For Gilbert Melendez, the ultimate prize may be off in the distance, but he has never taken his mind off the UFC lightweight title. He will have his shot against Anthony Pettis at the UFC's 2014 year-end event in December.
The UFC contender and former longtime Strikeforce champion has been out of action since defeating Diego Sanchez in an instant classic at UFC 166 in October, but the motivation for the Skrap Pack representative's hiatus has been just.
His next bout will be for the lightweight strap, and that is all the reason El Nino needed for the decision.
While the Santa Ana, California, native will be out of the Octagon for more than a year by the time he faces Pettis, a title shot was simply not something he was going to pass up. Whether that opportunity came in three months or 14, Melendez was willing to do whatever it took to get another crack at championship gold.
There may be a lot of miles to cover before his tilt with Pettis materializes, but Melendez has adjusted to the circumstances at hand and believes he'll be ready when it is time to handle business.
As Melendez told Bleacher Report at The Ultimate Fighter 20's media day July 3 in Las Vegas:
I'm getting the itch already. I would have loved to fight sooner, but it is what it is. This fight is for the strap and it all makes sense. It just gives me time to get better. I feel I'm a mentally strong person and I'll roll with the punches just fine. But I'm looking forward to it and I think I have what it takes to win that belt.
The fight is still a long way out but there are peak-out moments for me. I try to hit certain moments where I get some great training and have some good sparring sessions, but then I take a week and try to enjoy life a little bit. I try to have some fun and relax over that time and then I'll jump into another six-week camp. I have little peak-outs and little waves because I don't want to just keep going up then flatline out. I am making sure I maintain, and I have a strategy behind it.
As it turns out, landing his showdown with Showtime came as a package deal, as the two top-ranked lightweights were also tapped to coach the 20th season of The Ultimate Fighter.
While the reality-based fighting series has experienced a lull in popularity in recent years, the 20th installment has legitimate buzz surrounding it.
It will not only introduce the major players in the UFC's newly added women's strawweight division, but it will also mark the first time TUF has determined a divisional champion. A cast of seasoned veterans will step in to chase the 115-pound crown, and one will claim her place in UFC history at tournament's end.
The opportunity to be at the helm of one of the teams was certainly appealing to Melendez, and it is a position the San Francisco-based fighter isn't taking lightly.
With the action officially underway, Melendez believes the strawweight fighters are going to deliver:
These women are all talented and they follow direction very well. I've seen The Ultimate Fighter before, and I didn't feel some of the men really came to the show prepared for what was ahead of them. These ladies are very prepared. I've only had one full day to really work with them all, but it has been a good experience so far.
The fact these fighters are competing for a championship is a crucial factor. People ask me what it is like coaching these women, but these aren't just women, they are top fighters. I feel bad for some of the guys from previous seasons who had fighters who weren't even really that into it, because these women are serious. They are here to win it all, and that is going to make for a great season.
Someone in that house is going to be a UFC champion before I am.
With the inaugural strawweight tournament underway, the expectation for an action-packed season will increase steadily in the buildup to the premiere.
In addition to the hype around TUF 20, there is an added element of pressure, as the once megapopular series has been on a downturn in recent years. While there have been a handful of memorable fights over the past few seasons, the overall appeal of the show has waned.
These circumstances have put TUF 20 in a position to resurrect the franchise.
While the program's pulse is still faint, a talented cast filled with experienced competitors has the potential to pump new blood into what was once one of the brightest spots in the UFC stable.
The past few seasons have relied on drunken blowups and shenanigans in the fighters' house, but Melendez believes great fights will be enough to make sure TUF 20 lives up to expectations:
All you need are great fights and I think we'll have a lot of them this season. If you have a crappy build up and a great fight: awesome. A great buildup and a crappy fight: horrible. But a great buildup and a great fight is exciting. These girls are ready. I've seen them fight, and they have already had some amazing fights, so it should be good.
I believe this could be a big year for the show. The pressure is going to be on it, but I'm not really worried about it. The talent is going to speak for itself. You get nervous when you are hoping and gambling, but that isn't the case here.
I know there are going to be great matchups. These ladies are here to win, and it's more about them than us. I've watched the show in the past, and I'm here to give them as much advice as possible, but they are prepared. I'm not here to change the way they fight or outshine them in anyway. I'm here to help my team succeed and win. I think it will be a great season, and it can't get worse.
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand via TUF 20 media day unless noted otherwise.
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