In the end, the only one who truly got hurt in the Gilbert Melendez free agency bonanza was Will Brooks, the Bellator Season Nine lightweight tournament winner who had the inside track to face him. Otherwise, pretty much everybody came out of the ordeal looking and feeling pretty good.
The UFC, who exercised its right to match the terms of Melendez’s Bellator contract, looks good. Not only did they refuse to let a big one get away, they sweetened the deal by giving Melendez a coaching spot opposite current lightweight champion Anthony Pettis on The Ultimate Fighter 20. We’ve come to know TUF coaching stints as "added exposure," which Melendez can use. He’ll also appear on pay-per-views at three out of every four showings, and he’ll earn PPV points at lower buy rates, which is all gravy running off the plate. Melendez, who just a short time ago was on the outs with the UFC, is now bursting in its good graces.
Bellator came off well, too, particularly in how they handled the news that Melendez had been smuggled safely back into the UFC’s stable. Instead of bemoaning how close he was to waging war with Michael Chandler, CEO Bjorn Rebney played to the better interest of fighters in the big picture of fairness and worth.
"This process has shown that in MMA, there are two legitimate options for fighters," he said in a statement to MMA Fighting. "And, as I said last week, with two large scale options for fighters in MMA, fighters negotiating power is dramatically improved. Our actions throughout this process accomplished that for Gilbert right now, and in the future it will do the same for countless additional fighters. Some will end up in Bellator and some will end up in the UFC. But, either way, the sport benefits."
As far as tacks go, that’s a fine one. "No hard feelings -- all’s fair in tug-of-war." It’s all a game of intentions. And Bellator established its intentions in more ways than one.
Melendez looked good by trusting that if he leaped a net would appear. He paved the way for others to establish their value on the open market (that, indeed, such a thing as a "market" exists). And he got himself a title shot in the process, rendering Jose Aldo a perpetual featherweight and TJ Grant a forgotten. So maybe there were a couple of other casualties besides Brooks.
Ultimately, though, Gilbert Melendez ending back up in the UFC is the desired result. He was narrowly defeated on the judge’s scorecards in his fight against Benson Henderson in his UFC debut, but we’ve since come to understand that it wasn’t his fault -- nobody beats Benson Henderson on scorecards in a close fight.
In Melendez’s second Octagon appearance he and Diego Sanchez unleashed hell on one another like men who’d never considered the idea of self-preservation. That’s Melendez, for you, accommodating Sanchez’s lone desire to bang in the pocket till the light bulbs crack. For him to split to Bellator now would have felt like a lot of unfinished business (even if we understood that business is business).
If there’s a down note to this all it’s this: The 31-year old Melendez, right smack dab in the middle of his prime, won’t fight against until late-2014, just as baseball season (only now beginning) finishes up. It’s hard to celebrate a mandatory hiatus of fighters you want to keep busy, particularly one who was involved in ten title bouts before the Sanchez gunfight in Houston. The TUF franchise constantly feels bittersweet for this reason. Most would rather watch people fight than coach, even if the coaches are building up to a fight in the end.
But then again, Melendez is at least in the UFC, and the idea of him and Pettis squaring off at any distant point in the future is cause for that authentic fight game anticipation. They are two of the most exciting lightweights going. These two stories are clashworthy.
And no offense to Will Brooks, but Melendez looks more at home in a woofer-kicking title shot than he does as a gauge for upcoming talent.