As the UFC lightweight championship continues to change hands, with the latest man holding the belt being Eddie Alvarez, Gilbert Melendez watches closely, and not just because his last fight saw him lose a close split decision to the new king. Yet a rematch does have quite a bit of heat behind it should “El Nino” defeat Edson Barboza in this Saturday’s UFC on FOX co-main event in Chicago.
“Absolutely, we’ve got a very compelling storyline when I win this fight,” Melendez said. “Eddie and I had a very close fight, but if you looked at our faces after the fight, we know who took more damage and who landed the more devastating strikes. So it makes things interesting, and the whole division is very interesting, to be honest. The belt is changing hands constantly, and it’s hard to defend the throne.”
That’s why getting Melendez’ two cents on why a UFC title that has been held by one fighter for years in other divisions has been passed among several fighters at 155 pounds is important. In Melendez’ first reign as Strikeforce lightweight champion, he held the belt for two years. The second time around, he had it for three years.
“It’s different than boxing,” he explains. “In boxing, you can be the champ and you don’t have to necessarily fight the No. 1 contender. In our division in the UFC, you’re always forced to fight the number one contender and that makes it very difficult for anybody to hold the title in any weight class, unless you’re Demetrious Johnson. That guy is something special, but then again, his weight class isn’t nearly as deep as my weight class. We’re like boxing was when Oscar De La Hoya was there with Pernell Whitaker and all those great fighters in that weight class. It reminds me of that era when they had all that going on.”
One look at the lightweight top 15, and it’s clear that this is a golden age for a division that has always been tough, but Melendez’ motivations are different these days, as he returns from a one-year suspension after failing his post-fight drug test after the Alvarez bout. As far as he’s concerned, at 34, he has to prove himself all over again.
“I feel like things have changed and I reached some goals that I wanted and I think it did take a little hunger from me,” he admits. “Now I have new goals though, and with that comes motivation. My new goals are to redeem myself and to prove something to myself that I’m still relevant.”
It’s an odd thing to hear from one of the best 155-pound fighters of this era, but athletes find motivation in places most of us would never think of looking, especially once they’ve reached the pinnacle of the sport. For Melendez, becoming perhaps the best fighter to enter the Strikeforce cage was a quest built on hunger and practicality.
“To be honest, you’re young, you’re motivated and you have these goals,” he said. “Your goal is to be number one in the world, to own a house, to have a contract where you have some financial comfort. And these are the things that wake you up to train your butt off and prove to everyone that you belong and to fight for that next contract. I’d be looking at that contract and thinking, ‘I’ve got to win these next two fights so I can get more money.’ (Laughs) And that’s the reality of things, along with proving to the world that you are one of the best. You want that respect amongst your peers.”
He got the title, the money, and that respect. He became a husband and father, got his own gym, and became a respected television analyst. But after losses in three of his last four bouts, two of them in controversial fashion, he had to reevaluate. And if there was a silver lining to his year away, it was that he had the time to do it at his own pace.
“I did need the break,” Melendez said. “Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, you rested your body.’ But there was no rest on my body. I trained all the time and sharpened up the skills and improved some new techniques and created new transitions. But more importantly, it was a rest for my mind. I feel like I had a lot on my plate, I overwhelmed myself and that was just rest for my brain. I got to enjoy life a little bit, and now I’m back, and I got the mental rest I needed.”
Along the way, he also found what he was looking for.
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“I needed something to wake up to and look at myself in the mirror and get somewhat emotional about, something to drive me,” he said. “I’m a normal person, but I’m driven, and you need that adversity. You need something to bring the best out of you, and you have to find it. You’ve got to find the ‘Why am I doing this?’ And I have my ‘why’ right now and that’s to prove I’m relevant, to redeem myself and that’s to show that I’m all heart. I have something to prove.”