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[Interview] Gilbert Melendez talks having guts & following your heart

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In the UFC’s 20-year history, no group of fighters have been able to bend the will of the world’s premier fighting organization quite like the boys over at Team Cesar Gracie.

Whether it be the slick tongue(s) of the famed Diaz brothers, or the dominant grappling prowess of Jake Shields, the Nor Cal standouts have always positioned themselves in advantageous positions throughout their UFC tenure.

The most recent fighter from Team Cesar Gracie to test the proverbial waters of the UFC negotiating table is lightweight Gilbert Melendez.

2013 saw Melendez make his long awaited UFC debut after 12 years fighting in various promotions around the world. First came an immediate title match with Benson Henderson – a fight he lost via controversial decision. Then came a victorious “Fight of the Year” performance against Diego Sanchez.

With those two fights in the books, his contract was in need of renewal. However, when negotiations soured between his management and UFC President Dana White, he was told to start “looking elsewhere.” The comments came as a shock to fans and pundits alike (and probably Melendez, too) – especially given how exciting his fights with Henderson and Sanchez had been.

Quickly, the 31-year-old began entertaining offers from other promotions. The Viacom owned Bellator MMA was eager to make a bid for world-class services. They made an offer to the fan-favorite lightweight and the UFC was given an option to match.

Whether it was the interest from Bellator, or fan backlash – it was probably a bit of both -- somewhere along the way the UFC decided that Melendez was worth the price he had been asking. They made an offer and it didn’t long for “El Nino” to accept.

So how does Team Cesar Gracie do it? How do they consistently out-negotiate some of the most staunch and hardheaded negotiators in the fight world, today?

“We have guts,” said Melendez to Examiner as a guest on Majority Draw Radio on Monday. “We all have our own different styles of doing it -- some are a little more vocal about it, but I think we all have guts, and we all have a lot of pride. Sometimes we have that ‘take it or leave it,’ attitude and I think people feel that. I think that goes a long way in getting what you want.”

The former Strikeforce Lightweight Champion is quick to point out that he’s been broke, and he’s had a good payday once or twice, too. But it’s those years spent grinding that he looks back on with a smile. It’s the long flights to Japan, and the journey to championship gold that Melendez cherishes the most. When told to look elsewhere by the company he fought so hard for, it was those years that gave him perspective. He knew his value. He knew his worth, and he wouldn’t be accepting anything less than what a champion deserved.

“It’s easier to deal with life knowing you’ve followed your heart, and done what you really thought was in your best interest.”

With a newly inked contract in hand, Melendez can finally put any compounding nerves to rest. He stood up for what he thought was right, knew his value, and came out on top.

The long-term deal comes with some pretty sweet particulars. First, Melendez will be granted an immediate title shot against lightweight champion, Anthony Pettis. In addition, both fighters will serve as opposing coaches on the 20th season of the UFC reality show, The Ultimate Fighter. With a steadfast resolve, the future is now for “El Nino” and Anthony Pettis lies just on the horizon.

Melendez explains the potential move to Bellator wasn’t a negotiation tactic, “It wasn’t just some bargaining chip. I was dead serious.” He is quick to praise the organization for being top-notch after his brief dealings. However, the UFC is where he wanted to be. With a chance to coach opposite Pettis on the 20th season of The Ultimate Fighter, the chance to build a lasting legacy inside the Octagon was too much to ignore.

Add to the fact that Melendez and Pettis will be ushering in a new weight class (the 115-pound women’s division) and the deal was that much sweeter for the Cesar Gracie black belt.

“I’ve always expressed interest in doing the Ultimate Fighter for the reason to brand myself,” he said. “It is something I wanted. To be honest, I wish I could fight a little bit sooner, because I know it’s a process doing The Ultimate Fighter, and then to get your title fight. But, I mean, what better way could it be? I can really build up this title fight here, get a lot of eyeballs watching, [then] I can fight an extremely talented athlete by the name of Anthony Pettis in the main event.

“Also, just coaching these 115-pound women and crowning a new title – I feel like I’m a part of history. It’s definitely something that sweetened the deal, and something I always wanted to be a part of.”

Sticking with the theme of being ‘a part of history,’ the fight with Pettis serves as a possible benchmark for a division that has been lacking in star power since divisional mega star BJ Penn fell out of the championship spotlight. With Melendez’s propensity for high-output scraps, and Pettis’ legendary reputation for highlight-reel knockouts, the prospect of these two meeting for gold is not only enticing for the short term of the division, but the long term as well.

“This weight class needs a king – someone to hold it down,” stated Melendez matter-of-factly. “Someone who will really hold down the weight class and really go for it and do it. And it’s either Pettis or I at this point. And I feel like I’m the guy to do it, and I want to take that role. I want to be a St-Pierre. I want to be an Anderson Silva.”

The Skrap Pack founder sees this time in the company as a historic one. With so much talent littered across the landscape (and a rumored possible move up in weight for featherweight kingpin Jose Aldo) the division is primed for exciting fights for years to come. Melendez, being the ardent supporter of all things fist fighting, likens this time in the 155-pound division to a golden era of sorts – a time harkening back to the 90’s when boxing greats like Oscar De La Hoya and Felix “Tito” Trinidad owned over their division.

“I think this is great for the 155-pound division,” said the 31-year-old when asked if this match between he and Pettis could usher in a new era for lightweights. “I think it will just catapult us up there with one of those best eras in a minute. We saw it when De La Hoya fought Whittaker. He fought Mayorga. He fought Ike Quartey and then Trinidad. And then they all fought each other. I can see them just working us all around like that.”

So, the time-honored question begs: What can we expect to see out of a Gilbert Melendez vs. Anthony Pettis matchup?

“You’re gonna have two tough fighters, with two different styles meeting up. One, who’s a little more basic -- hard working, And then there’s one who’s just a hard working athlete, just evolving, doing amazing things. It’s a clash of two styles of two guys with a lot of heart -- a lot of guts. I think it will really catapult the 155’ers to be just a big a draw as any other division above us in the UFC.”

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Listen to National MMA Examiner Ryan McKinnell's weekly podcast with Danny Acosta (USA Today Sports, Sirius Satellite Radio), Majority Draw Radio: The Precision of Indecision

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