The Fighting Life: The Quiet Storm of Gilbert Melendez
Gilbert Melendez is the definition of quiet intensity.
In a profession filled with individuals who posture and boast about their toughness, or jaw themselves into self-constructed grudge matches, Melendez is simply a different type of animal. He doesn't use words or the ever-popular mean mug to represent his craft because the passion to scrap is coursing beneath the surface, always there at the ready, waiting to be tapped into when the moment arises.
In fact, it his "knowing" that allows the 31-year-old Santa Ana native to carry such a stoic confidence.
The Team Cesar Gracie fighter is fully aware of what he's capable of, just as much as he knows he's one of the best 155-pound fighters in the world. Melendez has been a champion multiple times in the past and recognizes the potential to become one again—this time on the biggest stage in MMA—is still on the horizon.
Yet, talking to the man, it is entirely possible those issues would never arise.
If bystanders are unaware of his accomplishments as a fighter or happen to miss the cauliflower ears he's earned from years in wrestling rooms, the laid-back sway that comes from a lifetime spent in northern California allows Melendez to relate to the same people he set out to entertain over a decade ago.
Yet, his easy nature outside of the cage is a stark contrast to the fighter he becomes when the time for ruckus draws near. When the cage door closes and the referee steps aside, the release of his quiet storm is signaled, and the unique mixture of aggression, savvy and natural toughness he possesses becomes a treacherous obstacle to overcome.
Of the 24 times "El Nino" has entered the live-fire environment of combat, there have only been three instances where his hand was not raised upon the fight's conclusion. The Skrap Pack leader was able to bounce back and best Mitsuhiro Ishida and current UFC title contender Josh Thomson in their rematches, but his most recent setback against then-lightweight champion Benson Henderson at UFC on Fox 9 in April, is a loss that still lingers and resonates in the back of his mind.
He nearly had the most coveted lightweight crown in MMA in his possession, but a razor-thin split-decision on the judge's scorecards forced him to endure a reality he hadn't faced in over six years. Not only had he lost his first fight since 2007, but exiting the cage in San Jose would mark the first time over this stretch he would have to do so without championship gold around his waist.
Coming up short in the biggest fight of his life would be enough to push most fighters off their pivot, but Melendez isn't most fighters. Rather than dwell on an opportunity missed and what might have been, Melendez ground the setback into usable fuel and hit the comeback trail with ferocity.
While his dream of becoming a UFC champion is still burning inside, Melendez is a realist through and through. He knows he will have to defeat at least one of his peers in the elite tier of the lightweight division to earn another shot at the 155-pound strap, and work of that variety is a challenge he is looking forward to.
With that in mind, the former No. 1 contender will not have to wait long. He will lock up with another former title challenger in Diego Sanchez on Oct. 19 at UFC 166. The showdown between the two hard-charging scrappers is one of the most highly-anticipated bouts on the lightweight docket, and Melendez believes he can take a thunderous step back toward the throne by defeating "The Dream" in definitive fashion.
Nevertheless, besting Sanchez is one thing, but doing it in impressive fashion is challenge of a different variety. Yet, Melendez believes he has what it takes to get the job done.
"I do believe an impressive win over Diego could earn me another title shot," Melendez told Bleacher Report. "But I also think he could come into this fight in the best shape of his life and it could be a battle.
"I take a deep breath when I say it, but I tell myself if we're looking sharp and looking as good as we can be, I think we can control and dominate this fight and really send a message. Then there are other parts of me that say this guy may come in better than ever because this is his opportunity to get back into the title race. That is why I make sure to keep my focus, be ready for that war and be ready to go out there and perform. I think if I come in ready I should win and do so in impressive fashion.
"At this point right now, I've become a better fighter, and I'm still on the mission to become champion," he added. "I'm still on the path but I'm trying to have a more focused mentality. I put in the hard work. I'm focused on the road ahead, and it's time for me to go out there and display my skills now. The title is definitely my goal and my vision, but I'm really proud right now of how I'm putting everything together. I'm making this transitions and I believe I'm becoming a different fighter right now and I can't wait to go experiment out there."
In addition to what is at stake in his matchup with Sanchez next month, another interesting angle surrounding the fight involves the location in which it will take place. UFC 166 is set to go down in Houston, a city with a large Latino population. With both Melendez and Sanchez being of Mexican heritage, the lightweight showdown promises to be a popular draw within the Latino demographic.
