Gilbert Melendez knows what you’re thinking.
“This is where I’m supposed to choke, right?” the Strikeforce lightweight champ tells ESPN.com on Saturday while in Anaheim to attend the UFC’s debut show on network television. “This is where I’m supposed to choke.”
Yes, Gilbert, this is where you’re supposed to choke.
It’s pretty much a classic scenario: Guy gets on a roll, wins five straight fights in a smaller organization and people start talking about how he’s going to be a huge star in the UFC. He’s ranked No. 2 in the world and the word on the street is he might even get an immediate shot at UFC gold if he can just win this one last fight against an underdog opponent everybody expects him to brutalize.
For Melendez, the fight in question -- the one where he’s supposed to gag -- is a Dec. 17 title defense against Jorge Masvidal in San Diego. It was already briefly rumored to be off a couple months ago so Melendez could make the jump to the UFC. Now that it’s back on, oddmakers make him more than a 3-1 favorite over the scrappy, but inconsistent Masvidal.
Win, and Melendez can likely punch his ticket into the UFC, regardless of the four fights that will be left on his Strikeforce contract. Lose, and it makes Melendez just another cautionary tale alongside all the other “next big things” who’ve squandered their momentum at the last possible moment.
“That’s what motivates me,” Melendez says. “I have to find ways to motivate myself for a guy [like Masvidal], who has everything to gain and is a very tough challenge. What motivates me is, this isn’t really for the fans or other fighters, this is for myself -- knowing that I can stay focused and keep my eye on the prize.”
Exactly when Melendez will find his way to the UFC has been a major topic of conversation for most of 2011. Teammates Nick Diaz and Jake Shields have already made the jump, vacating their Strikeforce titles in favor of bigger pay days, heightened exposure and stiffer competition. Nate Diaz is there too, having recently been thrust into the outskirts of title contention in the same division "El Nino" one day also intends to make his home.
Melendez works their corners at UFC events and regularly attends UFC functions. Essentially, he’s already a UFC fighter in every way except the only one that counts: He’s never fought in the Octagon.
In light of that, you can’t blame Melendez for making his intentions known. His ultimate goal is to be UFC champion and be recognized as the top lightweight in the world, he says. While that may violate the old “one fight at a time” cliché that most guys in his position readily fall back on, Melendez contends he can keep Masvidal in his sights without totally forgetting about his UFC dreams.
“I have to look ahead because it’s just part of the business,” he says. “[I have to] look ahead of Masivdal while maintaining that I have to train hard and beat him. I know what’s on the line here. I’m training my a-- off and staying focused for him.”
To hear Melendez tell it, he’s already suffered one career letdown. After losses to Mitsuhiro Ishida and Josh Thomson during 2007-08, he’s had to fight his way back to the top once before and isn’t eager to do it again. That's why he guarantees he'll do everything in his power to avoid "choking" against Masvidal next month.
“I’ve [already] hit that hump where I was 13, 14, 15-0 and ranked in the top three in the world, and then I lost,” he says. “I’ve seen what happens. You fall off, these interviews are gone, you fall out of the rankings. I’ve been there. I can’t guarantee victory, but I can guarantee I’ll be 100 percent prepared.”