Melendez vs. Sanchez: The making of a modern classic

"Classic fight". It’s a phrase that has been ever-present in the jargon of combat sports since time immemorial.

Recently, legions of fans and commentators have put Melendez vs. Sanchez into this bracket without hesitation. And how could you not? Mike Goldberg had christened it "The Mexican World War" for crying out loud - and that was even before we had heard the final bell. The badass nickname - surely that’s the hallmark of every classic bout?

But what really makes a classic?

For many fans, Jones vs. Gustafsson fits the bill perfectly - an underdog story which took everybody by surprise. Neither fans or bookmakers were willing to give the challenger a chance, and although the marketing of the bout was centred on how the fighters’ physical similarities meant Jones was in for his first legitimate challenge - one in which his height and reach would not be deemed unfair by his cult of critics - it still gave equal thrust to the alternative questions it posed: what would those critics say when an opponent of near-identical dimensions was crushed like all those that came before him? And who could possibly challenge next?

Those questions were quickly answered in the first two rounds - well not answered, more thrown out of court with disdain by Gustaffson who quickly established that his rangy, accurate boxing and light footwork would give Jones the gruelling dogfight he had claimed to have craved.

Matching Jones’ height and reach undoubtedly played a huge part, but of course wasn’t the only factor in play. What we saw that night was a fighter who believed he was exactly where he belonged: in the main event, fully prepared, and truly believing he had what it took to topple the champion - whether anybody was siding with him on that simply didn’t matter.

Sometimes classic encounters come in the form of those unexpected, explosive opening chapters of stories yet to be fully realised, and sometimes they feel more like glorious endings of sorts - or at least denouements.

Although it takes two competitors to make a fight unforgettable, as Melendez vs. Sanchez grew more violent by the minute and the crowd got sucked in to its vortex, it began to feel like Diego was baring his soul for all to see.

"The Dream" experienced a nightmare first round as he was continually beat to the punch by his faster, less war-torn opponent. As the shots became cleaner and more frequent you couldn’t help but think that when it came to the top ten - and especially the top five of the division - Sanchez simply didn’t have what it took anymore. And the sad part? This wasn’t surprising.

For those of us who follow the sport enough this was simply the physical confirmation of Diego’s prior admissions. He had burnt the wick at both ends in a haze of excess during his early rise to stardom on the back of his Ultimate Fighter win. A time when he felt invincible, adorned magazine covers and couldn’t foresee how the good times would ever end. For stretches, he had taken his foot off the gas; he had not trained the way he knew he had to in order to stay at the top of an ever-evolving sport.

He had been burned financially (to the tune of around $200,000 by his own estimate) by people who said they had his back - people who were there for the party but nowhere to be seen the morning after - and had to deal with all the mental anguish that came with that. He had taken all the bumps and bruises the rollercoaster of fame will dish out to somebody too young for the ride and strapped in alongside the wrong kind of friends.

Despite all of that, on the UFC 166 Countdown show he assured us that he had never felt better, mentally and physically, and it was just a matter of time before he would get back to the top. For long-term fans all too familiar with the unforgiving nature of this sport, you might respectfully nod along to this in the way a surgeon does when he tells a patient that they will never walk again, only for them to reply that they will prove you wrong, just wait and see.

But there was more to factor into the equation. The flipping between weight classes had probably asked too much of his body over the years, the catalogue of Fight Of The Night dust-ups had put too many miles on the clock, and he wasn’t getting any younger.

It’s not as if there hadn’t been a change of tact. Now back under the tutelage of Greg Jackson he could work on papering over the cracks. He could develop a more tactical approach which incorporated more of his solid wrestling, and formulate focused game plans which would keep him out of anymore career-shortening slugfests. It seemed like the perfect fit. But strangely enough, against Gomi he had never looked so lacklustre and, if we’re being honest, was gifted a decision that night.

And under the lights of the Toyota Center at the end of the second round, after scar tissue had once again been reopened, as blood trickled down his torso, in a fight in which he was being outgunned, a part of you – a reluctant, tiny part of you - turns back to the doctor. Was he influenced by the crowd? Is our enjoyment coming before the health of the fighter? Are we complicit in endangering this fighter? Should he have waved it off? I mean look at that thing…

BANG. Everything changes in an instant. Sanchez lands an uppercut and the roof is blown off. What the hell were you just thinking? This is the final round. It’s Diego Sanchez. This is go-time. He’s finished warming up now. A wild scramble between two warriors ensues and we try to possibly imagine what the fighters feel like in the epicentre of this mad quake, as we can only ever skirt on the edges and feel the tremors…the aftershock. We’re in awe. Nothing else happening in the world right now matters. And we can’t believe it’s about to end…

Melendez was out for a second. What if Sanchez had connected with that follow up blow before Gil hit the mat and was jolted back into consciousness? Once he had hit that mat what if he had opted for follow up strikes instead of taking his back? The answer: we’ll never know.

All we knew was that Sanchez had gone back to what had brought him to the dance in the first place: balls-to-the-wall aggression and with all guns blazing. He had spoilt us with another unforgettable battle that we had no right to ask for - with perhaps the only fighter in the division who shared the same vision of warfare and who would agree to an unspoken truce: they would meet in the middle, fire, and never stray. Just like they had done years ago in training, only this time they would try and take each other’s head off.

Most likely, Melendez agreed to that truce because he was confident it would favour him anyway, perhaps partly because he couldn’t swallow that Mexican pride, and because he’s a guy from the old school were fighters always came to fight.

And more so because a hell of a lot of people didn’t know he was from the old school. And didn’t care.

For thousands of spectators – those strange, bewildering casual fan types – it went like this: if you didn’t get it done in this octagon, you didn’t get it done at all. It didn’t happen. But he had been at this for years, had built a great record, had earned the respect of his peers, and had been a world champion in other organisations.

He had a name in this sport. Care to check out YouTube? He couldn’t care less. After the 19th October, 2013, you would remember who Gilbert Melendez was for as long as you lived.

Inevitably, as time passes there will be re-evaluation in some quarters. Some will say that the fight didn’t age well, that it didn’t deliver on repeated viewings, or it lacked any real historical significance as it wasn’t a title fight - or even a number one contender fight for that matter. Similarly, those same people might downgrade Henderson vs. Shogun because both were past their prime, or perhaps in the distant future bring Jones vs. Gustafsson down a peg or two because the rematch didn’t live up to expectations. But maybe they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Wild action, crazy heart, a frightening pace, a late frenzy, and the what-if moments it left behind. Are these the ingredients of a classic? Maybe. But it’s not a matter of ticking boxes – there is no exact formula or checklist to be satisfied.

Because it’s about what it felt like. At that particular time. In that moment. Sanchez vs. Melendez was by no means a technical masterpiece or a compelling high-stakes chess match. But like all the classics, it took us all some place higher – to that hallowed plane where fight fans always long to be elevated to but can never aptly describe. All we know is that we’re there upon landing. And we know there’s nothing else quite like it.

And that’s what counts.

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