Melendez downplays aspirations for UFC

SAN JOSE, CALIF. – The storyline stays pretty much the same each time Gilbert Melendez steps into the cage to defend his Strikeforce lightweight title.

How much longer is he going to have to do this?

It’s a question Melendez has posed, both in person and through the media, over and over again to his bosses and those of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which owns Strikeforce.

The dominant Strikeforce champion thinks he is the best 155-pounder in the world. He wants to prove that, whether by moving to the UFC or having some name opponents fight him in the Strikeforce cage. He has watched as several other stars from Strikeforce have been brought to the UFC for big paydays on the big stage.

But Melendez, who will defend his Strikeforce belt once again against Josh Thomson on Saturday night at HP Pavilion on a card to be televised on Showtime, seems resigned to his plight.

“I’m not worried about that anymore,” he said. “I’m just going to keep doing my thing and performing and try not to look at that stuff. I’m just trying to find different motivations like the paycheck and my team and my family.”

Melendez, 30, is a victim of his own success. The powers-that-be have chosen to build Strikeforce around his stardom. When Strikeforce and Showtime agreed to extend a television deal and ensure the organization wouldn’t be folded into the UFC, someone needed to carry the torch. With former heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem and former welterweight champion Nick Diaz gone for the greener pastures of UFC, Melendez has been that guy.

He almost got his wish of a big-name UFC fighter crossing over for this fight. Efforts were made to get BJ Penn to come out of pseudo-retirement, and rumors circulated of Gray Maynard challenging him as well.

Instead, a third fight against Thomson is on the docket. It is a high-risk, low-reward bout for Melendez against the last fighter to defeat him, but that was back in 2008.

“He’s another tough opponent I have to fight that isn’t on the radar because he isn’t in UFC,” Melendez said. “For business moves, you try to fight guys who have big names. There’s a lot of guys in the UFC that have bigger names than us just because they’re in the UFC, but I’m a professional at this point. I dig in hard, and I go to work and do my best.”

Putting the anxiousness and bitterness of worrying about joining the UFC behind him has worked wonders for his training camp.

“It’s been fun. I’m going to be doing this for a long time, and if I’m going to do this, I’m going to have fun and not be stressed going out to every practice,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been doing. Just training my butt off, and the stress is there but not so bad. It is what it is. I’ve just got to roll with the punches on this.”

Thomson, who returned from more than a year away with an injury to score a unanimous decision victory over K.J. Noons in March, admits he was a bit surprised to get this shot.

“I kind of thought they were going to give it to (lightweight contender Pat) Healy, to be honest,” he said. “But, you know, they came to me and asked me, and what else are you going to do? You can’t turn down a title fight.”

Saturday’s card, which is headlined by Strikeforce heavyweight tournament title match between Josh Barnett and Daniel Cormier, airs tape-delayed on Showtime (Cable 240) at 10 p.m.

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

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