When the final scorecards were revealed on Sunday in Gilbert Melendez’s arduous contract negotiation with the UFC, the results were a clear-cut unanimous-decision victory for the former Strikeforce lightweight champion.
It was a monumental upset that will arguably go down as the biggest win of Melendez’s MMA career.
It’s not every day that a lowly fighter takes up his slingshot against the world’s largest and most litigious MMA company and comes out on top. Perhaps we must now begin to regard Melendez not only as one of the 155-pound division’s best scrappers but one of its most accomplished negotiators as well.
When the smokescreen of his threat to decamp for Bellator finally cleared, Melendez appeared to get everything he wanted from the UFC, including what we can only assume were a boatload of concessions.
There were some fans who already believed Melendez should be the UFC lightweight champion, after he came out on the wrong end of another of Benson Henderson’s Harry Houdini escape acts in April, 2013.
Now at least he’ll be paid like it.
Melendez’s new deal could make him one of the sport’s best-compensated athletes. According to MMA Fighting.com’s Shaun Al-Shatti, the contract stipulates that 75 percent of the fighter's future bouts must be contested on pay-per-view and Melendez will receive “(PPV) income” regardless of his placement on an individual card.
Additionally, those kickbacks that he will be paid on PPV points will trigger at a lower minimum buyrate than “for any contract in UFC history.”
Oh yeah, and he’ll also star opposite Anthony Pettis as a coach on Season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter in advance of a 155-pound title fight between the two later this year.
If you’re scoring at home, that casts Melendez a world away from where he was just a month ago, when reports swirled via MMA Fighting that he’d turned down a fight against up-and-comer Khabib Nurmagomedov. If any of that cloud still hangs over his reputation, Melendez will just have to light his way by burning $100 bills.
Even as recently as Feb. 12, things didn’t look like they would end quite this rosy for "El Nino."
As initial talks between Melendez and the UFC stalled, company president Dana White passed along the idea that the fighter “better start looking elsewhere,” on an episode of UFC Tonight, via MMAFighting.
"I'm done," White reportedly told Ariel Helwani. "It's not going well. I couldn't care less about it anymore. I like Gilbert Melendez, I don't like his management."
The message was clear, and the stakes were unmistakably high for Melendez. When a fighter gets crossways with the UFC, things rarely come out in his or her favor. The MMA giant is used to having things its own way, both with its employees and how it's portrayed inside the cage of public opinion.
That’s why—unless you’re the kind of person who roots for Verizon or Time Warner—it was easy to cheer Melendez on Feb. 14, when he called the UFC’s bluff and agreed to terms on a new deal with BellatorMMA.
Crossing the aisle to Bellator would have been an ostentatious move from any fighter, but it was especially bold from a guy who spent a dozen years just trying to get into the UFC.
For him to put his career on the line in order to get paid what he felt he deserved showed tremendous courage and also a special brand of devil-may-care attitude. He countered the UFC’s message with one of his own: He was willing to go back to semi-obscurity to get a fair shake.
Thank goodness it didn’t come to that.
In the end, UFC brass exercised their matching rights, tacitly admitting they didn’t want to let a fighter of his caliber waltz out the door in his prime. And the UFC certainly didn't want him bolstering Bellator’s best weight class with potential PPV-worthy matchups against Eddie Alvarez and Michael Chandler.
After all, aside from the nifty eight-sided branding, the only thing that actually separates the UFC from its competition is the notion that it has the best fighters and puts on the most relevant fights.
Even in a sport where—in the deafening absence of collective bargaining—the scales almost always tip away from labor and toward capital, it seems the UFC needed Melendez as badly as he needed the fight company.
His re-signing finally gives some direction to a lightweight division that had grown stagnant with Pettis' injury and No. 1 contender T.J. Grant's recovery from a concussion. Sure, that direction will take awhile to play out—Melendez and Pettis will spend most of 2014 on the shelf—but knowing, as they say, is half the battle.
Melendez told MMA Junkie’s Ben Fowlkes when he got the call from UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta—the guy you deal with when you fall out with White—that the UFC was going to match Bellator’s offer, he had to put the casino magnate on mute so he could celebrate.
“I was just smiling and yelling and dancing around like a little girl,” Melendez said. “I was just really excited.”
Alongside his Strikeforce title, his .880 winning percentage and his epic trilogy with Josh Thomson, add one more accolade to Melendez’s career: He’s that rare breed of fighter who went head-to-head with the UFC and ended up celebrating.
If there’s a downside here at all for him, it’s that the new No. 1 contender for the UFC lightweight title is still officially just 1-1 in the Octagon.
Now that he’s paid, it’s time for him to go win some fights.