It’s a confusing time to be Gilbert Melendez.
As the reigning Strikeforce lightweight champion and No. 2-ranked 155-pound fighter in the world, Melendez was one of the guys who figured to profit tremendously -- both figuratively and financially -- from the fight company’s impending demise.
Just last month, when he turned up backstage at UFC 139 in San Jose, Melendez admitted his biggest personal challenge was staying motivated for his Dec. 17 fight against Jorge Masvidal while keeping an eye on his eventual Octagon debut, saying “I have to look ahead because it’s just part of the business.”
Unfortunately, Melendez’s business has changed considerably since then.
The Cesar Gracie Jiu Jitsu product’s UFC aspirations may have been put on ice with last Saturday's confirmation that Strikeforce will remain on life support and on Showtime through 2012. Dana White ended weeks of speculation to that end when he declared to reporters following the UFC 140 news conference that “Strikeforce lives,” that the UFC president himself would essentially be taking over its operations and that the larger fight promotion would stop stripping the smaller one for parts like a stolen car.
“Gilbert Melendez and all the guys that are in the Strikeforce show and with Showtime, I will make fights [for them]. They will be happy to be there,” White said. “Believe me, I got this thing worked out. It's going to be good for everybody. It's going to be good for the fighters, it's going to be good for Showtime, and it's going to be good for Strikeforce.”
While White typically makes good on big picture promises like this one, it’s actually kind of hard to imagine a scenario where a prolonged stay in Strikeforce could be good for Melendez. Where his bout against the unheralded Masvidal first seemed like a final win-and-you’re-in test, it now takes shape as nothing more than a high stakes, zero reward placeholder for “El Nino.”
That it’s difficult to picture future matchups being any different is both a compliment to Melendez and a red flag that things will have to change in Strikeforce if he's expected to stay there much longer.
As a guy already regarded as the second-best lightweight in the world, any foe outside the top 10 can't do anything positive for Melendez besides pad his personal stats. A win over Masvidal, for example, won't do a lick for the champ's reputation, but it will give him sole possession of the record for most wins in Strikeforce (10), most title defenses (four) and extend his mark of most championship appearances (nine).
In other words, despite the four fights he’ll have left on his current contract after this weekend, it feels like his work there is done.
No matter what, prolonging the organization’s life in any meaningful way will obviously require an influx of new talent. In order to make said talent competitive, or even worthwhile for Melendez, UFC brass will either have to sacrifice some of their top 10 fighters to Strikeforce – guys like Jim Miller, Anthony Pettis and Gray Maynard – or plunder smaller organizations for the Eddie Alvarezes and Michael Chandlers of the world.
Neither of those options feel particularly likely, but it’s clearly going to take some big changes to justify keeping Melendez out in the cold.