdog.com. “I’m looking to make my first uncrowned title defense. I think Diego’s a great fighter, but me being at my best, I think I can make a statement with a dominant performance.”
The contentious defeat to Henderson at UFC on Fox 7 in April spoiled Melendez’s promotional debut and halted his streak of seven straight victories. However, the 31-year-old Cesar Gracie protégé found a silver lining in the setback.
“I gained confidence in the fight, even though I lost,” Melendez said. “I know I can hang with the best.”
Sanchez will provide Melendez with another chance to test his mettle inside the Octagon. The mercurial Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts standout attempted to return to the lightweight division at UFC on Fuel TV 8 in March but failed to meet his contracted weight. He later settled for a split decision over former Pride Fighting Championships titleholder Takanori Gomi at a 158-pound catchweight. Sanchez, 31, has compiled a 13-5 mark since arriving in the UFC in April 2005, splitting his time between 150, 170 and 185 pounds.
“I think he’s a great fighter, honestly,” Melendez said. “He’s a pioneer in the sport, for sure, and he brings a lot of honor and heart and courage into the cage. That goes a long way in the sport. Ninety percent of it is that mental stuff. Everyone talks about it. If there’s anything he has, it’s that.”
Melendez has prepared himself for a drawn-out battle. The notoriously durable Sanchez has been finished only once -- a fifth-round cut ended his title bid against B.J. Penn at UFC 107 -- in 29 professional appearances. The most glaring difference between the two lightweights may be found in the standup.
“Technique-wise, he has something everywhere,” Melendez said. “He’s a good wrestler. He’s a great grappler. Not that he’s weak at striking, I think that’s just the least of his things. He’s a good MMA fighter. I think he’s good everywhere.”
One of the UFC’s most dependable entertainers, Sanchez has earned “Fight of the Night” honors five times in his last eight outings, earning $245,000 in bonus money in the process. Melendez, who has never suffered back-to-back losses, expects the unexpected.
“I see this fight going everywhere,” he said. “That being said, there will be openings in those areas. Being in great shape will allow me to do the things I think I can do. I think I’m a better technical fighter. The key is to be more technical. There’s going to be a lot of chaos in there, but I’ve still got to be more technical.”
If all goes according to plan, Daniel Cormier’s co-main event with Roy Nelson will mark his final appearance in the UFC’s heavyweight division. The American Kickboxing Academy export expects to downshift to 205 pounds, win or lose against Nelson.
“I’m already starting to work my way down a little bit,” Cormier said. “I’ve gotten lighter. I’ve got a new diet. When I decided to make the move, a lot of thought went into it.”
Cormier will become an instant person of interest when he touches down in the light heavyweight division, and he has already traded public barbs with reigning champion Jon Jones.
“I still intend to ask the UFC to fight for the belt,” he said. “If they say no, then OK, I’ll fight [someone else] at 205. There’s nothing wrong with asking, right? We’ve been told no in our lives. All they can do is say no. You never know what’s going to happen if you don’t ask.”
For now, Cormier’s attention remains fixed on Nelson.
“It’s all for nothing if I lose, and I can,” he said. “I’m not stupid. I know that Roy Nelson can beat me. I know Roy Nelson can knock me out. Roy Nelson can submit me. Roy Nelson can beat me by decision. There’s many ways for him to win this fight. My sole focus is on him. Everything else will go forward right after that. Right after this fight, I’ll be screaming the other guy’s name as much as I have before, but I’ve got to get through this one first. Otherwise, none of it matters.”
This & That
The Toyota Center opened in October 2003 at a cost of $235 million and is home to the NBA’s Houston Rockets ... According to FightMetric data, heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez has out-landed his last three opponents by a 157 to 59 count in terms of significant strikes ... More than half (12) of Gabriel Gonzaga’s 22 career bouts have ended inside one round ... Millennia MMA’s Darrell Montague is one of three men to have held the Tachi Palace Fights flyweight crown, along with Ulysses Gomez and Ian McCall ... Tim Boetsch hails from Lincolnville, Maine, a town of less than 2,500 people in the southern part of The Pine Tree State ... Australian lightweight George Sotiropoulos is one of only two fighters -- Mac Danzig is the other -- from Season 6 of “The Ultimate Fighter” still on the UFC roster ... American Top Team’s Hector Lombard has finished seven opponents in less than a minute ... When Jessica Eye was born on July 27, 1986, the top five movies at the domestic box office were “The Karate Kid Part II,” “Back to School,” “Legal Eagles,” “Ruthless People” and “Top Gun” ... T.J. Waldburger ranks second on the UFC’s all-time list in submission attempts per 15 minutes (6.36), trailing only Paul Sass ... Japanese prospect Kyoji Horiguchi became the youngest fighter ever to win the Shooto 132-pound title in March, when he struck gold at age 22 ... Team Alpha Male’s Andre Fili lists Batman as his hero ... When “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 13 winner Tony Ferguson climbs into the cage to face Mike Rio, 532 days will have passed since he last appeared inside the Octagon.