There was a time not that long ago when Dana White assured everybody that Melendez -- a top three lightweight who happens to be in his prime -- would not be left pining for challenges in Strikeforce. This was before his Dec. 17 Strikeforce bout with Jorge Masvidal. This was after reconciliation between White and Showtime. This was right around the time when everybody fell into reverie as to whom, and began envisioning expensive imports (maybe Benson Henderson? Clay Guida? Gray Maynard?).
Even Melendez’s camp couldn’t help but imagine the possibilities.
Things have obviously changed.
Melendez has been made into a window shopper. All those elite UFC lightweights that sit on the showroom floor? He’s left to browse and wonder with his nose smudged on the glass. Despite those early fits of optimism, Zuffa isn’t going out of its way to find Melendez challenges -- it is recycling whatever it can find in the cupboards. Somewhere along the way, things soured (again) between Showtime and White. Melendez is the biggest casualty.
Yesterday Strikeforce announced that Melendez would defend his title against ex-champ Thomson on May 19 in San Jose, Calif.; a rubber match that has an ounce of good drama. Problem is, the fight is a buzzkill for those who are interested in Melendez’s upward trajectory. Yes, they’ve split the previous two matches, but Melendez avenged the first loss easily and has won six in a row all told. Thomson has won exactly one in a row, a unanimous decision over K.J. Noons that he said afterward “was s---.” Before that, he lost to Tatsuya Kawajiri. These aren’t the kinds of credentials that earn title fights, even if there are scores to settle.
That’s one of the reasons this trilogy fight will require rose-colored glasses to appreciate. Even if the situation is deeper, it feels like "who cares" matchmaking at its laziest. That is, if you’re Gilbert Melendez. If you’re Josh Thomson, it’s an overly generous chance to reclaim the lightweight belt. And if he does, this will turn the sports world aloof. What could we look forward to then -- Thomson/Healy II? That is true tundra. Keith Wisniewski versus Chris Clements has greater import. Or we could play back Thomson/Melendez IV, and put the thing on a perpetual loop. Strikeforce might have to, because the promotion's lightweight pool is ankle-deep.
If Melendez does lose to Thomson, you’d be left wondering if something like ennui played as big a role as the “Punk” himself. That’s why it’s hard to swallow. Why should all the favors go to Thomson, the sorta-deserving challenger? Why shouldn’t Melendez, the flagship champion of Strikeforce, be better attended? Fans of MMA don’t have interest in behind the scenes politics as much as they do in watching two heads of momentum collide.
But chances are Melendez will win, live up to expectations, and then disappear into waiting for the next thing to materialize. That’s not the kind of immediate future that lights fires in competitors. Yet that’s where Melendez is in 2012 at as Strikeforce lightweight strap holder. A sort of hostage to his throne.
And if he wants to remain the most persecuted champion in MMA, at least for the rest of this year, he’ll need to stay hungry for it. Maybe that’s what White meant about finding Melendez challenges. Maybe Melendez’s biggest challenge in 2012 will be fighting through the set of circumstances, rather than whoever they stick in front of him in the cage.