Gilbert Melendez knows when he steps into the Octagon at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif. on April 20, he represents his camp's last, best chance.
Melendez, the final Strikeforce lightweight champion, meets UFC titleholder Benson Henderson in the main event of UFC on FOX 7. He'll become the fourth Cesar Gracie Fight Team member to get a UFC title shot in the past two years. His teammates, Jake Shields, Nate Diaz, and Nick Diaz, have gone 0-3.
So Melendez will enter the Octagon looking for redemption, both for his team, and specifically for Nate Diaz, who lost a unanimous decision to Henderson in December.
"Of course, I'd love to avenge my friend," Melendez said during a Tuesday media teleconference. "I'd love to get revenge for my team, and yeah, you know, I got to see firsthand what Benson's all about, front row. Of course I would love to bring that belt back to my teammates."
The 30-year old Melendez (21-2) carries a seven-fight win streak into the bout. The two-time Strikeforce champion's name is almost synonymous with the company, as he carries the record for most Strikeforce wins (10) and successful title defenses (6).
He's long believed himself to be the world's top lightweight, and is glad to finally have the chance to prove it. But while it's easy to frame the fight as a sort of unification bout, Melendez feels he's squarely in the challenger's role.
"Champion vs. champion is a neat thing for me, but I feel like in this case, Benson's the champ and I'm coming into the Octagon in a new organization," Melendez said. "I fought the Dream champ, I fought the Shooto champ, I fought a lot of different champs. It's a neat opportunity for me, I'm definitely prepared, and I'm looking forward opportunity. For a long time I've been trying to prove I'm number one, and this is my opportunity, so I want to take advantage of it."
Henderson, for his part, says that even if Melendez isn't the biggest name fighter out there, he's well aware of his challenger's accomplishments.
"I'm not looking past Gilbert," Henderson (18-2) said. "He might not have the biggest name, there might be bigger fights and blah blah blah out there, but I know how tough Gil is. He was the Strikeforce champ and he was rated the top two, top three, for a long time, for a reason. I'm not looking past him at all, not even close."
In addition to Henderson's win over Nate Diaz, Shields lost a unanimous decision to Georges St-Pierre at UFC 129 in Toronto, and Nick Diaz was decisioned by GSP at last month's UFC 158 in Montreal.