The UFC has made no secret about their intention to break into the Mexican market. With heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez headlining the card and Melendez versus Sanchez also on the pay-per-view portion, the promotion is putting the proper pieces in place to deliver an exciting product.
Any time the UFC pushes into a new market, the fighters at the front of those waves have the potential to become stars in a different variety. While that scenario can create pressure for those involved, it is the type of charge Melendez has been fighting to obtain for years. He would love to be an anchor for the UFC's push into Mexico and believes the heart and tenacity he displays inside the cage is exactly the brand of scrap the passionate combat sports fanbase in Mexico can get behind.
"I embrace that and I've been asking for this for a long time," Melendez said. "You always put more pressure on yourself because of it, but it's part of the game and I'm looking forward to it. It is fun to try to be the toughest Mexican in the MMA game. I'd love to be that guy. I know I have to keep working on my Spanish and I'm working on it more and more, but I fight like a Mexican. Everyone knows that and they embrace me for it and I love it.
"I'm ready for this, and the whole thing is whether you can back it up or not. I know I can back my sh** up. When you put a lot of pressure on yourself, you have to be prepared. The worst thing is feeling like you're not prepared and not feeling confident when so much weight is on your shoulders. You have to feel confident that you are going to be able to deliver and I've felt that way for the past five years of my career. I'm ready for whatever comes my way.
To better understand who Melendez is as a man, it's important to get a clear picture of who he is as a fighter. Typically, in combat sports, an athlete goes to great extents to keep those elements in their lives separate, but for Melendez, the parallel being drawn between the two has little to do with ability and everything to do with growth.
Complacency and the nudging of close friend Jake Shields prompted him to start down the path of becoming a mixed martial artist back in 2002. Now, 11 years and several championships later, the thrill of the moment perception of a 20-year-old kid has given way to the life of a family man who is sharpening his craft on a quest for greatness.
"It's been up and down," Melendez said in regard to his journey. "Initially, my mindset was to walk into this cage and test myself. That was my young, 20-year-old mentality. I just wanted to go in there and fight and see what I could do. I liked the idea of getting in a real fight but without getting in trouble or getting the cops involved, you know?
"The next thing you know, I'm getting fights that come with a free trip to Hawaii. I'll take a free trip to Hawaii and some rent money. It became like a vacation in my mind. Then my next vacation came with a trip to Japan and the opportunity to make $10,000 a fight. That's a lot of money for kid in his 20s. But after you have some success, you reach a point where you realize you can be really good at this and your commitment level changes. That was the point in my career where it happened for me and I started to envision bigger things that could come. But those were great times for sure.
"But at the beginning, when I won the WEC title, it was just something fun to do," Melendez said. "When I first won that I felt like I was maybe the toughest kid in California. Honestly, I had a lot of those same feelings the first time I won the Strikeforce title when I beat Clay Guida. Things changed when I started fighting on Showtime and defending the belt because I felt like I brought some prestige to the title."
While earning the recognition of being regarded as the best lightweight fighter in the world is high on his list, what is perhaps the most intense drive pulsing through Melendez is his mission to earn the level of respect he believes he's due.
He's spent the large majority of his career fighting outside of the UFC banner, and that was a condition that came with a stigma. Melendez may have been the best lightweight fighter in Strikeforce, but in the eyes of the fighting faithful, being a champion in the San Jose-based promotion created a "second class" perception that could never be toppled by fighting alone.
Those variables were altered when he made his long-awaited UFC debut at UFC on Fox 7. While he was no stranger to the atmosphere of a UFC event, the reality of the changes that were about to take place, exceeded every expectation he set.
"It was something I've always known, but to experience it, I know it's a different animal," Melendez said. "It's a marketing machine, and I know you have to give to get. I feel like I'm going to be able to give a lot and I'm going to embrace that. I can feel the branding difference even in a loss.
"I haven't lost in a long time, and, even with the loss, my brand went up as well as my recognition and my legitimacy just because I'm with this organization. It's great, and I'm enjoying it. I feel like they are already giving me opportunities, and it's great to be a part of the UFC. I feel like I'm certified in this sport because of it."
