Gilbert Melendez and Robbie Lawler have come about as close as possible to winning the ultimate prize in mixed martial arts without strapping an Ultimate Fighting Championship belt around their waists.
Both fighters will get a shot at redemption at UFC 181 tonight at Mandalay Bay.
Melendez, the longtime Strikeforce lightweight champ, dropped a split decision to then-champion Benson Henderson in his UFC debut in April 2013.
Henderson went on to lose the belt to Anthony Pettis, whom Melendez will challenge tonight.
Lawler lost a close unanimous decision to Johny Hendricks in March in one of the year’s best fights. He now will get a rematch.
While both fighters are in similar situations tonight, they have different perspectives.
Lawler said the loss is completely behind him, and he rarely has thought about how close he was to winning the title.
“I watched it again a week after the fight,” said Lawler, who added he watched the tape two more times in his preparation for the rematch.
“I wasn’t really into it, but my coaches wanted me to see it. Really now it’s in the past. I feel like I’m better because of that fight, so I have no regrets. I feel like I did my best that night, and I’ve gotten better ever since. I don’t really think about how close I was. You can’t control that. You can control how I can make it better the next time.”
The missed opportunity still bothers Melendez, perhaps because he still believes the decision was unjust.
“I’ve thought about it a lot,” he said. “I feel like I won the title that night. A lot of the media thought I won. Most fans thought I won. Everybody in the building thought I won except two of the three judges. I still think about it, and it does piss me off that I could have had the title since that night.”
Melendez rebounded from the loss with a decision over Diego Sanchez in October 2013, about a month after Pettis took the title from Henderson with a first-round submission.
But Pettis suffered an injury in that bout and has been unable to defend the belt. The two served as rival coaches on “The Ultimate Fighter” in the interim, giving Melendez plenty of time for reflection.
Though he’s just 32, Melendez knows he might be running out of chances.
“This is my third UFC fight and my second title fight, which is kind of unheard of,” Melendez said. “I feel like I’ve earned that, but if I lose now, it will be a lot of work in a stacked division to get another chance.”
Pettis agreed with the assessment and said it makes Melendez an even more dangerous challenger.
“This is his last chance, man,” Pettis said. “If he loses this one, he’s not getting another title shot for a long time. This is make or break for him. This is what I’ve spent my whole life trying to get, so I’m not going to give it up easy. But he’s going to bring a war at me.”
Melendez’s belief that he is running out of chances has bred a different mentality entering the fight.
“I feel like I fought a tactical fight against Benson,” he said. “I had a game plan to be conservative and not make a mistake because it could cost me a round. I feel like at this point I’m ready to take the necessary risks to be the champ because this could be my last shot. This is a way different fighter, so it’s a different kind of fight. I feel more eager to go for it. A different game plan breeds a different mindset, so I feel a bit different this time.”
Lawler doesn’t expect to change much. He appeared on the verge of defeating Hendricks until a late takedown in the fifth round that might have sealed the judges’ verdict.
Hendricks says he entered the first bout with a torn bicep that severely hampered his ability to implement his game plan. He has talked about the injury a great deal, which Lawler called “frustrating.”
The champion had surgery on the injury and has yet to defend the belt. But Lawler stayed busy.
After knocking out Jake Ellenberger in May, Lawler stopped Matt Brown’s seven-fight winning streak with a unanimous decision in July.
He said he hasn’t done anything different to prepare for the rematch but that he’s in better shape because essentially he has been in training camp all year.
Not that Lawler plans to take full advantage of his improved stamina.
“I’ll be ready to go the distance again, but that’s never the plan,” he said. “The plan is always to go out there and get him out of there early.”
Should he do that, Lawler, 32, finally will reach his ultimate goal almost 14 years after his professional debut.
“It would be huge,” he said of the UFC belt. “It’s part of the journey of what you want to do as a mixed martial artist. I’ve been dreaming of that moment for a long, long time. I’ve trained around a lot of champions, and I feel like now it’s my time.”
The pay-per-view card begins at 7 p.m. A four-fight preliminary card airs live on Fox Sports 1 (Cable 329) at 5 p.m..
The first two fights of the day will stream exclusively on the UFC’s online platform, Fight Pass, beginning at 4 p.m.
Contact reporter Adam Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj.