Saturday night will be a telling night for former Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert "El Nino" Melendez.
For years, El Nino has been touted as the best 155er in the world not fighting in the UFC, racking up wins against some of MMA's elite lightweights, such as Shinya Aoki, Jorge Masvidal and UFC veteran Clay Guida. Now that he's finally getting his chance inside the Octagon, debuting as a challenger to Benson Henderson's belt no less, Melendez will have to be on his A-game if he wants to live up to his hype.
Regardless of whether he takes the title or not, El Nino will need a vintage performance if he wants to cement his status as a top-10 fighter in the UFC's stacked lightweight division. If Henderson man-handles him or if Melendez just underperforms, his stock may quickly fall as other challengers emerge from the pack.
If Melendez is able to beat "Smooth," though, having the belt would catapult El Nino's stardom.
Like Henderson and former champ Frankie Edgar, Melendez has a great story, highlighted by his work ethic, that would make him an easily likable and marketable title holder should he come out of Saturday night's bout victorious.
This would be such a huge boost for Melendez's career and probably earn him an enormous paycheck, making the financial gains extremely apparent.
Beyond the personal benefits El Nino would see from taking the title, a win would also legitimize Team Cesar Gracie as a world-class camp.
For years, the "Scrap Pack"—Nick and Nate Diaz, Jake Shields and Melendez—has been racking up titles in all the top organizations...except the UFC. A loss by El Nino would make the team 0-4 in UFC title fights—not a great record for such a talented team.
Melendez has so much to gain from this bout, not just for himself, but for his teammates as well.