Storm Warning: Gilbert El Niño Melendez is Ready to Strike

Photos By Paul Thatcher

image descFor years, people have claimed Gilbert “El Niño” Melendez to be the best lightweight in the world that isn’t in the UFC. Finally, he will get a chance to prove it.

It’s lazy Sunday at the Melendez household on a sunny day in the Frisco suburb of Daly City, California, and face-punching can wait until tomorrow. The night before, women debuted in the UFC and Oscar coverage starts in a few hours. But for man of the house Gilbert Melendez, it’s time to shut out external stimuli. He’s made it through another week of punishing training, with eight more to go until he fights for the UFC Lightweight Title. This morning, he watched Ronda Rousey and Liz Carmouche on his laptop and skipped the rest.

“I fought all week,” says Melendez. “I watch the fights, and I start thinking I might fight. Too much anxiety, too much energy spent.”

He says this shortly after he trudges into his high-ceilinged living room in jeans and a t-shirt, sporting baggy eyes and a bruise over his nose. His black hair is short and unkempt—forget fighting, he wants breakfast. A run is what he’s supposed to do, according to his schedule, but a massage is what he’s getting.

“When I start doing two-a-days, you get your body in this zombie tough-mode,” he says. “But one day off a week, I never feel like I’m recovered.”

Adorable though she is, the little bundle of joy bouncing around the townhouse isn’t helping matters. Two-year-old Leylakay Valentina Melendez has her dad’s curls and breaks the morning quiet with a Gene Krupa imitation on her kiddie drum set. She’s outgrown her crib and taken to climbing into bed at dawn with daddy and mommy, Gilbert’s fiancé Keri Taylor. It’s cutting into valuable recovery time, so today’s task is to buy a new bed she can invade.

“Go Frankie, go!” she blurts during a discussion involving one particular Edgar.

“She’s a daddy fan,” says daddy. “You’re not going to print that, right?”

image descEight days prior to challenging champ Benson Henderson at UFC on FOX 7, which will take place less than an hour’s drive from his doorstep at San Jose’s HP Pavilion, Gilbert Melendez will turn 31 years old. Gone are his days of fighting and chasing tail in a San Francisco frat house beside his best friend, UFC welterweight Jake Shields. He’s a father now, with a 7,500-square-foot gym and a wedding to plan. And, lest he forget, a title shot. In other words, he’s a long way from Santa Ana, California, where he avoided local gangs and was voted homecoming king.

“I feel like an adult,” he says. “My 20s were fun, but I started to hit that 30-year-old point when I was 28. More bills, more thinking about the future. It’s more about juggling at this point in life.”

He agrees he’s come a long way—look at all this domesticity, right? But for all he’s accomplished, winning belts in the WEC, Shooto, and Strikeforce, he knows there are miles to go before his recognition catches up with his skill. He’s an indie artist up against the major label act (though he’s a well-paid independent, guaranteed $175,000 if he takes the belt). But to Johnny Casual Fan, he might as well be a flyweight.

“It doesn’t matter what I’ve done elsewhere,” says Melendez. “The guy who’s 0-4 in the UFC has more credibility than me. Not that I really care, but for branding purposes, if I can’t put UFC outside my gym, I can never brand myself the same to the common person. Someone that’s a peer of mine will know, but a little kid with a mommy trying to sign up for the gym or the person in the bar, it’s, ‘Hope you make it to the UFC.’”

In December, he finally made it. He was sitting in his Toyota Tundra before practice when his lawyer called with the offer to fight Henderson. There had been rumors of a looming opportunity, and they had pushed for the fight. Only a few months earlier, he had looked into a video camera and huffed that he would never migrate to the UFC—contractual jiu-jitsu between Showtime and Zuffa wouldn’t allow it.

The lawyer heard silence and a deep breath, and eventually a “Yes.” Melendez’s mind was racing. Practice was good that day.

“You’re like, you got what you asked for, motherfucker,” he says. “Now it’s time. Let’s do it. You think you’re going to be happy and emotional, but I’ll be a little bit happier and emotional when I win. I’ve anticipated being here. This is all something I envisioned, even though I had my ups and downs and doubts. But it’s not finished. It finishes off with me being the UFC Lightweight Champion. That, or it’s a fucking nightmare.”

* * * * *

Melendez was born on April 12, 1982, in Santa Ana. His father, Gilbert Melendez, Sr., was from Tijuana, Mexico. Although also Mexican, his mother didn’t learn to speak Spanish until they got married. They spoke English in the house and raised him and his two sisters as Americans. To this day, he’s fluent enough only to get out of trouble—in East L.A.

image descMelendez Sr. believed in discipline and might smack his son if he came home too late from a friend’s house. But he also pushed Gilbert to make something of himself when his high school wrestling career ended without a state championship.

