Gilbert Melendez possesses many incredible attributes that combine to make him one of the very best 155-pound fighters in the world, but underneath his visible talents, a rock-solid resolve exists…one that resonates at a level few ever experience. With a mixture of pure heart, pride in his heritage and natural toughness, “El Nino” has proven to be a difficult man to move when the proverbial chips are on the table, as he’s stepped up time and time again when the stakes were at their highest.
Yet, while the former long-reigning Strikeforce champion’s career has been filled with memorable moments, praise and accolades, Melendez is not the type to take his eyes off the road ahead and get caught staring in the rear view at past accomplishments. Much like his signature fighting style once the scrap goes live, the Bay Area representative approaches everything he takes on moving forward with his chin tucked and his hands ready to fly. That’s the way the “Skrap Pack” leader handles business and there’s never been a moment where his ability to remain focused on the task at hand has been more crucial than the here and now.
It’s been more than a year since he put on one of the most impressive performances of his career when he battered Diego Sanchez at UFC 166 to earn a shot at Anthony Pettis and the UFC lightweight title. And while the layoff was easily one of the longest of his career, it’s been a complex situation for Melendez to experience. He’s remained as busy as he’s ever been outside of the cage, fulfilling all the obligations that come with being a coach on the 20th domestic installment of The Ultimate Fighter, while having to measure his preparation for the biggest fight of his career inside the Octagon at UFC 181 on December 6.
In normal scenarios, a fighter travels a handful of months between signing a bout agreement and fight night, but Melendez knew going in that this particular situation was going to be a different type of animal. Nevertheless, it would ultimately produce his second opportunity to win the UFC’s 155-pound strap, and he’s determined to not allow his chance to claim championship gold slip through his fingers this time around.
And this is where his resolve comes into play. Where most things in the hectic-paced MMA world move at break neck speed, Melendez was going to have to bring everything along at a measured pace and speed in order to be at his best when fight night came around, and that’s precisely what he’s done. Simply put: the resilient title challenger has been patiently waiting for his moment to arrive, and when the bright lights hit on Saturday night, and the stakes are once again at their highest, the fighting pride of Santa Ana will be ready to rise to the challenge at hand.
“I’m in full warrior mentality right now,” Melendez said. “There is a little bit of everything. There’s some nerves, excitement, relief and my chance to prove to everyone that I’m here. Also, there’s a big weight off of my shoulders because I don’t have to be conservative in this fight. I felt I was conservative in that first title fight with Benson [Henderson], but I got a great contract, a great deal and this is my chance to just go out there and go for it. Roll the dice and put it all on the line. I can do that in this fight.
“If my hand is raised at the end of the fight - and it will be raised - it will be the completion of a long journey. It will be a huge milestone for me to become UFC champion and a moment of complete joy because it’s a goal I’ve been chasing for a long time.”
In addition to the spotlight being on the lightweight title, there will be additional emphasis on the stylistic matchup between champion and challenger. Pettis is known for having one of the flashiest presentations in the sport, and he has the ability to present danger from any position inside the cage. The Milwaukee native has also proven to be an incredible improviser and that makes his style a free-flowing threat that has enabled the Duke Roufus-trained fighter to end his opponent’s night in abrupt and violent fashion.
On the flip side of the equation, Melendez has proven to be an extremely well-rounded mixed martial artist. But when put in comparison to the fashion in which Pettis fights, the gritty former champion operates at the opposite end of the spectrum. The San Francisco-based fighter brings a full-throttle grind to the Octagon and uses a mixture of boxing, wrestling and forward pressure to get the job done.
That said, Pettis has been outspoken in the lead up to the fight and discredited the skills Melendez possesses by tagging with words like “basic” and “beginner.” Melendez has never been one to get caught up in the war of words in the pre-fight build up and has no problem showing the current champion just how apt his skill set is on fight night.
“He has his opinions about me and has been telling everyone I’m a mediocre boxer and a mediocre wrestler,” Melendez said. “But I think I’m an extraordinary mixed martial artist. I mix everything up well and my skills become better when I work them all together. So I’m not a national champion or an Olympian in wrestling, but my wrestling pedigree in MMA is among the best there is because I know how to mix it with my striking.
“I think he’s a complete mixed martial artist. He fights off his back very well and has a great guard. It’s a very active guard where he’s shooting up triangles and armbars. He’s very active from his back. He’s also very rangy on the feet and very athletic with his striking. I think he has decent wrestling as well and he’s an all-around great fighter. We are both great MMA fighters, but almost exact opposites. This is a clash of two completely different styles and a recipe for a great matchup.”
While Pettis has been on an incredible streak where he’s made quick work out of a collection of the world’s best lightweights, Melendez has never been like other fighters. Although he’s kept famous company with the likes of the Diaz brothers and his close friend and mentor Jake Shields, the former Strikeforce 155-pound king has never been afraid to stand on his own two feet and hold his ground. He’s a man who is built for the fray and has spent the better part of the past decade proving his worth inside the cage, and every step of that journey has led to this moment on Saturday night.
It will be the biggest fight of his career and Melendez will step into the Octagon at UFC 181 with an unshakable resolve. That’s a trait most fighters will never know, but one Melendez has had pulsing through his veins for as long as he can remember.