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Gilbert Melendez says he's the 'uncrowned champ,' and Diego Sanchez is his first title defense

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MMA Fighting, Andy Hemingway

HOUSTON, TX - Gilbert Melendez may've fallen short last April in his title bid against Benson Henderson. But as he worked up a sweat during Wednesday's UFC 166 open workouts, one could hardly notice between the roar of proclamations from the crowd in Houston's House of Blues, each one crowning him the "real" UFC lightweight champion.

"It makes me feel great, man," Melendez said afterward. "It's great being the uncrowned champ. I'll be more than happy to take that role. So this is my first ‘uncrowned champ' title defense. Even (opponent) Diego (Sanchez) calls it that."

While Saturday night will mark Melendez's first fight since his controversial split decision loss to Henderson, the division's landscape has vastly shifted within the span of five months.

Now Henderson is out, dethroned in four minutes by Anthony Pettis, and Melendez's path back into the title picture is undoubtedly clearer.

"You know, I could be one impressive performance away," Melendez said. "I think the UFC maybe wants me to work a little bit, but I think there's no real pecking order in this division right now. The No. 10 guy can be the champ any day of the week. The No. 1 guy can lose any day of the week. It definitely comes up to my performance and what the fans want to see. And you know, if I do well, I'll definitely be campaigning for that shot."

Indeed, parity may soon be the name of the game in the UFC's lightweight division.

While Melendez is among those impressed by Pettis' performance -- "he big brother'd him," Melendez jokes -- he believes the belt will likely trade hands more than once in the coming months.

"We're looking for the king who's going to really dominate and hold it down right now. Tough shoes to fill with our weight class. We're deep, man," the former Strikeforce champ said.

"If there was a 10-man bracket or 12-man bracket, 16-man bracket, with all the lightweights in it, you might see the No. 5 seed against the No. 6 in the finals. That's just how it works in our weight class right here. But I think my style matches up great with everybody. I have the recipe to bang it out and compete with anyone in this weight class."

Melendez admits to always being a fan of Pettis, even prior to the kick heard ‘round the world at WEC 53.

But in his eyes, now that Henderson's decision heavy style has been unseated from the throne, a flood of contenders new and old alike, including himself, are all drooling at the opportunity to topple Pettis.

"I think a lot of guys would rather fight him," Melendez said. "He comes to fight and he takes more risks. I think he is beatable. Benson is a tough guy to fight because I think he plays the scorecards.

"Someone like Anthony, I respect a lot because he's going to go out there and try to win, try to kill you. But with that said, that also gives me the opportunity to do the same."

Title talk notwithstanding, Melendez is cognizant of the challenge that awaits him. In Sanchez, Melendez faces the furthest thing from an easy win.

And although he knows that his time to make a statement is now, Melendez also acknowledges that blood will be spilled before all is said and done.

"I got a tough task at hand here. Maybe one of the toughest tasks for my style. And if I can get by this, it'll give me a lot more confidence against anyone in the division," Melendez said in closing.

"It's one of those fights, you take a deep breath. I sometimes laugh about it, but it's about to go down."