Many feel lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez has outgrown Strikeforce. | Photo: Sherdog.com
It did not take long for Gilbert Melendez to throw down the gauntlet.
Shortly after throttling Jorge Masvidal for five rounds to retain his Strikeforce lightweight title inside the Valley View Casino Center on Saturday in San Diego, “El Nino” made a passionate plea to no one in particular: “They need to bring some guys over here to challenge me. I’d like to challenge the champ, whoever it is in the UFC. Come to my hexagon, and let’s fight.”
Given the course of events over the past week, the term “they” could refer to a handful of people. It could mean UFC President Dana White, who, in October, said Melendez’s Octagon debut would arrive sooner rather than later. Then again, White had no trouble speaking on behalf of Melendez in the days leading up to his fight with Masvidal.
“Gilbert is pumped to stay in Strikeforce,” White said during a conference call announcing the promotion’s new deal with Showtime. “If he wins his next fight, he will continue to defend his belt in Strikeforce, and he is absolutely [expletive] excited about it.”
It sure seemed like Melendez was more pumped about the prospects of a potential title shot against the winner of the UFC 144 showdown between Frankie Edgar and Ben Henderson, calling a move to the promotion “inevitable.” In fairness, White has different needs now than he did in October, and they include filling six to eight Strikeforce cards with viable talent. Given the gradual depletion of the roster, Melendez could conceivably headline three or four events in 2012.
Perhaps the “they” was Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker. In the past, Melendez has lauded Coker for finding him tough opposition, pointing to bouts against Shinya Aoki and Tatsuya Kawajiri as proof. Coker, in turn, is effusive in his praise for the champion, consistently referring to him as the top 155-pound fighter in the world today. However, there is one problem with Coker finding worthy opponents in the current Strikeforce climate: he does not make the matches. Those duties fall upon Sean Shelby, who was the matchmaker for the WEC before it dissolved at the beginning of the year.
Ultimately, the recipient of Melendez’s request does not matter nearly as much as the action that follows it. Despite his status one of the world’s best lightweights, El Nino is not currently well-known outside of the sport’s most fervent followers. A decision over Masvidal, who was extremely competitive despite losing 50-45 on two scorecards, is not likely to bolster his status among casual fans. However erroneous the view might be, they will see Masvidal not as a well-rounded veteran of Strikeforce, Bellator Fighting Championships and Sengoku Raiden Championship but as a fighter who has never competed inside the Octagon.
Moving forward, Melendez will be hard-pressed to find as competent a challenger as “Gamebred” in the Strikeforce pool of lightweight contenders. In a post-fight interview with Showtime Sports, Melendez targeted K.J. Noons as a possible No. 1 contender. While Noons deserves credit for his spirited battles with Nick Diaz, he has lost two of his last three fights, including a dissection at the hands of Masvidal in June.
Caros Fodor looks like an intriguing opponent for Melendez -- several fights down the road -- and Pat Healy has been solid in fashioning a three-fight win streak, but nobody is clamoring to see him compete for the belt.
Most of the time, Melendez has said the all the right things regarding his status, but his post-fight statement on Saturday suggests the champion is acutely aware of the dearth of competition in his future. The California native’s suggestion of cross-promotion makes little sense when both Strikeforce and the UFC are Zuffa-controlled operations, however. There is no incentive for a top-flight UFC star to face Melendez in the hexagon at this point in time, especially when the promotion can add virtually any Strikeforce star at its leisure.
Co-promotion is much more interesting if the two organizations are not owned by the same company. In 2010, Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney floated the idea of a super fight between Melendez and then-Bellator lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez. Both Alvarez and current 155-pound Bellator king Michael Chandler remain attractive options for Melendez, but Zuffa’s ownership of Strikeforce makes either matchup highly unlikely.
Then, there are the lightweights outside of the Zuffa and Bellator realms. Some, like Aoki, have already fallen to Melendez. Others, like Brian Cobb, Antonio McKee, Jadamba Narantungalag, Mizuto Hirota and John Alessio do not have the clout to help the champion headline a card.
After he had calmed down from the initial excitement of his eighth career victory in a Strikeforce title bout, Melendez expressed confidence in the promotion’s ability to keep him suitably occupied.
“I have faith that Strikeforce and Showtime will bring me someone really tough to continue to prove myself in the sport,” he said.
It is the least they can do for a 29-year-old champion in the prime of his career. In reality, Melendez needs the UFC more than it needs him. His best years should be spent competing in the deepest division for the largest organization in the sport today, not scrounging for decent opponents. White says that Strikeforce is Melendez’s home for the foreseeable future, but he has changed his mind before. It would not hurt to do it again.