SAN FRANCISCO -- Gilbert Melendez’s long, winding ride to the UFC concludes Saturday, not so far from where it began.
The 31-year-old Californian, a Strikeforce lightweight champion and longtime resident of top-10 lists, enters the Octagon for the first time against Benson Henderson -- making him a rare rookie title challenger inside an arena that played host to some of his greatest moments as a professional mixed martial artist. All of this will be taking place an hour’s drive from where Melendez was introduced to the sport, on a whim, while wrestling at San Francisco State.
"It doesn't hurt that the Octagon is going to be in the HP Pavilion, where I've been plenty of times,” Melendez said. “So in some ways it's unfamiliar but in some ways it's so familiar.”
This could very well describe Melendez’s presence in MMA since 2002.
Compiling one of the most impressive outside-the-UFC résumés of any fighter in the sport, Melendez (21-2) fought at 143 pounds in Japan at a time when that meant something. Moving up to 155, “El Nino” dominated a strong contingent of contenders in Japan and the U.S. There isn’t a man he fought whom he didn’t defeat. Yet on the verge of his UFC debut -- a scenario he heavily though begrudgingly campaigned for in recent years -- Melendez is of the opinion that his numerous accomplishments don’t matter.
"This is the UFC. I'm 0-0 here,” Melendez said. “This is my coming-out party. Am I a certified fighter or not? Am I a joke or not? I could have a bad day and people would still think I'm a joke. I could lose and they'll think I'm a joke. But I have to win.
“I've stepped into rings. I've stepped in places where you can stomp on peoples’ faces and knee them in the head [on the floor]. I've been to other countries and other states with different rules. This is a different size cage, different rules, different organization, different title. So, yeah, I'm definitely walking in as a challenger."
The opportunity comes at the right time. Melendez readily admits he reached a plateau in Strikeforce, a promotion that couldn’t provide him with the kind of challenges he wanted, especially after Zuffa took control of the company in 2011.
"The politics behind Strikeforce, Showtime and UFC played with his head quite a bit,” said Gilbert Melendez Sr., a strong presence since the beginning of his son’s career.
Melendez got away with simply showing up in shape because it was his sense he was better than everyone he fought. “It hindered me not because of the talent of the people I fought, but the motivation,” he said. So his desire to improve waned as he struggled mentally with not being where he wanted to be. Among other reactions, frustration set in.
“You're Strikeforce champ, you can't be like, 'Hey, I don't want to be here anymore,' " said Jake Shields, who introduced Melendez to MMA and was similarly a Strikeforce champion before fleeing for the UFC when his contract was up. “He was getting paid, so he was happy in that sense but you could just see he didn't have any motivation. His training camps were suffering. I could see it.”
Rather than improving as a fighter, save taking the time to heal a nagging back injury, Melendez spent his days focused on his personal life, which included a fiancée, Keri Anne Taylor, and a baby girl. Melendez also opened an expansive gym in San Francisco’s warehouse district, not far from AT&T Park, where a full training camp was spent preparing for gifted UFC champion “Smooth” Henderson (18-2).
"He's on beast mode. He's ready to go,” said Nate Diaz, Melendez’s teammate and younger brother-in-arms. “I don't think there's anyone better than Gilbert in the lightweight division. This is his time.”
Diaz was the last member of Melendez’s crew to get a crack at a UFC belt, falling to Henderson on points in December.
"The thing with Gilbert is he really steps his game up for competition,” Diaz said. “When he's set to win, he wins. He does even better in fights than he does in training most of the time, and right now he's unstoppable in training. I think Henderson has his hands full."
All told, the Cesar Gracie jiu-jitsu team is 0-5 in UFC title contests -- a fact Melendez is keenly aware of but not consumed by. Their experience was built from the ground up, a distinctly Bay Area crew that molded itself into one of MMA’s most respected teams. All of that is undeniable and powerful should Melendez choose to call upon on it, though he knows on fight night, it’ll be just him and Henderson alone in the Octagon.
"Benson's a mixed martial artist,” Melendez said. “A lot of guys are Muay Thai guys that fight MMA. Or wrestlers that fight MMA. He uses all his tools. He's a good striker, good grappler, great submissions -- but he shines when he puts it all together. I'm also that guy, though. I'm not just a striker. I'm not just a wrestler. I'm not just a grappler. I'm an MMA fighter. I think we match up pretty evenly when it comes to that. He has some pretty good kicks but I think my hands are a lot better. Wrestling and grappling will be interesting.
“I've been thinking about this a long time. You want the respect. You want to brand yourself. You want to be be ranked. You want all that, but it's easy to put it aside. It doesn't matter: I got the opportunity.”