HOUSTON — Neither Gilbert Melendez nor Diego Sanchez will leave the cage at the Toyota Center on Saturday night with an Ultimate Fighting Championship belt.
That doesn’t stop them from seeing their UFC 166 lightweight bout as a title fight.
Several mixed martial arts observers, Sanchez included, believe Melendez was the victim of a bad judges’ decision in April in his UFC debut against then-champion Benson Henderson.
“It’s great being the uncrowned champ,” Melendez said after several yells of “champ” from the contingent of fans who showed up to see the public workouts Wednesday afternoon at House of Blues in downtown Houston. “I’ll be happy to take on that role. This is the first uncrowned champion title defense. Even Diego calls it that, and I’m cool with it.”
Melendez didn’t win the title that night, but Henderson no longer has it, either. He lost the belt to Anthony Pettis in August, and Melendez knows he is in prime position to get another title shot with a victory Saturday.
“I think I’m one impressive performance away,” he said. “I think the UFC kind of wants to make me work a little to get back there, but I see that there’s no real pecking order in this division right now. It depends on my performance and what the fans want to see, but if I do well, I’ll definitely be campaigning for the shot. There’s a lot of great guys in this weight class right now, and we’re looking for the king who’s going to really dominate and hold it down, and that’s tough to do in our weight class.”
Melendez, 31, thinks he can be that guy. The former Strikeforce champion gave Henderson all he could handle and proved correct all the pundits who had ranked him among the top two or three lightweights despite not being in the UFC.
The Northern California-based fighter said finally getting over that hump will allow him to showcase his skills moving forward.
“I think there was a little chip on my shoulder, a little weight on me,” Melendez said. “My peers and journalists mostly gave me respect, but I think a lot of people would always question me, like ‘Why (is Melendez) ranked No. 2 in the world?’ or ‘This guy sucks. Has he ever beaten anyone?’ A lot of really (expletive) things. It makes you fight a little conservative and puts you on edge. Your legacy is on the line. I feel like now I’ve arrived, and it’s time for me to have some fun, experiment a little bit more and really go for it out there.”
While Sanchez can win only a mythical title and most likely would be well outside the title picture even with a victory, he still sees plenty of opportunity.
“Gil Melendez is my golden ticket,” said Sanchez, 31. “With a good performance in this fight, going in there and doing something that has never been done and stopping Gil Melendez, if I go in there and do it, I can start to make a case for a title shot.”
Melendez already had one shot. He hopes to get another, but if it happens soon, it would come against Pettis instead of Henderson.
That’s fine with Melendez, who viewed the changing of the guard at the top of the lightweight pecking order to be a good thing.
“I’d rather fight (Pettis),” he said. “I think he’s a better matchup for a lot of guys, myself included. He comes to fight and takes more risks. (Henderson is) a tough guy to fight, not because he could get me or hurt me, but because he avoids a fight. I think he plays the scorecards, but someone like Anthony I respect a lot. He’s going to go out there and fight aggressive and come forward like I want to.
“I think he’s a good champ, and he’s good for the sport. He’s revolutionizing the sport right before our very eyes. I wish I could do some of that stuff.”
For now, the focus is on beating Sanchez. Despite being more than a minus-500 favorite, Melendez knows his veteran opponent won’t back down.
“I feel like on a great day for both of us, this could be a fun, all-out brawl,” Melendez said. “But I think I have the potential to dominate as well.”
A heavyweight title fight between Junior dos Santos and champion Cain Velasquez headlines the pay-per-view card.
Contact reporter Adam Hill at email@example.com or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj.