Nashville, Tennessee, is a city where dreams thrive or die. It has long been famous as a proving ground for talented—and not-so-talented— musicians and singers to determine if they have what it takes to make it on the world’s biggest stage. While Gilbert Melendez has never fancied a career as a country musician, the Strikeforce Lightweight Champion has faced both triumph and adversity in the Music City.
In the middle of Nashville’s bustling Broadway Street District, the day before January 20th’s UFC on FX 1, Gilbert Melendez seems impervious to the waves of people passing by. It’s almost as if he chalks it up to the tempo of life, as if the pace of others doesn’t concern him. Anywhere else in the world, this separation would be passable, but with Melendez’s experience in Nashville, time almost stands still.
The notorious Strikeforce brawl between the Cesar Gracie camp and Jason “Mayhem” Miller that occurred on live national television in April 2010 served to steal headlines on a night where—just an hour earlier—Melendez had cemented his position as one of the top lightweights in the world.
“I’ve returned to the scene of the crime,” Melendez says lightheartedly, as he’s in town to corner teammate Daniel Roberts against Charlie Brenneman. “The incident with the brawl is what it is. Things happened and got out of hand, but those guys are my family, and we have each other’s backs.”
“Nashville is also the place where I established myself as one of the top three lightweight fighters in the world—this is where I beat Shinya Aoki,” he says. “He was recognized as the number two lightweight, and I took him out. He was finishing everyone he faced, and I was able to beat him. It’s also the place where my boy Jake Shields beat Dan Henderson and my boys Nick and Nate Diaz backed me up. I get a lot of love out here. They are very welcoming, and I love Nashville.”
His performance against Aoki helped Melendez amplify what he’d been saying since winning the Strikeforce title for the second time in 2009—that despite holding operations outside of the limelight of the UFC, he was one of the best fighters in the world. It wasn’t defiance he was after, but a measure of his competitiveness.
For Melendez, it all comes down to respect. While fan recognition and media rankings are things he appreciates, what matters the most to him is being the type of top caliber fighter that other great fighters seek out. It is Melendez’s belief that elite talent should want to prove their mettle time and again. It also doesn’t hurt when UFC president Dana White publicly recognizes you as one of the best lightweight fighters in the game.
“Getting Dana’s respect meant the world to me,” he says. “He is the Alan Greenspan of MMA. If he says that your stock is up, your stock is up. Hearing him compliment me is a great thing. He’s the don of this MMA game, and getting respect from someone I hold in the highest regard is amazing. I want to be the number one lightweight in the world, and I don’t want there to be any doubt. The UFC has a lot of talented guys, and I’m ready to settle this argument. It doesn’t matter if they come over to Strikeforce or I go over there. Let’s put it all on the line and find out who truly is the best lightweight in the world.”
Melendez is fully aware that the only thing he can do at this point is continue to prove himself inside the cage. His most recent title defense was a unanimous-decision victory over Jorge Masvidal in December. While Melendez hasn’t always been satisfied with the process of how fights come about in Strikeforce, he sees everything as a challenge with the opportunity for progression.
“I think of everything as a test,” Melendez says. “Whether I’m reading too much into it or not, I have to continue to keep that mindset because it brings out the best in me. It allows me to prove myself, and I feel like I’m passing every test I’m given. I will continue to do just that because I’m a professional, and I take this shit seriously.”
Melendez took it seriously enough not to fall prey to what could have easily become a trap fight against a hungry opponent in Masvidal. It was a dangerous fight for Melendez—where the unfavorable outweighed the upside.
“The way I saw the fight with Masvidal—this was where I was supposed to choke,” he says. “I’m the favorite with everything to lose, and he had the world to gain by winning that fight. I stepped up and handled it. It almost feels as if I’m being purposely tested and pushed to keep my focus. The day before weighing in to fight Masvidal, Dana White tells me that I’m staying in Strikeforce, when I was under the impression I was coming over to the UFC. These are curveballs, and I go into the fight thinking, ‘Are they testing me to see if I can handle it?’”
It had been taken for granted that Melendez would join the exodus of high profile fighters crossing over from Strikeforce into the UFC, but that all changed when Zuffa re-upped on a new contract with Showtime. Melendez’s contract tethers him to the organization for several more fights, which had been a point of consternation for “El Nino,” as the Strikeforce roster was depleted by the UFC. That was then. Now, Melendez has a different outlook, and he says he thinks Strikeforce can provide him with competitive challenges.
“I have to keep faith that Strikeforce is going to be able to constantly produce good fights for me,” he says. “I’m not mad that I fought Jorge Masvidal. It was a solid test, but I feel like I’m always looking at what comes next. It’s a problem I’ve been running into for awhile, but thankfully, they’ve always been able to come up with a good answer. The contender picture may not have been ideal with fighting Jorge, but it was a solid test for me as a fighter.”
Melendez is a passionate fighter with a laid back, California-cool mentality. It is something that he attributes to both his heritage and upbringing. One of his greatest abilities in a sport full of alpha males and control freaks is to keep things that are beyond his control in check. That’s in the cage. Outside, he has life right where he wants it, and one of the blessings in his life is his young daughter Leylakay.
“Being a father has changed my entire life,” he says. “Before, it was all about winning and getting to the next step. Now, I want to make sure she has everything she could possibly need in her life, and that pushes me to be better than I was yesterday.”
Success—both financially and professionally—is enough for the average person, but Melendez wants more. From the early days in the gym where his “always serious big brothers” Jake Shields and Nick Diaz pushed him to see what they saw in him, to where he stands now, Melendez wants his accomplishments as a mixed martial artist to break him into mainstream visibility. If he is able to crossover into that world, his family, friends, and daughter will be taken care of forever.
“Everyone knows who Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are,” Melendez says. “I want to be one of those names. I want people to put my name in there with Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Nick Diaz, and Urijah Faber. Those are names people from outside of the sport are familiar with in some fashion. I’m not going to stop until I am that guy.”
Does Nashville make for mixed feelings for Melendez? Maybe. However, this is where he took his first big step into stardom. Melendez set out to earn respect in the sport, and it was something that he accomplished in Nashville with the biggest win of his career.
Back outside on the strip, the passersby on the street steal lingering glances as their minds try to place him. This happens continuously as he makes his way down Broadway Street, and it’ll continue wherever he goes. While Melendez may not yet be the visible commodity he’s striving to become, he carries his head high because of the things he’s already conquered—and the challenges that he knows await.
Gilbert Melendez, Jake Shields, and Nick and Nate Diaz are the main collective that form the team at Cesar Gracie JiuJitsu. Following Nick Diaz’s victory over B.J. Penn at UFC 137, the former UFC champ took to Twitter to issue some choice words for Gracie, even threatening the figurehead should the two cross paths. While the Gracie camp has remained silent, Melendez has a message for Penn should a fight be something that he’s really looking for.
“If B.J. Penn wants a fight, I’m his huckleberry. If you think Nick’s too big for you—well, I’m not. Cesar is allowed the right to talk, and if B.J. wants to get into the cage, I’ll do the talking from there. I’d love to fight B.J. I have so much respect for the guy, but it’s a shame to hear some of the things that he has been saying. If he wants to prove a point and disrespect our team, do it with me. I’m going to step up for my team and show him.”