S.F.-based fighter ready for big stage

He had the Strikeforce lightweight championship — a belt he defended four straight fights — yet, still, it wasn’t the title Gilbert Melendez wanted.

It is the UFC title that determines the best lightweight fighter in the world, and Benson Henderson is the best lightweight in the world. For now.

“It means everything that I’ve been working for my whole career,” said the San Francisco-based Melendez and former Strikeforce staple, who’ll make his UFC debut Saturday when he challenges Henderson for his 155-pound championship at the HP Pavilion in San Jose. “It’s all coming down to this moment right now. And this is my opportunity to prove I’m No. 1, and I’m taking full advantage of it. It’s a dream come true.”

It’s been a long one in the making. Despite steadily nurturing his fighting stock since  turning pro in 2002, Melendez (21-2) began to grow weary fighting outside the UFC — the premier mixed martial arts company.

“I was starting to get a little more tired in Strikeforce,” Melendez said. “And it started getting old. And now, it’s getting fresh and new again.”

But toppling the lanky Henderson (18-2) won’t be easy.

The taekwondo-based striker and transition specialist hasn’t been bested in his last six UFC fights. And while Melendez hasn’t lost in his last seven contests, he also hasn’t fought in 11 months.

“Everyone has their strength: wrestling, muay thai. His strength is MMA. He has some really good tactics and he’s mentally strong,” Melendez said. “Everyone and their son and their daughter and their dog was telling me, ‘Hey, Gil, make sure to look out for the leg kicks.’ Like obviously.”

One who didn’t heed said advice in December was Melendez’s stable mate and “Skrap Pack” member Nate Diaz, who was battered over five rounds in Henderson’s most recent title defense. Melendez worked Diaz’s corner that night.

“As soon as he lost that fight, I said, ‘Let me do this for my team, I know I can do it,’” Melendez said. “The goal is to take it to him. He’s going to try to stick and move, win the rounds and keep his title. It’s up to me to go take it.”

But claiming a top spot in the UFC, let alone the prospect of cage prizefighting, wasn’t always on Melendez’s mind.
In August 2000, Melendez was a fresh graduate of Santa Ana High School in Southern California when he relocated up north on a small wrestling scholarship from San Francisco State.  

But the then-133-pound freshman found the Gators’ mat to be a hard place.

“I got my ass mopped all year,” Melendez recalled. “I think I went 5-12. We went against D-I guys. There was some really good talent out there. But it definitely made me strong.”

Melendez returned for his sophomore collegiate season. But not for long. In growing tired of wrestling, Melendez met fellow San Francisco State grappler and future “Skrap Pack” member Jake Shields.

“Jake introduced me to jiu-jitsu and MMA,” Melendez said. “He told me he fought in King of the Cage, and Gladiator Challenge … and I questioned him. He whooped my ass, and I was a disciple right after that.”

Melendez began his own devout pursuit of the fight game soon after, heeding the advice of his former college “party buddy”-turned-mentor.

“I fell in love with it. It filled a void that wrestling was starting not to fill anymore,” he said. “I owe [Shields] everything. If it wasn’t for him, I’d probably be bartending or doing something else, which ain’t bad … but I wouldn’t be doing this. And because of him, I am.”

Next weekend, Melendez will be fighting for 155-pound supremacy in a sport that Shields rather violently initiated him into many years ago. But this time, the disciple will look to administer the beating.

“If I can pull this off,” Melendez said, “It’ll mean I accomplished a pretty tough goal.”

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