Gilbert Melendez Says He Never Wanted to Leave the UFC

Dustin FilloyFeatured ColumnistFebruary 25, 2014

Gilbert Melendez speaks at a news conference after losing to Benson Henderson in a UFC lightweight championship mixed martial arts fight in San Jose, Calif., Saturday, April 20, 2013. Henderson won by split decision to retain the championship. (AP Photo/Thomas Mendoza)
Thomas Mendoza/Associated Press

When the UFC pushed him into a corner, Gilbert Melendez took the most significant gamble of his career, a choice that ultimately paid major dividends for the 31-year-old former title challenger.

Melendez, who in the midst of a contract dispute with the UFC agreed to a deal with Bellator MMA earlier this month, accepted a handsome matching offer from the UFC on Sunday night.

Because of his brazen choice to improvise in the negotiation process, the UFC, fearing that it would lose one of its most talented and entertaining fighters, offered "El Nino" a deal that he couldn't refuse.

The agreement stipulated that Melendez will not only square off with lightweight champ Anthony Pettis in his next bout, but in the buildup to the fight he'll coach opposite "Showtime" on season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter, which begins filming in May.

Before the ink had even dried on his new UFC deal, Melendez explained to MMAJunkie's Ben Fowlkes why he made the risky decision to agree to a multi-fight contract with Bellator MMA.

It’s a tough thing to do, but I never wanted to walk away. I never wanted to leave the UFC. It’s the best organization in the world, has the best fighters in the world, it’s where I wanted to be, but I had to put that aside to think about my family and my future. I had to weigh it out and I had to explore my options. I got to a point where I had a good plan for my future, and I just had to hope that the UFC would come along with me so I could get to that point and still be with them.

The last Strikeforce lightweight champ, Melendez turned to Georges St-Pierre's manager, Rodolphe Beaulieu, when he couldn't come to terms on his own with UFC President Dana White

White eventually removed himself from the negotiation and allowed UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta, a more cool-headed businessman, to smooth things over with Melendez.

With Beaulieu's help, Melendez got what he wanted and more. Not surprisingly, though, Melendez remained humble and took little credit in the wake of his strategic gamble.

"I have a great team and I left most of it to them," Melendez told Fowlkes. "They’re a great management team. I voiced my opinion, and they helped me keep my emotions in check. When it comes to stuff like this, you have to take your emotions out of it and think of your family. It’s about more than just the title shot."

El Nino has tasted defeat just twice since 2008, a split-decision loss to Benson Henderson at UFC on Fox 7 and a unanimous-decision loss to Josh Thomson at Strikeforce: Melendez vs. Thomson. Both fights were lightweight title scraps.

Melendez is the UFC's second-ranked 155-pounder. Henderson is ranked first, and Thomson is ranked fourth.