The hovering circumstance of success and the pressures created by a rising profile forced Melendez to grow in every aspect of his life. Where slinging leather and elbows for damage inside the cage kept his career moving forward, it wasn't going to be enough to navigate the unforgiving terrain of a rapidly moving sport.
Melendez realized he needed to increase his brand and visibility, but as a veteran of such a taxing trade, he was well-aware of the pitfalls that come from doing so without a calculated game plan in place. With that in mind, one of the biggest assets Melendez had in his corner came in the form of a tight-knit support system comprised of family and friends.
That element helped to keep him grounded and allowed him to continue his personal evolution. While it hasn't been a flawless process, Melendez has endured and thrived despite the chaos of having a profile on the rise in a sport that continues to grow at a rapid rate.
"I feel like I'm growing as a fighter and a man as well," Melendez said. "It is a lot to juggle, but it has helped me become a better fighter and handle everything in stride in my personal growth as well. It has helped my mentality as I mature in every aspect of my life, professional and personal.
"But it is a little difficult trying to mange this, doing what I'm doing, and having a family. You wish you could dedicate your entire life to training, but that's just not possible when you have a family. Growing as you go along and the maturity I've experienced in the process has definitely helped me improve my fighting skills and the mental aspect of my game as well.
"Fighting does define me because, if I perform there, it is because I'm performing in the other important aspects of my life. Also, the more success I have as a fighter, the more it is going to improve the other areas. It all connects and trickles down."
With his bout against Sanchez less than a month away, Melendez is putting the final pieces of the puzzle together. His fight against the TUF winner will be his first in seven years where there isn't a title on the line, but it will also mark the first time in that stretch where he will have to do his work inside of a 15-minute time limit.
This is a huge factor in Melendez's opinion because he knows the impact those circumstances will have on the pace of the fight. Both he and Sanchez are notorious for setting a furious pace, and Melendez is expecting an all-out war in Houston.
When it comes to grueling battles inside the cage, Melendez is no stranger. His trilogy with Josh Thomson was one of the most impressive series in MMA history as the two champions fought tooth and nail to determine lightweight supremacy under the Strikeforce banner.
While he doesn't necessarily subscribe to the notion Thomson is the toughest 155-pound fighter in the world, he certainly acknowledges how their respective styles and willingness to scrap brought the best out of one another.
"Every fighter will face an opponent that defines them or brings out the best of them at a certain point in their career," Melendez said. "In the case with Josh Thomson and I, everyone was waiting for that fight to happen, and it's great to have that opponent that brings the best out of you.
"MMA has so many dimensions. It's not just boxing, wrestling, or jiu-jitsu. You have to be able to beat your opponents with your particular style. But there is that one matchup where the guy is almost like your kryptonite. He can do the same things you can do but it's just a little bit different where it makes the fight competitive. It could be the hardest guy you ever fight in your life but may not be the toughest guy in the division.
"What happened between Jon Jones and Alex Gustafsson on Saturday night was some seriously undeniable magic out there. It was amazing to see Jones rise to the occasion and battle through adversity. I think even people who don't know what the sport is would be intrigued by that. When two fighters match up in that unique way, and bring the best out of one another, special things can happen."
To prepare for what Sanchez could bring to the table, the former Strikeforce champion has looked to his past for elements he can bring to his present game. Where Melendez has always displayed determination and toughness, those raw elements steadily take a back seat as his progression in the more technical aspects of his craft continues.
Nevertheless, it was that fire and love of the scrap that set him on the path to becoming what it is today. Rather than turn his back on what has fueled the journey thus far, Melendez has found away to harness those attributes and use them to elevate his abilities at this stage of his career.
"The toughness and that fire is definitely there," Melendez said. "It's almost something you keep trying to reach back into as you try to become this technical and perfect fighter because the beast is what brought you there. Trying to maintain both of them is difficult. You want to fight technical and with finesse at the same time as tap into that toughness, but it's a hard thing to do. I always try to go back to my younger years and try to keep some of that same mentality, but as time has gone on, it is difficult to summon the beast everyday for training.
"That being said, I do know how to summon that beast. I know how to peak out at the right time. I am passionate about this sport. I'm passionate about the way I perform and I will always come in prepared. The beast will always come out because of it."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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