Melendez a big fish in a small pond

Gilbert Melendez remains upbeat, but he can't possibly be thrilled about the renewed Strikeforce deal. Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com

There might be a silver lining in all of this for Gilbert Melendez, so long as the best fighter in Strikeforce doesn't do what he's "supposed" to do Saturday.

"I thought I was one fight away from something big. Evidently, I'm not. A couple days ago I was," Melendez said Wednesday. "This is the one I'm supposed to choke [on] -- like Jim Miller and Clay Guida and 'Showtime' [Anthony] Pettis. But no b----ing here. That's the case with Anderson Silva and Jon Jones. That's the case with all the champs. They have everything to lose and nothing to gain."

That big "something" Melendez thought he was headed toward is, of course, the UFC. But Thursday's announcement of a renewed television partnership between Showtime and Strikeforce, which was purchased by UFC ownership in March, all but binds Melendez to a promotion most fans regard as second fiddle for the duration of a multi-fight deal he signed just prior to Scott Coker and his parters, Silicon Valley Sports and Entertainment, unloading the debt-ridden company to Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White.

Rather than joining fellow Strikeforce champions Nick Diaz and Alistair Overeem in the Octagon for high-profile, big-money fights, Melendez faces the reality of defending his belt in, what he called, "everything to lose situations" against opponents like the 27-year-old Jorge Masvidal -- dangerous, yet unknown and unranked.

"People already want Gilbert Melendez to fight for a title in the UFC," said White, the promotion's president, on Thursday. "And as every titleholder is established in Strikeforce that's exactly what's going to happen."

But when?

Fans pine for Melendez to fight the UFC champion because they believe, based on the Californian's body of work, he can compete at that level. And, more importantly, he deserves the opportunity to prove he's the best lightweight in MMA.

ESPN.com currently ranks Melendez second behind UFC warhorse Frankie Edgar. He's in his prime. The idea that he's unmatched at 155 pounds outside the UFC is well-established.

So what's the upside?

If anything it's the idea that Melendez, 29, is the man now. He is the most promotable fighter Strikeforce and Showtime have at their disposal, that is, if the basis for promotion is winning fights. Stepping in the cage against Masvidal with a 19-2 record, Melendez says he's "not looking ahead at all" to what might come.

"I take consideration of not being pulled into looking past someone," he said. "That's something I learned. I feel like I'm always thinking of worst-case scenarios and that's what has made me pretty successful in this sport. I know I'm as good as my last fight. I've learned lessons. People don't understand; I've been around a lot longer than "Showtime" Pettis. I've been around a lot longer than Jim Miller. I've already hit those points in my career and now I've learned from those experiences. If I somehow lose this fight, it's not because I didn't train hard. That's for sure."

Few people expect Melendez to give up his title against an opponent he considers "a good challenge."

Masvidal (22-6) brings more length than Melendez. He throws crisp strikes, straight punches, moves well and can be elusive. He's also a suitable wrestler and, outside of mental lapses, is a genuine threat in all areas of the fight.

"I really think the first couple minutes are going to be the most crucial because then he can get into the rhythm of his game," the champion said. "If I don't let him get into his rhythm, then I can see his holes, start bringing the heat and open up.

"He plays really well with aggressive fighters who want to break him, so you have to be careful with that. I want to keep it aggressive but I want to keep it technical and tactical when I do it. Hopefully I can take it to the point where he's flinching and running and has a lot more anxiety because things aren't going his way and he wants to submit."

Some of Melendez's friends have offered up advice when it comes to Masvidal: Don't bother striking with the guy. That's not easy for a competitor to hear, let alone someone who's risen as high in the ranks as Melendez.

And to those well-wishers, Melendez has a response: "Dude, shut up. I'll do what I need to do."

"I feel just as confident with him, actually with anyone in my weight class right now," he said. "I'm pretty damn confident striking on my feet. Even more so with five rounds. You can run but you can't hide with me."

Thus far in his MMA career, that's been true. Which is why so many people feel Melendez deserves to test himself against the best. During Thursday's teleconference touting the reinvigorated Strikeforce-Showtime relationship, the UFC president promised Strikeforce too would be a place where the best compete. That's certainly true of Melendez, but what of his challengers? How will they make "El Nino" a better champion, one worth remembering over the long haul?

Melendez said he isn't consumed by such questions. The only thing he can do is his job, which entails beating the man in front of him. If he continues to do so, then perhaps his profile will grow as Showtime, a success in building up mixed martial artists like Nick Diaz, Alistair Overeem and others, focuses its spotlight on him.

"That's the only way I can look at it," Melendez said. "I can't be negative about it. I'm not a pessimistic person. I've got to be optimistic here, and I have to utilize what I have in front of me. If I'm the big fish in a small pond, so be it. Let's make the best out of it."