Melendez languishing in Strikeforce

Gilbert Melendez on defeating Josh Thomson and retaining his lightweight championship.
Gilbert Melendez on defeating Josh Thomson and retaining his lightweight championship.
Inside Fights Scott Sawitz
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“Yeah, sure, whatever.”

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To truly understand Gilbert Melendez’s place among the MMA lightweight elite, you really have to look at that statement, made by Melendez after he beat Josh Thomson by split decision to defend his Strikeforce title in San Jose, Calif., on Saturday night on the main card of Strikeforce: Barnett vs. Cormier.

Melendez is considered by many the best lightweight in the world, and it would be easy to look at his razor-thin victory over Thomson as a sort of rebuke to the argument many make, that Melendez is that good; we just haven’t seen it yet.

After a sound thumping of Jorge Masvidal in his previous title defense, another example of how “El Nino” is a big fish in a small pond, Melendez’s post-fight speech Saturday showed exactly what he really thinks about his current situation.

Mainly … he needs either better fighters or a push to the UFC. Nothing else will do at this point.

That’s been the main refrain from many over the past year since the UFC purchased Strikeforce and it became an ugly truth Saturday night. Melendez and Thomson have a unique chemistry in a cage in that 75 minutes of their lives later we still don’t know who exactly the better fighter is.

They’ve fought three times without a decisive winner, despite Melendez’s hand being raised on the past two occasions. It’s similar to how Dennis Hallman has been a pedestrian fighter but holds multiple victories over UFC Hall of Famer Matt Hughes. Whenever Thomson is opposite Melendez, the Strikeforce champion will always have his hands full. It’s just how they match up.

As good as Thomson looks against Melendez, he probably wouldn’t do the same to the top tier of the lightweight division; he’s continually hurt and has fought with multiple serious injuries many times. To his credit, many would argue he won Saturday’s fight against Melendez. All three times he’s stepped into the cage with him he’s given Melendez everything he had and is the last man to defeat the champion (in June 2008). Thomson would make for an interesting opponent for many of the top guys in the UFC but he’ll most likely remain the best fighter in the gym to never put it all together inside the cage come fight time. He makes for a great opponent, oddly enough, but he’s not a top-five fighter like Melendez.

Right now the fact that Gilbert Melendez is still in Strikeforce only damages his career.

It’s something Melendez touched on further with Showtime announcer Mauro Ranallo. He gains nothing by fighting whoever’s opposite him that Strikeforce has under contract. Pat Healy will most likely be rightfully awarded the next title shot because of the good work he’s put in over the last 12 months, of course, but Melendez is a premier fighter. Right now, based on how he reacted after the fight, one thing is for sure: Melendez is bored. Strikeforce is now a gilded cage to him as he stands on the outside looking in to the elite fighters in the world in the UFC. Healy will be a good challenge, but this isn’t the type of fight he needs or warrants at this point.

Right now, at 30 years old, Melendez is in the prime of his career. A fight with Healy will give him that same “yeah, whatever” attitude that a fourth fight with Josh Thomson gave him in San Jose. It’ll be the same type of win that he had over Masvidal, most likely, where he’ll win but he’s not inspired. After that, one shudders to think if they’ll put someone like K.J. Noons up against Melendez, if only because they have no one else to put against him.

If Zuffa, the parent company of the UFC and Strikeforce, is to keep Melendez under the Strikeforce banner, he needs a challenge. Thomson is a matchup problem, but not someone who inspires the best out of him at this point in his career.

One can imagine what Melendez feels deep inside when he sees his teammate Nate Diaz get a title shot against the winner of the rematch between former UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar and the man ranked No. 1 in the world, current belt-holder Benson Henderson. It’s the title shot Melendez should have instead of fighting what amounts to the B-team of MMA lightweights. Until he does he’ll remain in the same spot: on the outside looking in.

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