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With respect earned, Gilbert Melendez gets back to work

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LOS ANGELES -- Gilbert Melendez has always been about respect.

"I don't want to be famous," he told reporters in a downtown restaurant Monday. "I want to be respected and I want to make money."

Throughout all those years the San Francisco-based Melendez spent as Strikeforce lightweight champion, the fighter known as "El Nino" felt something gnawing at him.

People truly in the know understood him to be one of the world's premiere 155-pounders. But the lack of a real chance to prove it to a bigger audience left him unfulfilled.

"I had the biggest chip on my shoulder for awhile," Melendez said. "I wasn't performing that well. It was good money, but I was bitter at the world that you couldn't be recognized as a real fighter unless you fought in the UFC. You put so much f--- work in and beat good people and travel the world and all kinds of stuff, but it sucked that you still got considered a minor-league fighter all the time."

Ironically, it took a fight which went into the books as his first loss five years for Melendez to break his mental barrier. On April 20 in San Jose, Calif., Melendez made his debut against the UFC's then-lightweight champion, Benson Henderson, in an unofficial unification fight.

While Melendez was on the wrong end of a split decision that many felt was a bad call at UFC on FOX 7, the simple ability to show he could go toe-to-toe with the best on the sport's biggest stage was as valuable an experience as anything short of winning the belt itself.

"It was all positive stuff," Melendez said. "Besides winning the title, it was the best ‘B' scenario for me. The majority of people think I won, 75/25 percent think I won that fight. More recognition than ever, really, nothing to be bitter about aside from not getting the scorecards in a competitive fight. It wasn't the biggest ripoff in history. It was a close fight, I think I won it, I stand by it, but yeah."

General consensus on the Henderson fight was that Melendez took the first two rounds and then the fifth, with Henderson winning three and four. Melendez, however, feels he won every round but the fourth.

"I thought I won one, two, and I think I won the third round to be honest," Melendez said." I thought the third was competitive and I gave it to him because he's the champ but I honestly think the only thing in the third round was, he didn't even take me down, we tripped on the kick exchange and he fell on top of me, the bell rang and he hit me three or four times after the bell and so that may have been a little with the judges, I think the slip and him landing on the top was maybe the people's tiebreaker for that. So I look back on that and I feel like I did win 1 2 3 and 5. I pushed hard in round three and [in the] fourth round, I tried to get my energy back for the fifth."

Regardless, Melendez was able to shake off the loss pretty quick. The instantaneous uptick in traffic to the El Nino Training Center near Candlestick Park made him realize people respected his performance against Henderson.

When Melendez was winning fight after fight in Strikeforce, well, "I could have put up a sign that said "pound for pound top 10, No. 2 in the world lightweight, Strikeforce champion," Melendez said, "and people were like ‘What?'"

But after the Henderson fight? "Now I could put up a sign that said ‘0-1 in the UFC' and everyone would be like "Whoa s---, this guy fights in the UFC!"

So it wasn't long before Melendez began thinking about which fight would make sense for him next. As it turns out, the UFC came to him with a fighter who was on the short list he came up with in his head.

"Right after my fight I was like, ‘Who should I fight next?' Number one was [Donald] Cerrone, Cerrone seemed like a relevant fight. Then he lost to Dos Anjos. Then next was Diego, he has the mystique and the bigger name. ... I kind of figured out myself before they even offered me that this was what I wanted."

Still, when he got the call to fight Sanchez, Melendez couldn't help but have a moment of pause.

"When I heard it, I took a deep breath," Melendez said. "He's a guy I know I can beat, but it's a tough situation, its going to be a tough fight. It's going to hurt, it's going to be a battle and it's a dangerous fight. When I fought Benson, its a tough fight, but its not ‘this guy's going to hurt me.' Benson was a tough fight but I was unscathed. When you fight Diego, you get the chills, like, ‘ooh, It's going to be messy here.'"

While Melendez obviously wants another title shot, the UFC has not promised him anything if he beats Sanchez. The divisional picture has undergone a dramatic shift since April: Henderson lost the title to Anthony Pettis; T.J. Grant was promised a title shot but has to sit out due to a concussion; and of all people, Josh Thomson, the man Melendez beat two out of three times in Strikeforce, is getting the next crack at the crown.

"Hey, he beat me once, and the last fight was debatable as well, you know?" Melendez said. "I'm down to fight again. If he has the title too? At this point I'm down and I'm feeling good about fighting anybody. I know it's going to happen eventually. Before my career ends, it's an inevitability."

But Melendez is in the place he wants to be. He's happy. The way he figures it, if he goes out and states his case with his performance against Sanchez, then everything else should fall into place.

"I think it's leaning more towards, they want me to work a little harder to get that title shot again," Melendez said. "I had my shot. People ask, are you mad about Thomson? I had my shot. I'll have to work for it."