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Sunday, October 20, 2013
Melendez, Sanchez delivered as promised

By Josh Gross

Gilbert Melendez's reaction to the news that UFC wanted him in the cage against Diego Sanchez looked something like this.

A deep breath. A pause. And acceptance.

"When you fight Diego, you get the chills, like, ‘ooh, It's going to be messy here,'" Melendez told media just days before he was scheduled to fight Sanchez on the pay-per-view card at UFC 166 in Houston, Texas.

"He's a guy I know I can beat, but it's a tough situation, its going to be a tough fight," he said. "It's going to hurt, it's going to be a battle and it's a dangerous fight."

The truth, it seems, can literally hurt. Such was the case for Melendez and Sanchez, who conjoined for three incredible rounds that deserves to be neck and neck with Jon Jones stupendous title defense against Alexander Gustafsson for fight of the year in 2013.

"That's what Mexicans do," Melendez said in the Octagon after taking a unanimous decision. "We hold our ground and fight. I'd rather go down on my shield than run in circles. Diego's a warrior. I respect him so much. I slept on his couch before to train with him. It was an honor to fight a warrior like that. But if I can get through any guy as tough as him, I think I can get through anyone in the division."

Reputations are earned, and Sanchez has been in enough wars over the years to gain Melendez's respect. Likewise, Melendez branded himself as a tried and true warrior over the last decade, which is why many people, including UFC president Dana White, said this was the fight to watch in Houston.

"We only have three rounds so we need to get this fight started fast and I believe it's going to be one of the fastest three round fights UFC has seen in awhile and a good one for the fans," Sanchez said Wednesday. Five of the last eight times Sanchez stepped inside the Octagon, he helped deliver a "fight of the night" worthy contest. Make that six of nine.

"Tell me one time you've seen a bad, boring Diego Sanchez fight," White said during a media scrum on Thursday. "There's no such thing. You know how he's going to fight. Guns blazing and it's going to be fun."

The promoter had listed Sanchez's clash against Clay Guida as his favorite. It was an uproarious fight from four years ago. The promoter can claim a new favorite, because Sanchez's fight with Melendez was that mind blowing.

"Without a doubt, the greatest night of fights we've ever had," White said, still visibly amped from everything that played out in the cage over five hours in Houston, including, and not to be forgotten, Cain Velasquez's incredible raging river of an effort over Brazilian former heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos. As good as the heavyweights were, they couldn't match up to Sanchez and Melendez.

Melendez had been the better fighter in recent years, though Sanchez suggested in the lead up to Saturday that his efforts inside the UFC are worth more than his opponent’s body of work outside the Octagon.

Melendez’s record away from the top promotion in MMA is considerably more extensive than almost any lightweight on the planet. Saturday marked bout No. 2 in the UFC for "El Nino," and since he couldn’t best Benson Henderson in the eyes of the judges, a fight many people felt he deserved to win, the 31-year-old Californian entered his meeting with Sanchez feeling as if he had something to prove.

“I think it’s important to fight and win in impressive fashion,” said Melendez, who hadn't departed California to fight in nine of his previous 10 contests. That attitude, plus an always eager opponent, set up a volatile mix.

Gilbert Melendez vs. Diego Sanchez
Gilbert Melendez's crisp boxing helped sway the judges in his favor.
The opening round was a loud shot across the bow of things to come, particularly the closing seconds when both stood their ground and fired off a flurry of strikes. Round 1 belonged to Melendez. He was eager to exchange and Sanchez allowed him many opportunities. The former Strikeforce champion didn't need to engage like this. Yes, he wanted to entertain. He wanted to prove a point about being the "uncrowned King at 155" after coming up short on the judges' cards against Henderson. And he wanted to pay the proper homage to the man in front of him. But the point still is, this was a conscious decision on Melendez's part. He sought war and found one.

"When you talk about hardcore real Mexican fighters, it was a Mexican world war here tonight," White said. "It was unbelievable."

Melendez did best when he struck off of tie-ups and takedown attempts. He wanted to be first, and usually was thanks to superior hand speed and technique. Yet Sanchez kept coming, something out of a horror movie with a nasty gash occupying the space above his right eye. Down two rounds to none, Sanchez's corner, headed by Greg Jackson, told the Ultimate Fighter 1 winner that he needed a stoppage. So Sanchez went out to find one, and nearly did by catching Melendez with a stiff uppercut.

"You don't feel nothing when you're in here," Melendez said. Nothing but pride, that is. It's was this warrior spirit that bound both fighters, and prompted hellish training sessions four years ago between the pair. That same spirit propelled them to the final bell, which was the only thing that could get them to stop fighting one another.

"I want five rounds," Sanchez said afterwards, his speech slurred some by the difficulty of the last 15 minutes. "I want a rematch."

Of course he does.