Being a big fish in a small pond can be a frustrating endeavor in the subjective, insulated world of mixed martial arts. Fairly or unfairly, a fighter is often only as good as his résumé, and when that résumé begins lacking the flashier names of his counterparts, regaining momentum to climb up the divisional rankings can seem like an impossible task.
It's an inherently skewed system, but it's the only one we've got, and it's the one the Gilbert Melendez has been struggling with for years. Despite being universally heralded as one of the top-three lightweights in the world, Melendez has drifted into divisional limbo as the Strikeforce lightweight champion. With a roster devoid of any glitzy names or world-ranked opponents, the 30-year-old fighter has found himself fighting a parade of barely top-20 opposition, from last year's bout against Jorge Masvidal to this week's rubber match against Josh Thomson.
For Melendez, the lukewarm reception to his fights is a tough hurdle to clear.
"It's not the easiest to be motivated for," he conceded on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour.
"Part of being the champ is just defending the belt a little bit, and that's just what I've got to do. It's tough, but the paychecks, my family, my team, and just my fans, that motivates me. It's what I do. Regardless of being motivated, there's no question if I'm going to train or not."
Making matters more frustrating, as Melendez prepares for a third fight against Thomson, rumors of an injury to Thomson's knee have seemingly tempered public anticipation for the match, which unfortunately already bordered on tepid.
To his credit, Thomson has refuted all claims of a significant injury, instead voicing frustration with certain members of the MMA media for irresponsible reporting. While Melendez isn't quite sure what to believe, he'd be a fool to overlook an opponent who has already beaten him once.
"To be honest, if you're 100-percent walking into the cage, you probably didn't train hard enough," Melendez explained.
"Maybe some guys have to do whatever they have to do to get motivated, make it easy for themselves -- I'm not saying that's what he's doing -- but I'm definitely not anticipating an injured Josh Thomson. That'd be stupid of me. I'm anticipating a 100-percent guy ready to bang it out with me and take advantage of the great opportunity he's been given."
Even as Melendez says the right things, it's clear the frustration of fighting another non-big name is starting to boil over. More so than usual, in fact, because for a while it looked like a headline-worthy superfight was headed his way.
Earlier this year, word spread that Zuffa was looking to tap the services of legendary UFC lightweight champion B.J. Penn to come over to Strikeforce and challenge "El Nino" for his belt. It would have been one of stiffest tests of Melendez's career, but ultimately, plans were scrapped and Penn later referred to a move to Strikeforce as a "downgrade."
"I was having some high hopes, and I think even Dana (White) had high hopes," Melendez admitted. "It was looking positive. I don't know the politics behind-the-scenes and I don't know exactly what happened, but it just never came to.
"I understand why no one (will come). I think Strikeforce and Showtime is a great promotion, and they've done great things, but it's no secret that the main stage is the UFC. Some people don't want to go into Strikeforce, and maybe, they don't want to get stuck there. I understand where they're coming from."
Truthfully, Melendez also understands that the public doesn't have much sympathy for his plight after the fighter elected to re-sign a lucrative, long-term deal with Strikeforce early last year. And besides, he knows he has a life that many would envy. so for now, Melendez is focusing on the positives and hoping everything will work itself out.
"I've got to be optimistic and look at the glass half full right now," he said resolutely. "I'm doing what I love. I'm getting paid well, and I never imagined I'd be here. I was fighting barnyards deep down for $200. I'm old-school in this sport. I'd never thought I'd see it come this far, and I'm appreciative of what I've got."