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Gilbert Melendez's seven-year wait ends in heartbreak

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

For the last seven or eight years, Gilbert Melendez has publicly tried to stake his claim as being the best lightweight fighter in the world. During his run in Strikeforce, he was in a unique position. He had a championship belt. He won all but one of his fights. He was ranked in many places as one of the top 10 pound-for-pound fighters in the world.

Some may have argued he was the best lightweight in the world, but the political limitations of the sport made him unable to prove it. He was constantly ranked top five, but never No. 1. When Zuffa purchased Strikeforce two years ago, there was immediate talk of Strikeforce champion Melendez meeting the UFC champion at the time, Frankie Edgar, to prove who was No. 1.

But just as Dana White had talked of the match being imminent, politics got involved again. As part of UFC’s second deal with Showtime, fighters were exclusive to their organization. Talk of Melendez vs. Edgar was dead. At times Melendez took solace in the idea that he had a great contract with Strikeforce, with the highest based pay in the division. But it was clear he was frustrated with constant fights that, whether he won or not, would never get him to No. 1. Melendez continued winning and Edgar lost his title to Benson Henderson. Edgar fell out of the title picture and dropped down a weight class, which led to Melendez being almost a consensus No. 2. And then Strikeforce folded in January. Melendez had talked all week about finally getting to see his goals come to fruition.

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He calmly talked about having a great camp, being injury free, and feeling he had done everything he could to correctly prepare. And in the waning moment of Saturday night’s main event against Henderson, the math in his head told him he was right. Melendez, like many, felt he had won rounds one, two and five and proven that he really was the best in the world. He was celebrating in the ring with his father and team as soon as the fight ended. And then, the scores were read. After scores of 48-47 were read, one for Melendez, the second for Henderson, and a third 48-47 was read, announcer Bruce Buffer said, "The winner, and (dramatic pause), still. . . " and all the jubilation dissipated from Melendez’s face upon hearing still, because that meant Henderson had retained his title.

His cornermen looked at the press in disbelief. "Heartbroken,that’s all I can say, heartbroken," said Melendez, after spending much of the press conference with his head down, in something of a haze while Henderson was answering questions about his win, saying how in the big picture that fighting isn’t that important, and discussing what he said he was most nervous about all day, which was his marriage proposal right after the fight ended, and not his fight itself.

"There’s always bigger things in life," Henderson said. "I’m very aware of how small fighting really matters in the grand scheme of things."

The reality is, it was not a robbery. The general feeling is the fight came down to who won the second round, with Melendez winning rounds one and five and Henderson taking rounds three and four. Dana White said he scored it for Henderson, but an unscientific survey of press had most scoring it for Melendez, and agreeing on which rounds went each way. One judge gave round five to Henderson. White, while acknowledging it was a great fight, noted that in the last 20 seconds, he was disappointed that neither man made the effort to put it away, noting had Melendez been aggressive in the closing seconds, perhaps he’d have swayed the dissenting judge and it would have been the difference between being champion and being on the outside looking in.

"I thought I won the first two (rounds) and the fifth for sure. I took my foot of the gas a little after the second," Melendez said. "I thought it was going to come to the last round, and I thought I won the last round. Ben's a stud what can I say."

And Melendez had been in the same situation in his previous fight, on May 19, in the same building, against Josh Thomson. He won a close split decision that could have gone either way. That night he was the lucky man. And while it’s zero solace to him the performance he did, in hanging with and arguably beating the No. 1 guy in the world, combined with Thomson’s win over Nate Diaz, had to dismiss all critics who felt the two top lightweight stars in Strikeforce were only big fish because they were in a secondary league and wouldn’t be able to hang at the top ranks in the deeper UFC waters.

One could make a strong argument Melendez deserves a rematch, but White made it clear that’s not happening. He announced the winner of a Gray Maynard vs. T.J. Grant fight on May 25 in Las Vegas will determine Henderson’s next opponent. Henderson himself wasn’t adverse to the idea of a rematch.

"At 155, the division is so stacked, so deep, top five guys are this far apart (holding his fingers close together)," said Henderson. "The top ten guys are this close. I do imagine I’ll be seeing Gil again. An immediate rematch sounds good to me, so does Josh (Thomson), and a lot of guys at 155."

However, he claimed to have zero concern when Buffer was reading the scores.

"No, I wouldn’t say I had any doubt," said Henderson. "I knew it was close. I thought I lost the first round, but I won the next four. I didn’t think it would be split."

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