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Gilbert Melendez Makes His Case as World's No. 1 Lightweight

For years, No. 1 has been a guess, an argument, a debate, and nothing more. But in this brave, new world, we move closer than ever to getting our answer. It will never be final, of course. Even when you have a dominant champion, there is always someone else on the way up, someone who plants doubt in your mind. But we're at least finally heading in the right direction. With the recent Zuffa-Strikeforce deal, we have 95 percent of the world's best fighters under the same umbrella, and at some point in the near future, they'll actually get in the cage together and fight.

Right now, it's something like a civil war, two sides who need to be unified for the good of everyone involved, for both the people fighting and those waiting for resolution. Until then we'll keep guessing as soldiers, err... fighters like Gilbert Melendez fire off their best ammunition, both physical and verbal.

The first man to defend a title in our new era, the Strikeforce lightweight champion wasted little time in voicing what was already on everyone's minds.

"I'll tell you what, I think it's time we unify some titles," Melendez said. "Who wants to see me fight for that UFC title? Let's unify them in my hexagon. I'm the No. 1 lightweight in the world, baby. I'm coming for the spot."

It was a bold, brash statement coming before the Zuffa brass, including president Dana White and company co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta, who were both present at San Diego's Valley View Casino Center to watch. It was also a necessary one.

Melendez (19-2) might not have been the headliner of the event, which was dubbed Strikeforce: Diaz vs. Daley, but he might have walked away as the headline star after a blistering performance that saw him smash through Japanese star Tatsuya Kawajiri. It was perhaps the best overall showing of his career, finishing his opponent in just 3:14.

The fact that he won was not especially shocking considering he had already done so once before, but their 2006 fight was very close, with Melendez winning a controversial decision. Since then, Kawajiri broke into the lightweight elite with wins over JZ Cavalcante and Josh Thomson, among others, and that's what made Melendez's win so stunning. He didn't destroy a nobody, he crushed the "Crusher," a fighter who was in everybody's top 10 and had only been TKO'd once before in 35 career fights.

More amazing still was the fact that he did it after nearly a full year off. It was last April when he decimated Shinya Aoki, and after taking time off to enjoy the birth of his first child, Melendez didn't skip a beat. Ring rust? What ring rust? He was sharp standing, landing 17 power strikes, including a right hand that seemed laser-guided to Kawajiri's chin. On the ground, he overwhelmed Kawajiri, and finished with elbow strikes, a ground technique that was previously outlawed in Strikeforce but allowed under new management.

With that, you have to give Melendez real consideration as the world's best lightweight.

While you might argue that Melendez's five-fight win streak is not overly impressive, that's exactly the number of fights UFC champion Frankie Edgar won in a row before drawing with Gray Maynard at UFC 125. And Maynard? He has exactly one win over a top 10 lightweight in his career, his UFC 118 decision over Kenny Florian. You can make a case for Bellator champ Eddie Alvarez, who has won 12 of his last 13, but among common opponents, Melendez beat down Aoki, while Aoki tapped Alvarez in just 92 seconds.

Melendez has won back-to-back fights over top 10 lightweights, something that only Edgar among that group could have boasted when he beat BJ Penn twice in a row. Edgar still has the top slot on most lightweight rankings lists, but now all eyes move to UFC 130, when he and Maynard go back for their third go-around. If Edgar wins, that would make him 1-1-1 against Maynard. If Maynard wins, he remains unbeaten, but he might not be a champ with a huge groundswell of support behind him given that he has not finished an opponent in his last eight fights. Melendez has finished three of his last five.

There's no easy answer here. There is no "right answer" as to who is No. 1 except who wins in the cage. You can play with stats, bend numbers and cherry-pick facts to suit any argument. There's only one way to find out the true answer, and that's man against man. Gilbert Melendez made a strong case for himself on Saturday night. Suddenly, the people who once felt he wasn't for real have to start wondering just how real he might be. Suddenly, we have hope for an answer. Debating and arguing about No. 1 is fun, but not as fun as watching two champions fight for it.

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