Fifteen minutes of hell.
That is what Gilbert Melendez planned to bring to Diego Sanchez when the two men squared off last Saturday night at UFC 166. With the hard-nosed mindset both men possessed, and each having a notorious love for the scrap, "El Nino" knew exactly what he was going to have to do in order to pick up the victory in Houston.
The biggest issue would come down to execution, and against a fighter who brings a unique brand of nonstop forward pressure like Sanchez, that is a tremendous challenge in itself. Nevertheless, the 31-year-old "Skrap Pack" leader was more than up for the challenge and met Sanchez's intensity with absolute ferocity at every turn.
When those elements are put inside a locked cage, it is a formula for magic. And that is precisely what transpired between Melendez and Sanchez at UFC 166.
In what is being heralded as the most entertaining three-round fight in UFC history, both fighters hunkered down in the line of fire and threw leather with terrible intentions. The former Strikeforce Lightweight Champion answered Sanchez's aggression with crisp counterpunching—punishing "The Dream" every time he charged forward. Despite a multitude of exciting exchanges that laced the first two rounds, Melendez was sitting comfortably ahead on the judge's scorecards going into the final frame.
"I've always felt pretty confident in the pocket but I worked extra hard on that for this fight," Melendez told Bleacher Report. "I knew a lot of this fight would be spent in the pocket and worked on finding the right range to land what I was throwing but still avoid getting hit. I feel I accomplished that against Diego. It took a lot of movement, sticking and slipping, but I was able to land hard shots where his were missing.
"I want to be mature in there, keep my composure and never allow anyone to break me physically or mentally. Trying to coax me into these exchanges and being so tough and not going down isn't going to affect me. I was able to stop him in his tracks plenty of times with nice right hands when he would try to get crazy.
"Diego would eat them, regroup and then try to get crazy again," the Santa Anna native added. "But I was able to stick him with my right hand over and over and they forced him to back off. It was something I prepared for. I knew it could happen in there and it did. I kept my composure and was able to handle it the right way."
With a comfortable lead in the fight, the former No. 1 contender could have found a way to slow down the action or ride out the momentum to victory on the cards, but that simply isn't the way the Team Cesar Gracie fighter is wired. Granted, tempering the Jackson's MMA fighter's attack would have been difficult, especially since he knew the only route to victory would have been to put Melendez away.
While the final five minutes of the tilt provided the most adversity for Melendez, it came as no surprise to the former title challenger. He knew full well what Sanchez was coming across the cage with in the final round, and after action-packed, rapid-fire exchanges, Melendez emerged with a unanimous decision victory.
"Going into the third round, I knew he was going to come at me," Melendez said. "I was fighting my game and it was working for me. I didn't feel like I needed to back down and he was open for me to land shots. That has always been my style. Yeah, I could have cruised around, but that's just how it goes. He called me out and I wasn't about to back down. I was totally down for it.
"I prepared for that. If it was the first time anyone had seen Diego or the first time I had fought him, that might have been discouraging. But there is fight tape out there and I do my homework. I watched his fight against Martin Kampmann. I watched his fight against Jake Ellenberger. I'd seen him take big punches then come back strong and fight that way until the finish. I prepared for that aspect of his game.
"I told everyone coming in I was going to experiment in this fight, take risks, try to finish and refuse to back down," he added. "It did get me dropped in there, though. That guy was rolling the dice and finally caught something. But I overcame adversity and bounced back up. I'm never going to run, man. I'm not going out like that. I'm always going to step up and fight."
In the moments after the judge's decision had been announced and his hand raised for the first time inside the Octagon, Melendez checked off an accomplishment that had been a long time in the making. Despite his five-year reign as the 155-pound strap holder in Strikeforce, finding victory for the first time under the UFC banner meant something different. Even more so, picking up that win after one of the most memorable bouts in UFC history gave the Bay Area resident plenty of reasons to hold his head high.
"It felt great to get that first UFC win," Melendez said. "I saw Joe Rogan in there to do the interview and I was in awe. I tried not to put that pressure on myself and think about getting my first UFC win, but in the moment when it happened it was special.
"My goals are far from being reached, but getting that under my belt was another big weight off my shoulders. The more weight that comes off my shoulders, the more it is going allow me to be free out there, and that is only going to allow me to perform that much better. It allows me to be the artist I know I can be when I'm out there fighting."
With his victory over Sanchez last weekend at UFC 166, Melendez has put himself on the doorstep for another shot at the 155-pound title, and it is ground he's happy to reclaim. Following the split-decision loss to Benson Henderson in his UFC debut at UFC on Fox 7 back in April, and the rise of Canadian T.J. Grant, the title picture became cloudy where Melendez was concerned.
That said, with Grant suffering an injury which has forced him to miss out on two championship opportunities, Melendez believes the timing is right for him to get another chance. Recently crowned champion Anthony Pettis and Josh Thomson are set to mix it up at UFC on Fox 9 in December, and Melendez wants to make his bid to get the winner of that tilt.
"At this moment right now, I want to campaign for that title shot," Melendez said. "I think I've earned it. I'm the uncrowned champ of the lightweight division. I believe I have what it takes to beat [Anthony] Pettis and I've proven I can beat Josh Thomson. I think me stepping in with whichever one of them walks out of their fight with the title would be good business for the UFC. I think people want to see it and I want that next shot."
While Melendez will have to wait for things to play out in the title picture, for the time being he can sit back and take comfort in a job well done against Sanchez. Fights of that caliber and magnitude are rare in combat sports, and where terms like "instant classic" and "war for the ages" have become somewhat cliched, there are certain instances like what transpired between Melendez and Sanchez, where lofty descriptions hardly seem to do it justice.
He knows he was a part of something special at UFC 166, but just a handful of days removed, he's admittedly uncertain if it has truly set in.
"It's gnarly hearing those things," Melendez said. "I don't think I realized after the fight exactly what I had been a part of. I heard Dana White say 'Holy sh**' a few times, but didn't truly realize the impact it had. I've been in a lot of wars, man. I've been in a lot of battles and done that before, but never on a platform like that with so many eyes watching.
"Now it's like if you didn't know that's how I fight, now you know. That's basically what it is. That is also the power of the UFC. What a platform, man. They are a marketing machine and if you get to display your skills here it's a great stage to show the world what you can do.
"I appreciate the experience, but I'm not sure it's really set in just how crazy it was," Melendez laughed in conclusion. "But if it somehow guarantees me a spot in the UFC Hall of Fame I'll definitely take it."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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