He spent years building himself up in other organizations, and was promised a lightweight title shot in his UFC debut. Unfortunately, he fell short, losing a competitive decision. Fast forward a couple of years, and he would not be denied, as Anthony Pettis is now the UFC lightweight champion.
Gilbert Melendez’ story isn’t identical, but the parallels are there for a repeat in the making.
Whereas Pettis wasn’t recognized as being a lightweight contender until at least 2010, Gilbert ‘El Nino’ Melendez was in pound for pound discussions as early as 2006 after wins over Clay Guida and Tatsuya Kawajiri.
After PRIDE folded, many were disappointed to see Melendez sign with Strikeforce rather than the UFC. A loss to Josh Thomson hurt his stock a bit, but he left no doubt in the rematch. In 2010 and 2011, he solidified himself as a top lightweight with dominant wins over Shinya Aoki and in the rematch against Kawajiri.
After completing the Thomson trilogy and retaining his Strikeforce title with a fortunate split decision win in 2012, Melendez was finally brought over to the UFC as part of the official promotional merger. Unlike Pettis, his promised immediate title shot was granted. Finally, fans would have their answer as to whether Melendez had been overrated all along, or whether he belonged in discussions with the UFC’s elite.
Melendez and then champion Benson Henderson battled for five hard fought rounds earlier this year, with many believing Melendez had done enough to win. However, it wasn’t in the stars, as Melendez would find himself on the wrong end of a split decision, suffering his first loss in four years, and in the biggest fight of his life.
On Saturday, Melendez looks to get his first UFC win, facing ‘Ultimate Fighter’ season one winner, and former title challenger Diego ‘The Dream’ Sanchez.
Fans can expect a competitive fight, as the always tough Diego Sanchez has shown himself to be a formidable foil in recent contests against Jake Ellenberger and Martin Kampmann. Although, Sanchez has also gained a reputation for winning controversial decisions, notably against Kampmann and Takanori Gomi.
With a win over Sanchez, Melendez won’t be getting an immediate title shot, but there’s no question he will be right back in the mix. By the end of 2014, don’t be surprised if he’s holding the strap, but getting through Sanchez will be the first obstacle in that path. And in the current landscape of the lightweight division, this will unlikely be his toughest test on the road back to the title.