MMA
Greg Rosenstein, ESPN Staff Writer 99d

My life as a fighter: Gilbert Melendez

MMA, UFC

Gilbert Melendez -- a former Strikeforce and WEC lightweight champion and one of the top veteran fighters still in the UFC -- knows he's in "the fourth quarter" of his career. At 35 years old, he will take on Jeremy Stephens on Saturday night at UFC 215, hoping to rebound after three consecutive losses.

In our first installment of "My life as a fighter," Melendez looks back at the highs and lows of his career, recalling some of the formative moments, friendships and biggest events of his career. He also touches on a number of different topics that are on his mind at this point in his career, including weight cuts, injuries and life after MMA.

As a young kid I was always drawn to martial arts. I loved watching Jean-Claude Van Damme movies. I loved watching WWF. A lot of kids liked football (and I played football in the streets too), but I liked to box.

We'd slap box and wrestle as I got older. I started watching Julio Cesar Chavez fights, Oscar de la Hoya fights, and then the UFC came out. In high school there was wrestling, and I was totally into that. I got a thrill from the one-on-one competition more than the team competition. If you win, it's all you; if you lose it's all you. I liked the rush of it.

The first time you get punched in a fight you learn a lot of things. In cartoons you see stars, though the first time you get hit hard in real life, you see the flashes. But I also recognize it's not that bad. There are a lot of things to think about leading up to the fight, and you might get a little nervous, but after getting hit you realize it's not that bad.

It's so easy to fight someone on the street. Say you're a little drunk or someone disrespected your friend, or your emotions are high, and you just get it done. But imagine if that happened and you're about to fight that guy and they say, "Stop. Wait. You're going to fight this guy in eight weeks. Go train." Now all of a sudden you have him on your mind, and there's a stress that builds into that. All the nerves and fears. But as soon as you step in there, it's fight or flight.

I met Nate (Diaz) when he was 15 years old and I was 18. He was a white belt and I was a white belt. Jake Shields, a big brother and a training partner of mine who I met at San Francisco State, brought me to see Cesar Gracie. He's the one who showed me fighting. Jake said, "I'm going to go scrap with this guy Nick (Diaz), he's really good. He has a brother -- you should go train with him." We met up at Cesar's in Pleasant Hill, which was a midpoint between Stockton and San Francisco.

I would show up with Jake and Nate would show up with Nick. Jake and Nick were blue belts at the time, so they would fight each other, and then they asked me and Nate to fight each other. We were more followers. Nick and Jake had the eye of the tiger, they were ready, but at that time Nate and I were just having fun. For a long time we would meet up to just spar and grapple each other. After about two years of whopping each other, we eventually started bonding, and the rest was history. That was around 2000, and we still help each other out. He's going to be in my corner at UFC 215.

I never thought to myself, "I'm going to fight and become the best in the world and make a ton of money." It was more like, "Hey I'm going to fight to fight, get a free trip to Hawaii, get $500 to pay rent." Other opportunities opened up from there.

I wouldn't tell my dad about the fights until after they were over. Around my fourth fight, he started coming to watch me. It was when I won the WEC title. He must have had about eight beers, but he was still sober because he was so stressed out for me. I dropped out of school six months before he gave me a blessing. After I was 6-0 or 7-0, I told him I would stop going to school and just work and fight. He was like, "You get my blessing to drop out of school." He didn't know I dropped out about six months before. He was cool with it, and always supported me.

My mom has never seen me fight live. She just refuses to, prays for me and always wanted me to quit. To this day she wants me to stop. But she loves me and supports me and really admires the joy and love. My family gets around the TV and cheers for me. That makes her happy. She doesn't like fighting period, but likes the good things that have come out of it, and the success. I have been able to take care of friends and family because of it. She's happy about those things.

My wife gave me a black eye the first time we met. She said she could wrestle and we did a bit of play fighting. She showed me her boxing skills -- I asked to see her shadow box -- and it got a bit out of hand. She popped me in the eye. I didn't cry about it, and maybe she liked that. I knew I had to follow up and give her a call.

You can feel near death (during a weight cut). You literally cry sometimes. It's pretty sad. You're sitting in the sauna, feeling like crap. What do they say, "a man can last 48 hours without water?" We're basically there doing that. We're basically killing ourselves taking all of that water out, but it needs to be done.

The best part of fighting is the glory of victory. You go in there and it's all you. It's one of the best rushes and highs out there, getting your hand raised. You're testing yourself and challenging yourself.

The worst part is the agony of defeat and the hours it takes away from your friends and family and having a normal life. That's from fighting professionally. I can train martial arts until the day I die and do it and love it, but now that it's a profession and a job, it takes a bit of the joy away from it. Over two or three months you neglect your family and do nothing in life except train. You eat, sleep and train. And that kind of sucks at times. But it's what you have to do to prepare.

When you're out back before a fight, you start getting that tunnel vision. Sometimes it's just a deep breath and a little laugh and thinking 'this shit is crazy. I'm about to fight in front of thousands of people. This is nuts.' There's the deep breath where you just zone in, everything starts fading out, and you don't hear much. You just see the cage and start breathing. When you walk into that cage it's almost an out-of-body experience.

I know I've lost three straight -- it's been tough. But that was a UFC title fight (against Anthony Pettis), a fight against Eddie Alvarez which I believe I won and against a very tough Edson Barboza. But I'm not getting knocked out, I'm not getting dominated and I'm challenging myself and making money for my family. I'm still healthy. I know my brain is healthy -- I'm youthful in my heart. But I must say my body has had some wear and tear on it. That's the toughest part.

I've separated my shoulder; I've broken my hand; I've fractured my nose. I just had knee surgery. I've torn muscles and had a broken hand. These things add up and take away from you. It's a tough decision but I do recognize I'm on the fourth quarter of my career. Fortunately I have some things in the works -- I have a gym, I'm an analyst, and I feel like I can go when I want.

As a fighter and someone with a warrior mentality, I have no room for (thoughts on CTE) in my head at the moment. Yes, it's been on my mind and I've seen articles that I fear to click on because I'm committed to fighting. I don't need any negative stuff in my head to tell me not to do it or to make me weak. I know it's something that I'll have to look into in the future. It's something I've thought of but nothing I have really gone into. I just don't have room for that right now.

The Josh Thomson fights were the toughest. I pissed blood after the second fight and was banged up. We both put it all on the line. My second and third fight, we really went at it. He and I had some wars.

I feel like at the beginning, I was a tornado. I was willing to take four punches to give you one. I was a little more reckless and able to absorb more damage. I feel like I'm still a warrior now, but more calculated. I'm smarter and use my intelligence more than my beast mode. I feel like I'm a sharper fighter by becoming more tactical and technical. Of course, the beast mode is what got me here, so I try to stay true to that, always.

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