As Strikeforce lightweight champion, Gilbert Melendez has consistently found himself listed among the world’s best at 155 pounds.
While that type of recognition is clearly well-deserved, Melendez is not satisfied with his current status as the division’s second-ranked talent. On April 20, the Californian will attempt to prove that he has no equal at 155 pounds, when “El Nino” takes on UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson in the main event of UFC on Fox 7 at HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif.
Though Melendez will walk into the cage as Strikeforce’s final lightweight champion, the 30-year-old appears cognizant that his belt is now only a keepsake. It is Henderson’s title on the line, and Melendez readily admits that he must now play the role of challenger.
“Champion versus champion is a neat thing for me, but I feel like in this case that Benson is the champ, and I’m coming into a new organization,” Melendez said Wednesday during a media conference call. “I fought the Dream champ and the Shooto champ -- I’ve fought a lot of different champs under different rules, so this is a neat opportunity for me. I’m definitely prepared. For a long time, I’ve been trying to prove that I am No. 1, and this is my opportunity. I’m [going to try] to take advantage of it.”
This will not be the first time a member of the Cesar Gracie Fight Team tangles with Henderson, who outpointed Nate Diaz in his UFC on Fox 5 title defense back in December -- a performance which Melendez witnessed in person.
“Of course I would love to avenge my friend and represent for my team. I got to see firsthand what Benson is all about. I would love to get that [win] for myself and for my teammate,” said Melendez. “When your buddy is fighting, you can’t help but get a little emotional and a little passionate. If you can back your friend up, you will.”
Melendez represents just the latest of title contenders to come from the vaunted Cesar Gracie camp. Nick and Nate Diaz both challenged UFC champions in recent months, and Jake Shields took a crack at Georges St. Pierre in 2011. Years earlier, David Terrell and Gil Castillo tried to capture UFC gold three times between the two of them. In spite of the undeniable talent of the challengers, each attempt was unsuccessful, a fact that Melendez said has not added any extra pressure to his upcoming title try.
“I hope to win the title for my team, but I really try not to put too much pressure on myself. I just go out there to fight my fight,” said Melendez. “I think it’s a great accomplishment for my whole team to even get title fights. Not many teams can say that. If anything, it’s an accomplishment for our team, but I would like to be able bring that title back to the gym and share it with those guys.”