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. — It’s a scene straight out of a high school fight. Melendez and Strikeforce welterweight and Ralph Gracie black belt Luke Stewart circle each searching for an opening while a crowd gathers as close to the action as possible, moving away at the last moment to avoid becoming part of the war. They are sparring full mixed martial arts, hitting each other in the face with small gloves and no headgear. The takedowns are live, and Stewart hoists Melendez on his shoulders like the Lightweight Interim Champ is a girl at a concert trying to get a better view.
When a fresh Jake Shields comes in late in the five-round shark tank training, they fight their way off the mats and onto the gym floor. A few wall mats detach from their wooden planks as Melendez rabidly attempts and defends takedowns against Shields and a rested, returning Stewart. It’s no secret they are doing their best to break Gilbert Melendez’s will. They don’t. He survives. He always survives.
The son of hard-working parents, Melendez started working at the age of 11, cutting grass until he was old enough to become a lifeguard at 15. The young wrestler was so driven to excel in his sport that he left the comforts of Century High School for a little “more ghetto” Santa Ana High School where his popularity was negated by his new kid status. But he didn’t care, “I was focused. I wanted to be a wrestling champion,” he says.
“I made the sacrifice because I wanted to do good at wrestling,” he says. “I ran into a kid one time from Century High School and he said, ‘Why did you even transfer over here to wrestle? You’re not even good.’ Fuck you. But I did it, you know?”
In Santa Ana, Melendez would get close glimpses of Tito Ortiz, then just a collegiate wrestler who fought a little on the side. Melendez started fighting in college, too, balancing training with classes at San Francisco State University and jobs on campus, at restaurants and construction sites while making a name for himself in the WEC and Shooto. In fact, if you purchased something from the Fairtex gear shop between 2004-2006, Melendez probably packed the order. Melendez’ tireless style carries over into the ring and cage, too.
“It’s just in my blood. I don’t know how not to go out there and try to kill somebody,” he says. His nickname, “El Nino,” was given to him by Cesar Gracie after commentators on an old Japanese fight tape compared Melendez’ style to a small storm.
But Melendez knows it’s going to take more than aggression and a big gas tank to take out Thomson on Dec. 19. “I’m gonna have to be technical to make it a fight. But when its time to step back and become technical again, I will,” says Melendez. “There will be those moments—making it a fight are gonna be my better moments when I get us throwing and going crazy will be my better moments. In all that chaos, I’m gonna try to maintain sanity and hopefully he doesn’t.”