In our sport, unless you have the letters UFC engraved on your championship belt, you are not considered the best in the world. Simply put, the UFC is the mecca of MMA and every champion outside of the organization is never going to be viewed as the kingpin of their division. Gilbert Melendez, however, is a very rare exception to that viewpoint.
The last man to hold the Strikeforce lightweight title, Melendez has been hyped as the best lightweight fighter in the entire world since 2009. If you ask a handful of intelligent MMA enthusiasts who the top fighter is at 155-lbs, some will say current UFC champion Benson Henderson but a good chunk will tell you that Melendez is better.
On April 20, we are finally going to determine who is truly the king of the lightweight division as Melendez challenges Henderson for the UFC strap at UFC on FOX 7. This is the fight that fans have been craving for, but nobody is more excited than “El Nino”.
“It feels great [to finally be in the UFC], I’m jazzed about it and ready to see how I match up against these guys,” Melendez told BJPenn.com Radio.
“I’ve been wanting to test myself for a long time and find out where I really stand out there and now I’m going to get the chance to do that right out of the gate against Benson Henderson. It’s a nervous feeling but it’s a good feeling and it’s going to be exciting.”
Melendez last fought eight months ago earning an exciting decision victory over rival Josh Thomson under the Strikeforce banner. Unfortunately injuries have kept Melendez on the sidelines since. During his time away from the cage, Melendez has watched Henderson rise to the occasion as a champion. Henderson has defended his belt twice, a close decision in a rematch against Frankie Edgar and a dominant win over Melendez’ teammate Nate Diaz.
In the Diaz fight, Melendez really studied the UFC champion and learned quite a bit about how he operates.
“I saw how tough Benson is mentally and I familiarized myself with his tactics and how he follows a gameplan,” Melendez said.
“He has tremendous athleticism but to my buddies defense I wish we would have seen that fight a little differently because he punched Diaz right in the eye. It was a beautiful punch by Henderson but it hindered the rest of Nate’s performance.”
Melendez holds victories over a laundry list of top lightweights outside of the UFC’s Octagon. From Tatsuya Kawajiri to Shinya Aoki to Jorge Masvidal, Melendez has beaten all of the tiger sharks but now he is about to swim in deep water with some dangerous great whites. Henderson presents a very different matchup for Melendez but that just pumps the California native up even more.
“He’s the UFC champ first of all. He’s a slick guy that has very good focus and is mentally strong. Even when he gets knocked down, he pops right back up like nothing happened. He really believes in himself and that goes a long way in this game and especially in a fight,” Melendez said.
“Being in the UFC makes me refocus 100% and I’ve been asking for this my whole career. I’ve been talking a lot about fighting in the UFC and now I’m here so there’s some pressure on me to back up my talk.”
Should he prove successful against Henderson, Melendez will certainly not receive a break as he will likely make his first title defense against the division’s deadliest striker, Anthony Pettis. Pettis is fresh off a destructive TKO finish over Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone at UFC on FOX 6 this past weekend and should be next in line to fight the champion.
Melendez is overly impressed with Pettis but is by no means intimidated. He knows he has his work cut out for him against Henderson and he’s not looking past him. However, he believes at some point he will lock horns with “Showtime” and it’s a challenge that he welcomes.
“That fight was the only one I was concerned with and Pettis looked amazing. He pulled off some crazy stuff so I was definitely impressed. “Cowboy” is a very tough guy, he caught that right hand out the gate and it seemed like he couldn’t gather himself,” Melendez said.
“Not that Cerrone was rocked but it seemed like it threw him off his rhythm and Pettis landed some good strikes and did really well. But am I scared? No I’m not scared.”
To listen to the full interview you can do so below:
Tags: Anthony Pettis, benson henderson, bjpenndotcom, BJPennDotCom Radio, blogtalk radio, Donald Cerrone, featured, Frankie Edgar, Gilbert Melendez, Jorge Masvidal, Josh Thomson, lightweight, MMA NEWS, mma podcasts, nate diaz, refocus, Shinya Aoki, Strikeforce, tatsuya kawajiri, ufc lightweight championship, ufc news, UFC on FOX 6, UFC on FOX 7