For the past five years, Gilbert Melendez has been on a mission to prove he is the best 155-pound fighter on the planet.
Over this stretch, the 31-year-old Californian put together an impressive run where he not only claimed the Strikeforce lightweight championship, but defended the strap on six consecutive occasions. That level of success and consistency made "El Nino" a staple in the race for the top spot in the lightweight ranks, but competing outside of the UFC made respect on a larger scale difficult to come by for the Skrap Pack leader.
Nevertheless, the San Jose-based promotion folded in January of this year, and Melendez was given a title shot against reigning UFC title holder Benson Henderson at UFC on Fox 7. It was the opportunity Melendez had been working towards and he stepped in to make his official Octagon debut with high stakes on the line.
Not only was there a coveted UFC title hanging in the balance, but the chance to prove once and for all who was the king of the lightweight division was at his finger tips. But after a gritty five-round battle between the two champions, Melendez came out on the short end of a split-decision in San Jose, and for the first time in seven fights, the Team Cesar Gracie fighter exited the cage without a title intact.
Yet, despite how the cageside judges scored the bout, the former No. 1 contender believes he proved a point at UFC on Fox 7 and he has used the experience to motivate his return to the grind.
"I think I am the best lightweight fighter in the world," Melendez told Bleacher Report. "I think that I made that goal and I think I've done that. I believe I showed that in my last fight. I think I proved that I am a better fighter than Benson. He's a tough matchup to fight and I feel like I did beat him that night. Maybe I lost on the judge's cards, but I know I won the fight. I held my ground and was ready to fight to the death right there and I don't think he was."
"That said, I'm revamping the goal now. I'm going after that lightweight title and I am going to continue to prove I'm the best lightweight fighter in the world. My goal now is to get that UFC strap. I don't care who has it. I'm coming for that UFC title."
While the loss and being pushed down the divisional ladder were difficult turns for Melendez to face, the former champion refused to hang his head in the aftermath. The outcome may not have been in his favor against Henderson, but Melendez has taken plenty of positives out of the tilt.
"I took a ton of positives away from that fight," Melendez said. "Yeah, not getting the win was tough. But you get over it and immediately regroup to start on the comeback trail. You look at what you have to do differently and you start thinking about the positives. And there were a bunch of positives. With that fight my brand went up. I won my last seven fights, had been undefeated for a solid streak, but then I have my first fight in the UFC and my brand still goes up 10 times more even with a loss.
"Competing in the UFC you also have to adapt to the size of the cage. Fighting inside the Strikeforce cage was completely different than the Octagon. The next time out, I'm going to have made those adjustments and my performance is only going to be that much stronger. People said it looked like I didn't have any nerves during that fight with Benson, but I'll be a lot more comfortable in my next fight for sure."
The first step for Melendez to get back on track will come later this year against former lightweight title challenger Diego Sanchez. While there is yet to be an official date set for the showdown, the UFC has targeted the bout for one of their upcoming events in October.
Following his victory over Takanori Gomi at UFC on Fuel TV 8, "The Dream" gave matchmaker Joe Silva a "wish list" of potential opponents for his next fight. Melendez was one of the names on that list and in short fashion, the lightweight scrap was put together.
"Be careful what you wish for as they always say," Melendez offered. "I think Diego is a warrior. He likes to go to war inside the cage, and whether he wins or loses, he loves to get in there and battle. His last fight wasn't quite that, but a war brings the best out of him, and I'm the kind of guy who loves a war as well. A good fight brings the best out of me. It's cool getting called out by Diego. I take it as a compliment and I'm happy to be on this level, but Diego is Diego."
With the battle with Sanchez set for later this year, Melendez can now begin the preparation for his next go inside the cage. Having a large amount of lead-in time is a welcome change for the El Nino Training Center owner and he believes the situation is a direct reflection of how the UFC operates their business.
While Melendez represented the Strikeforce banner proudly for many years, the manner in which business was conducted from fight to fight left much to be desired in the eyes of the former champion.
"It feels great to know I'm getting a great fight right away," Melendez said. "That wasn't always the case in the past, and with Diego, I get a big name and great fight. He was a pioneer in this MMA game and it's neat that the UFC is on top of it. They are a real business. I love Strikeforce, but these guys do their business so well.
"I'm getting proper notice for a fight and there is no juggling opponents. I feel like the UFC is giving me a lot of respect by doing things this way. I know not every fighter gets that kind of notice, but I appreciate they are letting me know what is coming ahead of time. It's great to feel that kind of respect from them.
"I have four months notice to prep for Diego. I've never had that before. I would get an eight-week notice and a switch of opponents. Or I would get a switch in venues or switch of dates. It's nice to have that kind of lead in. He's on my mind and now I can put all of my focus, both mental and physical, into preparing for that fight.
"I'm looking to get back to that title," Melendez added. "I believe if I make a statement in this fight, that opportunity is right there."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.