Gilbert Melendez was a Strikeforce staple, not that it kept the organization’s lightweight champ from speculating just how he’d fare in the UFC.
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Even now after the UFC has absorbed Strikeforce and he has been awarded a title shot against Benson Henderson in the main event of UFC on FOX 7 at HP Pavilion on Saturday, Melendez told FOXSports.com he could have been a UFC champ years ago.
“Every time, I wanted to fight the champion,” Melendez said. “Nothing against any of those guys, like Kenny Florian and B.J. Penn. I could have beaten them. Those two guys I really want to fight. There are others like Gray Maynard and Frankie Edgar I would have liked to fight. I’ve been waiting to fight these guys a long time and it’s finally happening.”
This is a rare bout between two champs. Melendez, 31, makes his UFC debut holding Strikeforce’s final lightweight championship belt. Henderson is seeking to defend the UFC lightweight belt a third time.
“Yes, champion versus champion, it’s a neat thing for me,” Melendez said on a conference call with reporters. “But I feel like in this case, Benson’s the champ and I’m coming to the Octagon, a new organization.”
Melendez is also a former WEC and PRIDE fighter. That means, counting UFC, Melendez will have fought for four organizations owned by Zuffa, the parent company of UFC.
All the others were shuttered, the last being Strikeforce after its final event in January.
“I’m happy with it,” Melendez said of his time at Strikeforce. “I did my role for my employer. I was happy about my time there. I did my job, but I was glad to hear that UFC was going to purchase it. I don’t think it was handled badly.”
The final months before Strikeforce included a more sparse fight schedule and even one card that had to be canceled entirely after Melendez was injured days before an event in September. Strikeforce’s broadcast partner, Showtime, said it would not air the card minus Melendez.
“Some horrible (expletive) happened to those guys,” UFC president Dana White said. “They were sitting on the shelf for a long time, didn’t make money, didn’t get to fight. It was frustrating for me. I can imagine how it felt for them, so I love it. I love when Strikeforce guys fight, and especially for the first time.”
White called the Strikeforce fighters signed to UFC contracts “hungry” and the UFC is putting the top Strikeforce fighters in the spotlight right away. Gegard Mousasi headlined (and won) the main event at UFC on FUEL TV 9 two weeks ago. Beyond having Melendez in the main event of UFC on FOX 7, the co-main features the final Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix champ Daniel Cormier, who takes on former UFC champ Frank Mir.
“It gives me a little bit of confidence,” Melendez said. “I’ve seen other guys do well. It’s just a little juice of energy. We’re just going to do our best out there.”
And UFC on FOX 7 takes place in the birthplace and home of Strikeforce: San Jose. It’s also not far from where Melendez went to college — at least before he began his pursuit of an MMA career.
Melendez, who grew up in Orange County in Southern California, attended San Francisco State and wrestled for the school. But his goal of becoming a teacher and wrestling coach ended before he got his degree.
“I was always a fan of it,” Melendez said of MMA. “I watched all the fights on Sherdog. All the interviews. Wanderlei Silva was always a bad ass. There was Rampage Jackson and Chuck Liddell. One of my favorites, especially since he was at 155 (pounds) like me, was Takanori Gomi.”
Melendez will have something in common, finally, with all those fighters come Saturday.