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.—If Gilbert Melendez wants to beat Josh Thomson and become Strikeforce undisputed 155-pound champion, he’s gotta be strong without losing any of his speed.
So he parallel parks his Toyota truck around the corner from AlterCenter in the SOMA district of San Francisco, where a brutal strength and conditioning program awaits him. He cranks Tech-9 for about 30 seconds. He forgets the name of the song and it doesn’t matter. He takes in the energy, takes a deep breath, and kills the stereo. It’s time to work.
Melendez enters a zen den decorated with kettlebells, old wall-mounted weapons and paper lantern lights. Mark Mian, head trainer of AlterCenter, greets him and the relaxed fighter apologies for being late.
A quick warm-up is followed by conditioning challenges. Run over the cones and through the cones. Rest by walking on balance pods. Put on ankle weights. Shuffle, jump over boxes. Shadowboxing on a balance pod, Mian whacks him with a back roller. Switch to weight lifting. Melendez hoists a bar across his shoulders and steps up on to a bench with one leg, exploding in the air and staying on balance. A circuit of similar exercise for different muscle groups completes the circuit, but it’s that one step up motion that chops away at Melendez. With each go around, Mian adds more weight. He even ties resistance bands to pull down the bar as Melendez tries to lift it up. Resistance sprints follow, along with muay Thai knees. Melendez yells to psyche himself up as he pushes to the finish line.
“I feel like he’s kind of the missing piece to the puzzle that put everything together,” says Melendez of Mian.
“El Nino” had been training at Diablo Barbell near Cesar Gracie’s, but the East Bay commute ate into precious rest time. The gap in his training saw him post a 2-2 record between New Year’s Eve of 2007 and June 2008, losing to Mitsuhiro Ishida and Josh Thomson in major bouts that derailed the Melendez Hype Express.
That’s when Melendez’s coach, Muay Thai legend Jongsanan Fairtex, introduced the former Shooto star to Mian.
“He’s come from like a traditional wrestling background and I think early on in his career, he [had] a lot of excellent abilities he was able to bank on and just overwhelm his opponents with his sheer will and aggression,” Mian says.
Melendez fights in fifth gear, which in the past left him gassing in the later rounds. So Mian’s focus is on being “more judicious about the applications of his abilities” to handle progressively difficult movements as the fight becomes more dangerous.
“The approach that I took with him was not to give him, so to speak, a bigger car, a bigger engine, but to teach him how to drive his car better,” says Mian. “To deal with fatigue in a different way, not to try become desperate when he didn’t have the energy but to become a little more focused and concentrated on expending his energy a little more economically.” He continues, “When you lose balance, you lose a lot of energy just from trying to recover your body and deal with the wild movements you may be causing yourself.”
Since they started working together, Melendez has posted key consecutive wins. He scored the first knockout of his career when he blasted Rodrigo Damm to win the Strikeforce Lightweight Interim Championship. For an encore, he stopped the first man to defeat him, Mitsuhiro Ishida four months and four days later.
That added power and will be essential if Melendez hopes to emerge from the cage victorious on Dec. 19. Recalling his first fight with Thomson, Melendez says, “He felt stronger and bigger. More than stronger, he was a bigger man. He’s a big 55’er. Probably the biggest 55’er I fought besides [Tatsuya] Kawajiri by far. I think he’s—big, tall range, pretty big guy and I think he cuts a lot of weight. I just got to even out the playing field. Five pounds of weight makes a lot of difference.”
With the help of Mian, Melendez will have that extra five pounds and know what to do with it. “I feel confident because I’m strong,” says Melendez. “Honestly, I’m elementary at [strength and conditioning]. I needed someone who was a Ph.D. in it.”