“He wanted me to be my own man and go figure things out,” Melendez says. “I just remember one day when my application for Cal State Fullerton first came in, he opened the trash and trashed it. He said, ‘You’re a fool if you want to stay here for college. Go somewhere else.’ San Francisco seemed like the place to go.”

Soon, 20-year-old Melendez found himself at San Francisco State, where he joined the school’s wrestling squad. He had declared a major in liberal studies and thought of becoming a teacher. But that plan went out the window when he met Shields, who joined the team his sophomore year. A fast-talking vegan with a gift for picking up girls, Shields introduced him to BJJ black belt Cesar Gracie and San Francisco nightlife.

Something clicked on those mats at Gracie’s gym in Pleasant Hill, which offered plenty of time for reflection on the hour-long drive there and back. Somewhere along the line, Melendez decided to push himself toward kickboxing…and then MMA.

“I knew that I had talent,” he says.

His first two fights were held in a rodeo barn during a four-man tournament on an Indian reservation in Northern California. There was manure on the floor, no athletic commission, and he finished both of his opponents. Afterward, he called up Gilbert Sr., who gave his blessing, not knowing his son had already dropped out three months earlier as a sophomore.

Melendez went on to the pre-Zuffa WEC, where he stopped three opponents to win the promotion’s lightweight belt. Shields and Melendez became acquainted with Diaz brothers Nick and Nate, and the foundation for a renowned (and notorious) fight team was forged.

“It was a great time,” Shields says. “We were young and trying to make it and having a good time. We didn’t get into too much trouble. We were too busy fighting in the cage and chasing girls.”

image descThe party went on until 2007, when the UFC bought PRIDE—the first time Melendez’s career took a right turn by the industry leader. He went back to Strikeforce, where he had captured the lightweight title in 2006. But on June 27, 2008, talented lightweight Josh Thomson took it in a bout where he appeared flat and outgunned in exchanges. Six months prior, he had lost a decision to standout Mitsuhiro Ishida in Japan.

Melendez realized he was losing a step. He started taking fighting seriously, not cutting corners, showing up for every practice, and hitting every pad with vengeance. He met Keri, and the wild nights dwindled. Sixteen months later, he had avenged both losses and recaptured the Strikeforce Lightweight Title.

“A lot of those misfortunes happened, and good things came out of it,” he says. “I lost to Josh, but it was the best thing to help me decide that this is my career. With the ups come the downs, but I wanted to focus on the positive things.”

* * * * *

At the moment, Gilbert is standing in the middle of one of those positive things. El Niño Training Center has grown from a cramped mat room with a claustrophobic loft to one of those cavernous places profiled on Inside MMA. He used Craigslist to find the place, which is nestled beside a busy road in an industrial section of San Francisco’s SOMA (South of Market) district. A leathered man he calls “Swarm” arrives with Baby, his aging pit bull, who’s getting royal treatment from his babysitter.

image desc“I’ve been on a portion control diet,” Swarm says. “I eat half of it, then I feed the rest to Baby. I’ve lost 18 pounds.”

These days, Melendez’s scale registers 170 pounds in the a.m. Within two weeks, he’ll come to rest at 166, and then he’ll start his cut down to 155 pounds. As deprivation goes, it’s a small ordeal compared to the 20-pound drops you hear of so often these days, which has lead some to conclude he’d be better suited at featherweight. He did fight in Shooto at 143 pounds, and he considered dropping when Nate Diaz fought Henderson for the title. But his teammate lost a one-sided decision, and he has no plans to take a run at Jose Aldo’s belt if he’s unsuccessful on April 20.

“I’m going to fucking win,” Melendez says. “I’m going to look strong, big, and they’re not going to say that. Am I taller than him? I’m a little taller than him.”

If it were a contest of height, there would be a new champ. He measures 5-foot-10, which is actually an inch taller than Henderson. So he’s right—by no means is he a small lightweight. He’s got long arms and skinny legs. He just wears it deceptively, as Henderson’s long torso makes him seem taller inside the cage.

“I watch his tape,” he says. “He’s really slick. We might get into a scramble, and the fucker might do a backflip and land the best choke in the world. That’s the kind of guy he could be. But am I, like, scared of his striking? I’m scared of him maybe kicking out my ankle and maybe hurting my leg—those things are on your mind. But am I scared of, ‘C’mon, hit me?’ Not at all. I don’t think he’s the Anderson or GSP or Jon Jones of the lightweight division. I think at 155, that torch can be passed quick. But it would be nice to be the guy who does it. It’s going to be good TV.”

