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Gilbert Melendez Focused on Defending Strikeforce Title, But UFC Hopes Remain

Gilbert Melendez is a Strikeforce original, one of only two fighters the promotion retains from its inaugural event in 2006, and its only remaining male fighter who receives true consideration among the top five of his division.

Since April, Melendez (19-2) has been on the shelf, awaiting his next assignment, but despite that, he's seen his fame grow, mostly because of UFC president Dana White uttering his name regularly during that time in reference to possibly bringing him over to make his octagon debut.

That possibility for now has been moved to the back-burner, but it's one Melendez gets asked about on a regular basis, and one that is lurking in the background of his Saturday night title defense in the main event of Strikeforce: Melendez vs. Masvidal.

Many athletes would refuse to acknowledge the possibility of a future past their next scheduled date, but not Melendez. In fact, he candidly states that he's not long for Strikeforce, even as he prepares to headline their event on Showtime.

"It's obvious it's something we've been talking about. I think it's inevitable," he said of a future move to UFC. "I think some of the top fighters need to go to the UFC. And I'm one of those guys, so it's in the works. Things have been talked about. Am I in [the discussions] all the time? Am I the one talking to them? No. But there's some dialogue going on and I mean, the goal is to be the UFC champion at the end of the day. The goal is to be No. 1 in the world at the end of the day. And the only way to do that is by getting the UFC title."

Melendez, ranked No. 2 among world lightweights by MMA Fighting, takes on the role of big fish in a small pond, a star capable of competing among the UFC's deeper, more established talent pool.

Yet, if there's one last challenge he sees for himself in Strikeforce, it's his Saturday opponent, Jorge Masvidal.

The Floridian has quietly been considered among the top talents unsigned by the UFC for a few years. He's also been regarded as a sort of mercurial talent, one who may look like a world-beater on his best days and unmotivated on others.

Masvidal (22-6) signed with Strikeforce in early 2011, moving to the lightweight class in the process, and since then has defeated Billy Evangelista and KJ Noons in consecutive fights. Melendez calls Masvidal an "underrated" fighter who he has been expecting to fight for a couple of years, but the odds will be big in his favor on Saturday, and the pressure is on him to win.

"A lot of people have been talking nonsense, that Jorge is no good," he said. "You're going to run by him and that talk kind of bothers me because some people are ignorant. They don't really follow the game that much. If you don't fight in the UFC, they think you're no good. So what's been the challenge for me is motivating myself and staying motivated and pumping myself up.

"So this means a lot to myself; not to fans, not to anybody," he continued. "This fight is for me, just to prove that I can defend my throne, and I'm the big favorite here and I have a tough guy who's underrated and I got to really come through. So that's what's been motivating me and I think if I can get past this and look real good, I think it will mean a lot to me more than I think it will to anyone else."

If Melendez wins, he won't necessarily push for a shift over to the UFC -- he still has multiple fights left on his current deal -- but he also says that he can't think of any other lightweight on the Strikeforce roster that he's hoping to face or is deserving of a title shot against him. That will make for a tricky situation. He might be the face of Strikeforce, with nothing more to do there.

If that happens, we'll all know what he wants to do. It's UFC title or bust, all in due time.

"The goal is to be No. 1 in the world, you know what I mean?" he said. "If I have to beat Jorge, if I have to beat someone else, if I have to beat five more people before that, then so be it. But, the sooner the better. I think I deserve the chance at the UFC title. So, if I can get it as soon as possible that would be great. If not, I'll have to keep winning and keep working hard. If I feel like I have to constantly prove myself in this MMA industry, then so be it. It's inevitable. I'm coming for that spot."