Former Strikeforce star Melendez’s UFC debut comes on familiar turf

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Tonight marks the Ultimate Fighting Championship debut for Gilbert Melendez, but the longtime Strikeforce lightweight champion will be familiar with his surroundings.

Melendez lives and trains in the Bay Area and fought eight times at HP Pavilion for the now-defunct Strikeforce organization.

His familiarity with the building came in handy at Thursday’s news conference when Melendez entered the media room in the lower levels of the arena all bundled up.

“It may be an unfamiliar octagon, but the Shark Tank is very familiar to me,” he said with a smile. “This room is very familiar. I knew to bring my sweater in here because I knew it was going to be freezing.”

The 31-year-old also knows that fighting at home can be either a benefit or a detriment, but he hopes to make it a positive experience in his long-anticipated UFC debut, a lightweight title fight against Benson Henderson in the main event of the UFC on Fox 7 card.

“It’s one of these situations where it can get back at you and make you nervous or you can rise to the occasion and take full advantage of it,” he said. “I’m trying to get the Bay Area behind me. I’m trying to get everyone pumped up for it around here. It means a lot to me.”

It’s a moment Melendez has been anticipating — and pushing for — for several years. For various reasons, he couldn’t make the move to the UFC. When he first was rising to prominence, the organization didn’t have a lightweight division. Then, he settled in as one of the top stars in Strikeforce as it became the main competition to the UFC. When the UFC bought the organization and brought over several of its stars, Melendez was left behind to be one of the last remaining attractions.

Now with Strikeforce out of business, the stars finally have aligned for Melendez to enter the UFC.

“It’s been a roller-coaster ride,” he said. “I’ve done some good things, and now I’m here for a title shot. At the end of the day, it’s been a good journey. The glass has always been half full.”

Melendez has built a 21-2 record and has been widely considered among the world’s top three lightweights despite not competing in the UFC.

As unfair as it might be, Melendez is aware some will judge his entire body of work based on how he performs now that he finally has made it to the top organization.

“I think a lot of people know what’s up, like my peers and people who have been around the sport a long time that know I’ve accomplished a lot,” he said. “But to the common fan, I’m 0-0. Your octagon record is kind of what stands out the most.

“I’m not fighting for how people perceive me, but I just know how people are going to perceive me. If I win, it legitimizes everything. If I don’t, it won’t. Do I know in my heart what I’ve done and what I’ve accomplished? Of course. I will always know that.”

Henderson said not respecting Melendez’s ability would be a huge mistake.

“He might not have like the biggest name, but I know how tough Gil is,” the 29-year-old Henderson said. “I know he’s the Strikeforce champ, rated top two, top three on the planet for a long time for a reason. I’m not looking past him at all, not even close.”

Melendez will not be alone in carrying the Strikeforce banner. The entire main card features matchups pitting established UFC fighters against former Strikeforce competitors.

Daniel Cormier, the winner of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix, will make his UFC debut against Las Vegan Frank Mir, a former UFC heavyweight champion.

Josh Thomson, who just completed an epic trilogy against Melendez in Strikeforce, will take on Nate Diaz in a lightweight bout.

Canadian Jordan Mein, a former Strikeforce welterweight contender who won his UFC debut with a first-round knockout of Dan Miller about a month ago, returns on short notice as a late replacement to fight Matt Brown.

The main card airs live on Fox at 5 p.m. A six-fight preliminary card, topped by a featherweight bout between Darren Elkins and top contender Chad Mendes, will air live on FX (Cable 24) at 2.

Las Vegan Anthony Njokuani will fight Roger Bowling in a lightweight bout, one of two that will stream live on Facebook at 1 p.m.

Contact reporter Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj.

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