SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.—Stikeforce Lightweight Champion Gilbert Melendez is turning red to compliment the bright blue, sweat stained mats at Fight and Fitness.
World No-Gi Champion Denny Prokopos, the first black belt under Eddie Bravo, controls Melendez’s back and chokes him, squeezing his arms tighter around the carotid artery, which supplies oxygenated blood to the brain. “El Nino” stays in the dire position for more than 20 seconds before tapping.
But Melendez knows that tapping out is not an option when he defends his belt against submission wizard and Dream Lightweight Champion Shinya Aoki on April 17.
“People try to figure out how to get ready for five five-minute rounds and the best way to do it is just to do it,” says Melendez. “To simulate it, simulate it and put yourself in shitty positions and rotate fresh people on you and make it harder than the five fives.”
Prokopos, Strikeforce Middleweight Champion Jake Shields, Ralph Gracie black belt and Strikeforce welterweight Luke Stewart and World Jiu-Jitsu No-Gi Champion Caio Terra played Aoki during Melendez’s camp. Strikeforce Welterweight Champion Nick Diaz went out of his way to help his teammate with throws and leg locks. Diaz even uncharacteristically showed up on time to get the most out of training sessions.
“I’d watch his tapes and be like, ‘Wow, I gotta work the back escape. Wow, I got to work the rubber guard. Wow, I gotta work the leg locks. Wow, I got to work the single legs. Wow, I got to work the upper body grappling, the pummeling,’” says the jiu-jitsu purple belt, who watched tape of Aoki deep into the night to prepare for the fight.
Drilling escapes for the rear-naked choke, Melendez breaks free from Prokopos’ grip, turns into his body and mimes caveman ground and pound. Round over.
Melendez drives Strikeforce Middleweight Champion Jake Shields against the fence after four failed takedowns. He scores on the fifth, but Shields rolls him immediately and Melendez starts the takedown process from scratch.
It’s a display of the will that earned him the belt via unanimous decision in December after 25-minutes of back and forth action against Josh Thomson. He was as worried as he was ready knowing he was about to go toe-to-toe with “The Punk” but Aoki inspires different nerves.
“One little mistake and Aoki capitalizes,” continues Melendez. “All his fights you can see some holes, but so many fights you see how amazing he is as well.”
The Santa Ana, Calif.-native feels he’s been training for Aoki since 2006, when both were rising stars in Japan’s PRIDE Fighting Championships. Four weeks before a slated bout, he drew Tatsuya Kawajiri instead of Aoki, who went on to gogoplata Joachim Hansen the same night Melendez bested Kawajiri.
“That was the end of our story for the time being. Now it’s a couple of years later and I feel like the fight gods and god itself have their plan for me and its probably better timing now than back then,” says Melendez. “I feel like he’s always been a very intelligent fighter and I feel like I’ve evolved and become a more intelligent fighter. I’ve always maintained my beast mode but I have a lot more sanity while I’m doing it now a days.”
Part of an intelligent approach against Aoki is expecting the “Tobikan Judan” to strike in addition to searching for submissions. A good straight left and right hook aren’t lost on Melendez; however, he calls the Japanese fighter’s stand-up the weakest part of his game. No secrets, that’s where he plans to attack.
Thai coach Jongsanan Fairtex would tell Melendez, “Stop being the lion. You gotta be the rattlesnake now!” Sprawl and brawl worked well for Gesias Cavalcante and Joachim Hansen stopped Aoki with ground and pound, so Melendez promises to be the rattlesnake, striking with patience, precision and strength.
“Aoki, he’s definitely a warrior and he’s definitely willing, but I don’t know if he can turn that switch on as quick as me like, ‘I hate Gilbert. Japan’s on the line’ and all kinds of crazy shit, which is alright with me,” says Melendez. “I feel like that’s more on his mind. He’s more scared of that than I’m scared of his submissions.”
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