By Adam Martin
It was only a few years ago that Gilbert Melendez was universally regarded as one of the top lightweight fighters in the sport, and in the eyes of many, one of the top pound-for-pound fighters as well.
After beginning his career in WEC, Melendez worked his way through Rumble on the Rock, Shooto, PRIDE, and Strikeforce, accumulating an incredible 21-2 record over a 10-year span from 2002 to 2012, with victories over the likes of Josh Thomson (twice), Shinya Aoki, and Clay Guida, and only losing decisions to Thomson and Mitsuhiro Ishida.
He was the Strikeforce lightweight champion and defended the title four times, so at that point calling him one of the top fighters in the sport was totally justifiable.
Melendez was then booked against Diego Sanchez at UFC 166, and the two put on one of the best lightweight fights in MMA history, with Melendez ultimately earning a unanimous decision win. Although Melendez was dropped in the contest, it was an incredibly exciting fight, and with Melendez a free agent after the bout, Bellator swooped in and signed Melendez to a massive offer sheet, guaranteeing Melendez a title fight as well as the chance to appear on Spike TV programming.
Anthony Pettis and get a title shot against the champ at UFC 181. Although he started off well in the contest, like his first UFC title fight against Henderson, things didn’t go Melendez’ way, as he was tapped out by Pettis, losing a second-straight UFC title fight in the process.
Losses to Henderson and Pettis are understandable, but typically losing two title fights means you have to do a lot of work to get back in line for another title shot. That opportunity for Melendez came at UFC 188 when he took on Eddie Alvarez in Mexico. Unfortunately for Melendez, he again was on the wrong end of a split decision, losing to Alvarez and dropping to 1-3 overall in the Octagon. Of his four fights in the UFC, it was by far his worst performance.
Instead Melendez did his time and he returns to the Octagon this weekend at UFC on FOX 20 against Edson Barboza in an exciting co-main event between two lightweights trying to prove they are still contenders in the ever-evolving 155-pound division. For Barboza, it’s the chance to get a win over another top lightweight, as he recently picked up the biggest win of his career over Pettis at UFC 197, while for Melendez it’s the chance to reaffirm his spot in the top 10 with a victory over Barboza.
But how did it get to this stage? Maybe it’s true that Melendez missed the prime of his career fighting in Strikeforce instead of the UFC, and it’s true his opponents have been top-level, but regardless, a 1-3 record in the UFC – 1-4 if he loses to Barboza – is something that seems very surprising. The positive drug test also makes you wonder how he’ll look in his comeback, and whether he had been chemically enhanced during his reign as one of the world’s best P4P fighters in Strikeforce. And for the UFC itself, the promotion was probably expecting a lot more, considering how big his paycheck is.
Regardless, fans can expect an exciting fight. For all his faults, Melendez is still always willing to throw down, and he’s an incredibly hard fighter to finish. But if he ever wants to hold UFC gold, he’s going to need to take Barboza out, and that’s no guarantee. However, if we know anything about Melendez, it’s that he’ll go down swinging.
UFC on FOX 20
• Edson Barboza vs. Gilbert Melendez
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UFC on Fox 20: Holm vs. Shevchenko takes place on July 23, 2016 at United Center in Chicago, Illinois.