All this talk about Henderson has made him antsy to shadowbox. 

* * * * *

The noodles are served in a steaming heap at the Vietnamese joint Gilbert and Keri swear by, but it’s the whole shrimp slathered in this brown, sweet-smelling sauce that awakens salivary glands. Eating them whole with the shells on is a sure way to incite a riot in your stomach, Gilbert says. He’s gotten the pho, imploring the waitress to bring a plate’s worth of limes, which he squirts every which way.

image descBy the time Benson Henderson won the undisputed WEC Lightweight Title in 2010, Melendez already was ranked among the top-10 lightweights in the world. While his UFC counterparts enjoyed the recognition brought by booming business and an overpowered marketing machine, he quietly built a 10-2 record both abroad and domestically, beating Clay Guida, Tetsuya Kawajiri, Shinya Aoki, and Josh Thomson. He won his last seven bouts under the Strikeforce banner, and, during a second run as Champ, defended his belt four times.

Ben Henderson, of course, is no longer a B-level king. He’s at the top of the rankings after tearing through the UFC’s lightweight division following the loss of his WEC belt to Anthony Pettis, who is expected to meet the winner of the April 20 bout. But while most hardcore fans take no issue with Melendez’s title shot, not everybody sees him as a contender. Keri, who’s not yet learned to refrain from trolling the Internet for articles about her husband, rants about a writer who recently made the argument that he’s neither popular nor accomplished enough to fight Henderson.

“The funny thing is, he tried to get a job at the gym,” she says. “Maybe it didn’t work out and he held a grudge, because he came in and he was the biggest fan of Gilbert.”

A constant presence at her fiancé’s fights, she face-palmed a heckler after he beat Thomson last May. A former Muay Thai champion, she thought better of using her fists. But the couple still had a heart-to-heart about keeping emotions in check. As Melendez’s star rises, critics are bound to multiply.

Nevertheless, the smear job presents a good opportunity for the fighter to sell the fight. Why does he deserve the opportunity?

“My record and accomplishments speak for themselves,” Melendez says. “I think from a business standpoint, Champion vs. Champion is a good thing. Why risk me losing to someone like Gray Maynard? With that said, timing wise, I think I’m there. I’m debatably the number one guy in the world. I’m kind of a mystery man right now, but look at my record. I’ve only lost twice. I avenged both those losses. Every fight, I’ve pretty much dominated. When I’m watching Kenny Florian fight Sean Sherk, I was ready. When I see Joe Stevenson fighting for the title—that should have been me. When I see Roger Huerta fighting Kenny Florian to get the shot, I was ready then. I’ve been ready for all those years. UFC guys have been there for a couple.” 

* * * * *

The Rolls Royce of beds is some sort of magical melding of memory foam, innersprings, and probably a few unicorn pelts. It is not what the Melendez family needs, yet it’s too tempting to pass up. We’re at a mattress store near the condo, and Gilbert and Keri hop on for a test run. In a few seconds, he’s fighting the urge to snooze. A Tempur-Pedic mattress is just the kind of swag a discretionary bonus might buy, especially now that he’s eligible for them in the UFC. Then he gets a look at the price tag: $8,000.

“Whoa! Let’s see the shitty one,” he says.

image descAlong with a few smacks, Gilbert Melendez Sr. gave him many lessons on frugality—and enterprise. He’s one of the few fighters to have monthly sponsorships in an abysmal market—three of them, in fact. His gym is making money, and he and Keri are always on the lookout for new branding opportunities. But a bed the cost of a Kia Rio is a little too rich right now. They settle on a full-size that costs a little more than a grand. After his Octagon debut and wedding, they plan to buy a house.

“I’ve always put myself in a good place,” he says. “I’m ready whether I win or lose, which helps me perform even better. I feel like I’ve set things up well in my life. I’ve just got to go out there and do it.”

Driving back home, Gilberts talks about a jiu-jitsu tournament that’s being attended by a few of his students. Somewhere between the gym and the restaurant and a stop for coffee, he’s gotten a text informing him that Henderson is in the audience. It’s impossible not to conjure a daydream about Melendez and his Cesar Gracie teammates swarming around the Champ, as they once did to another fighter on national television. Would mean mugs be displayed? Sure. Would fists start to fly? Maybe. Would homies be scared? Never.

Even though it never would have happened, it would have made for great TV.

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