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Gilbert Melendez - The Future Begins With a Face from The Past

Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert MelendezGilbert Melendez isn’t exaggerating when he calls Nate Diaz’ win over Jim Miller on May 5th the “most important night” of his friend’s life. It was a network televised win against a legit contender that thrust the Stocktonite into a UFC title fight, and sitting back home in Northern California, Melendez, the Strikeforce lightweight champion, couldn’t have been prouder of his longtime training partner.

But as soon as the fight ended, Diaz, speaking to the world, didn’t heap praise on himself; instead, he told anyone listening about Melendez and his place in the 155-pound pecking order. It was a selfless act from Diaz, and an unforgettable one for “El Nino.”

“We are one hundred percent family, and I was touched,” said Melendez. “There are no words for me to explain what he did. It was the most important night of his life and he shared the spotlight with me and the rest of our team, and me especially. It feels really good and I’m proud of him as well. We go through this together a lot and he knows the road I’m on and I know the road he’s on, and we’re only as good as our last fight, so it’s a rollercoaster, but it feels really good.”

Melendez pauses, then continues.

“He didn’t have to do that at all.”

But Diaz did do it, adding to the chorus of voices proclaiming Melendez as an elite lightweight in one of the sport’s most competitive divisions. It’s recognition that the Santa Ana native is appreciative of, even if he had to watch as the furor over a rumored move to the UFC died down.

“As a fighter and from my peers and the media who are educated in the sport, I’ve done a lot,” he said. “I’ve been ranked pound for pound, I’ve avenged losses, I’ve done some great things, and I can live with myself with that.”

He’s been unbeaten for over three years, has had two reigns as Strikeforce’s lightweight champion, and wins over the likes of his Saturday opponent Josh Thomson, Shinya Aoki, Clay Guida, Tatsuya Kawajiri, Rumina Sato, and Jorge Masvidal, speak for themselves. Consider that he has avenged the only two losses of his 20-2 career (to Thomson and Mitsuhiro Ishida) as well, and you can understand why fans and pundits salivated at the idea of Melendez crossing over like another training partner of his, Nick Diaz, as well as recent UFC signees Alistair Overeem, Fabricio Werdum, and Lavar Johnson.

Those rumored plans were put on hold though, and the 30-year old Melendez has moved on, ready to continue his reign in Strikeforce by being even more dominant in the cage.

“I had to redo my goals,” he said. “Right now my goal is to represent my team well, make a living for my family, to continue to become a better mixed martial artist, and I want to take some risks out there and not just win. I want to go out there and perform and have some fun. I’ve been having a lot more fun in my training, and that doesn’t mean I’m not training hard; it just means I’m trying new things, I’m being more aggressive, and that’s my way to stay motivated.”

And if he needed any more of a push, he’s got it in the form of fellow Northern Californian Thomson, a respected rival looking to regain the title he lost to Melendez in 2009. Both of their bouts (Thomson won the first meeting in 2008) were heated five round battles, and after 10 rounds in the cage together, Melendez has a pretty good idea of what “The Punk” is bringing to the HP Pavilion in San Jose this weekend.

“I feel like I do,” he said. “I know what he’s got and I’ve been through that with him. We’ve been through two five round battles, and I feel like I do know him very well. You build a relationship because you respect the guy as well, but more so than anything, I know what he has and the main things I did take from that is I know he has a lot of heart, he has great conditioning, and he’s tough.”

Melendez-Thomson III also has the potential to do one of two things. It can either show Melendez off as a dominant champion getting better by the day, or if Thomson wins or has a stellar performance in a close fight, it can be the ray of hope for other 155-pounders in the organization that the division isn’t all Melendez all the time. That’s a lot for the 10-year pro to have on his plate, but he’s dealing with it well while also looking forward to possible defenses against contenders like Pat Healy or Gesias Cavalcante.

“Obviously I anticipate a tough Josh Thomson, but I always look forward,” he admits.

So what’s the plan for the future?

“The plan is to win.”

That begins on Saturday, and like every fight for Melendez these days, no matter the venue, he has to win to keep everything he’s worked so hard for intact. So if Thomson’s expecting to see the same fighter he fought twice before, “El Nino” has a surprise for him.

“I think the difference between me and Josh is he thinks he knows me like he knew me in 2009, and I see him and I feel like he hasn’t evolved,” said Melendez. “He’s always tough, he’s always in shape, but the difference between me and him now is that I’ve been working my butt off day in and day out to become a better striker, wrestler, and mixed martial artist, and I plan on showing that. And I want to be way more aggressive. This is part of my goal of having a good time in there. It’s not sitting back and just winning and fighting. I want to get in there and I want to throw those dogs and I want to do it intelligently and technically. I think it’s gonna be one of those fights where I force this guy to fight me.”