Strikeforce Lightweight Interim Champion Gilbert Melendez invited FIGHT! Magazine’s Danny Acosta into his training camp for five days. Acosta documented a week of the San Franciscan’s quest to unify the Strikeforce Lightweight belts versus title-holder Josh Thomson on Dec. 19 at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif. live on Showtime.
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.—Gilbert Melendez has carried the weight of Josh Thomson’s name on his back for the past two years.
Locking up the doors at El Nino Training Center, his San Francisco gym and home, Melendez jumps into his Toyota truck packed with training partners in the back seat and his girlfriend and public relations person Keri up front. He’s making the roughly 30-minute drive across the Bay Bridge to Cesar Gracie’s school in Pleasant Hill, a suburban town in the East Bay. After two official cancellations and months of rumors, Melendez just received official word he’s fighting Thomson again and it took him days to work through the pre-fight jitters.
“You get like a whole nervous thing for like two or three days that goes through your body, like two days for me,” says Melendez. “It’s like a lot of tense stuff but you accept you’re going to war with him and now I’m pumped on it.”
The two Strikeforce lightweights have been on a collision course for almost four years. Melendez came to the San Jose-based promotion as the world’s best featherweight searching for heavier challenges. The organization’s debut MMA event on March 10, 2006, featured world-ranked 155-pounder Thomson battling for its inaugural gold against a then-unknown Clay Guida. “The Punk,” a hometown and betting favorite, lost a unanimous decision to the Chicagoan while Melendez took out Harris Sarmiento that same night.
The fighters swapped opponents three months later, with Thomson topping Sarmiento and Melendez taking Guida’s new belt. Melendez spent the rest of the year fighting in Japan while Thomson kept picking off competition in Strikeforce. The sudden decline of Japan’s mixed martial arts scene and Melendez’s first career defeat to Mitsuhiro Ishida brought the Santa Ana, Calif. native back to Strikeforce. On June 27, 2008, Thomson took the belt back in a dominating defeat of Melendez. After two years as Strikeforce Lightweight Champion, Melendez suffered defeat for just the second time in his career.
“I feel like he doesn’t get much respect, Josh Thomson, so losing to the guy who doesn’t get respect makes me go down even more,” says Melendez. “People tend to give me a lot of respect and I lost that fight and no one really—for some reason, people just forget who Josh is. I know he lost to Guida. I think he’s a great fighter. I think, yeah they look past us a little bit. I think Josh and I are better than a lot of those UFC guys for sure.”
When Melendez arrives at Cesar Gracie’s gym later that drab Monday afternoon he rolls with black belt and Mundials champion Caio Terra. “The Ultimate Fighter” season five winner Nate Diaz and Strikeforce veteran David “Tarzan” Douglas go after Melendez for the first three stanzas of MMA sparring in the ring. Melendez’s coach, newly minted Strikeforce Middleweight Champion Jake Shields, comes in fresh to work over Melendez for the championship rounds. Melendez survives, even bulldogging some takedowns.
Fighting for 25 minutes is nothing new for “El Nino.” Despite not having the title for the last 18 months, he’s been preparing for title fights non-stop. With MMA fans watching come show time on Showtime, the 27-year-old has the chance to avenge the only loss on his record that has gone uncorrected. And he can’t wait to drop his interim belt to become undisputed in the process.
“My last four fights have been five-five’s. So that’s the best thing the interim title has done, allowed me to get ready for five-five’s,” he says. “But does it really mean anything to me? No. It’s actually been kind of embarrassing being like, ‘Oh you’re the Strikeforce champ?’ ‘Well, I’m actually the interim Strikeforce champ.’ I never really liked it.”