There’s an old saying in Spanish that goes “Uno no es hijo hasta que es padre,” which roughly translates to “you can’t be a son until you are a father.”
Despite not understanding Spanish very well, Mexican–American Gilbert Melendez would be hard-pressed to find another cliché that more accurately portrays his life.
“Fighting has been the most important thing in my life, and now, she’s the most important thing in my life,” Melendez said of his daughter, Leylakay, who was born last year. “But in order for me to take care of her, I need to perform in fighting.”
This Saturday, Melendez, 29, the Strikeforce lightweight champion who fights out of San Francisco, will try to perform once again when he faces dangerous but unknown striker Jorge Masvidal in the Strikeforce main event at the Valley View Casino Center in San Diego.
The bout with the former pro boxer Masvidal will be the latest chapter of Melendez’s MMA career, which began after a brief wrestling stint at S.F. State before turning to professional fighting in 2002. And his quest to be the best 155-pound fighter in the world is one that has been unquestionably influenced by his parents.
Melendez’s father, Gilbert Sr., who would often take his adolescent son watch the iconic Mexican boxer Julio Cesar Chavez, will be in champions’ corner on fight night.
“My family, we would all rally up for the Chavez fights,” Melendez said. “When all the kids were running around playing outside, I was watching the fights with my dad. I was just really interested, again consciously not knowing what the heck I was doing or what I was studying.”
But the eventual shift to wrestling was one that was pioneered by the fighter’s protective mother.
“Mom didn’t let me box when I was young, so I was into the wrestling at that time,” Melendez said. “She didn’t even want me to play Pop Warner football.”
It was in his wrestling togs at Santa Ana High School when MMA first appeared on Melendez’s radar, with then UFC champion Tito Ortiz. But even then, Melendez’s mother couldn’t bear to watch him wrestle, and today that remains unchanged.
“Still to this day, she doesn’t watch me fight,” Melendez said. “She’s at home praying for me.”
But while mom prays, the fighter trains.
“[Masvidal] is kind of underrated in my opinion because he hasn’t really been in the UFC,” Melendez said. “I believe my striking is just as good as his if not better. I’m your classic Mexican. I like to get in the pocket and I like to take you to that dark place where a lot of people don’t like to go. That’s where I plan on taking him.”
And while Melendez names politics as the No. 1 sport in San Francisco, he hopes to leave his mark in his adoptive hometown.
“The goal at the end of the day is to be No. 1 in the world, and to do that, I need to have that UFC title,” Melendez said, essentially calling out UFC champ Frankie Edgar.
But before that, he has to get through Saturday.
Gilbert Melendez vs. Jorge Masvidal
AT STAKE: Strikeforce lightweight championship
WHEN: Saturday, 7:30 p.m. (Tape delayed until 10:30 p.m.)
WHERE: Valley View Casino Center, San Diego
RECORDS: Melendez 18-2; Masvidal 22-6