By Case Keefer
Las Vegas Sun
Gilbert Melendez fumed after Benson Henderson’s latest title defense.
Melendez spent the main event of UFC on Fox 5 last December in Seattle watching from the corner of teammate Nate Diaz, who lost a unanimous decision after enduring a 25-minute beat down from Henderson. It wasn’t an easy experience.
"When your buddies fight, you can't help but get a little emotional and passionate out there," Melendez said. "You're bummed for your friend when he fights, and if you can back your friend up, you will. At that point I was like, 'Give me the opportunity to avenge my friend. Give me the opportunity to fight this dude.'"
Melendez (21-2 MMA, 0-0 UFC) will have no shortage of motivation when he steps in for his chance against Henderson (17-2 MMA, 6-0 UFC), the lightweight champion, Saturday in San Jose, Calif., at UFC on Fox 7. In addition to the revenge angle, Melendez spent years begging for a chance at the UFC title.
When the UFC purchased Strikeforce two years ago, Melendez was the first champion from the rival organization to lobby for a chance to cross over. The 31-year-old will become the last to do so when he takes on Henderson.
"For a long time, I've been trying to prove I'm No. 1," Melendez said. "And this is my opportunity, so I'm going to take advantage of it."
Without a single fight in the octagon, Melendez is already rated as the No. 1 lightweight challenger in the official UFC rankings. The respect comes from his current seven-fight win streak, one more than Henderson has pieced together, against the best competition Strikeforce had to offer.
Part of Melendez's long-time argument about being the world's best 155-pound fighter was that he had beaten all of the best talent outside of the UFC, a point that's hard to argue.
"He might not have the biggest name, there might be bigger fights and all that blah, blah, blah," Henderson said. "But I know how tough Gilbert is."
Melendez attributes a fair chunk of success to the teammates he's come up with in the Bay Area. In addition to Nate Diaz, Melendez also trains frequently with older brother Nick Diaz and welterweight Jake Shields.
Those three have all competed for a UFC title within the last two years and come up short. Melendez's bout against Henderson might mark the last chance for one of well-known coach Cesar Gracie's fighters to earn a UFC title in the foreseeable future.
"I'd love to bring the title back to the gym and share it with those guys, but there's no added pressure," Melendez said.
Melendez does think it's an advantage that he's now spent two training camps preparing for Henderson as he also helped Nate Diaz get ready for the champion. Henderson disagrees and sees no reasons he would benefit from fighting teammates on back-to-back weeks.
Henderson, in fact, is tiring of hearing about all the factors working in Melendez's favor ahead of their bout.
"It's all just extra shenanigans to sell fights," Henderson said. "I don't care. I'm going out there to win every fight, and that's it."
This is more than just another fight to Melendez, though. "El Nino" described it as a "champion versus champion" super fight.
That might not be how others view the matchup, but it doesn't bother Melendez.
"You've got to pick your battles in this sport, and that's not one of them for me," Melendez said. "I feel like I'm somewhat of a challenger walking into new territory. It's a whole new organization."
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