It’s been more than 15 months since the UFC lightweight title has been on the line. Finally, on Saturday night, the anticipation is over. Champion Anthony "Showtime" Pettis will defend his belt for the very first time against "uncrowned champion," Gilbert "El Nino" Melendez.
It was a surreal moment at the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Pettis stunned everyone in attendance, and those watching around the world, with a first-round submission finish over then-champion Benson Henderson.
No one saw the tap. The finish came so quick that Pettis was already on top of the cage celebrating before it all sunk in. He just pulled off another amazing finish, but this one was not of the highlight-reel variety. This one was virtually unseen by the naked eye; heck, even for the trained MMA eye.
It was a strange form of validation; one that many had been waiting to see transpire for years. Anthony Pettis had proven once and for all he was the best 155-pound fighter in MMA.
At the post-fight press conference, Dana White had a rare gleam in his eye. A new star was born and not one person — not in the media, not in the fan base — disagreed with the promoter. Dollar signs were flashing in his eyes, for greatness was sitting just a few feet away. The world was ready for a new pay-per-view star — a polished, suit-wearing, slick-fighting lightweight star.
But Pettis was quickly defeated by the injury bug. Again and again. It seemed every time Pettis gained momentum, he would lose it to a knee injury. Shoulder pain. Something. The wait for his rise amongst the sports great would once again take a backseat to the clouds blogging his shining star.
In the meantime, just seven weeks after "Showtime" lived up to his nickname, "El Nino" matched him noun for noun, verb for verb.
The site was the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. Melendez’s foe that evening was a certain "Nightmare." Diego Sanchez. But it ended being a "dream" come true for Gilbert.
Unbeknownst to many, it was the final fight of his contract with the UFC. At stake was his livelihood. He was dead-set on proving his worth to the organization, and if they didn’t like it, so be it. Bellator was waiting to scoop up his services.
What unfolded in the Octagon, arguably, was the greatest MMA fight of all time. Back and forth they went, Sanchez a bloody mess, losing on all scorecards, until he dropped Melendez in the final round.
With his eyes rolled back into his head, Gilbert hit the mat, snapped out of it, bit down on his mouthpiece, eventually got back up, and the two continued to throw bombs until the final bell sounded.
The bout was so incredible many in the media forgot about impartiality and stood up, joining the over 17,000 fans in attendance, giving the two warriors a standing ovation.
Melendez rightfully had his hand raised in the end, subsequently signing a new, lucrative contract with the UFC, one that started with a second crack at the lightweight title, as well as a stint opposite Pettis as a coach on The Ultimate Fighter.
Gilbert’s first attempt at the title came in April 2013, where he lost a controversial split decision to the aforementioned Henderson. But many believed the judges got it wrong. Melendez should have had the belt wrapped around his waist and because he did not, the moniker of "uncrowned champion" has been associated with him ever since.
On Saturday night, Melendez will put the pressure on Pettis in hopes to break him or slow him down, so he can capitalize on a mistake in the later rounds. On the flip side, Pettis is adamant he will finish off Gilbert in the first round, yet made it clear he’s ready to go the full 25 minutes if need be.
No matter what happens on Saturday night, the anticipation will finally come to an end. This, ladies and gentlemen, is one of those bouts. I will sit back and truly enjoy, as over the past year I’ve often been asked the same question over and over again: which bout am I looking forward to the most?
It was always Pettis versus Melendez, for the lightweight championship of the world.