Gilbert Melendez is facing UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis for that division's most prestigious title on Saturday. Melendez has long been a champion in other organizations or highly ranked in the UFC. Yet, his current position is one that didn't happen organically or by chance. It was a coordinated effort only made possible by contractual openings, the financial willingness and ability of another suitor, and perhaps most importantly, effective management.
Let's quickly piece together the timeline of the relevant portions of Melendez's mixed martial arts career to help us better understand these facts.
Melendez made his UFC debut in April of 2013 where he faced then-champion Ben Henderson for the title (he did so also as the last Strikeforce lightweight champion). Melendez lost that bout via split decision, albeit somewhat controversially. He returned to the Octagon in October 2013 where he faced and defeated Diego Sanchez in an entertaining bout at UFC 166.
That's when everything changed.
Melendez was all but officially expected to face Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 170, but the bout was eventually scrapped without explanation. As it turned out, Melendez's contract with Strikeforce had been grandfathered into his UFC run and expired after two UFC fights.
Melendez and his management team began negotiating with UFC brass to re-sign with the organization, but the talks went poorly if UFC President Dana White's public statements are any indication.
"I'm done," UFC President Dana White told MMA Fighting's Ariel Helwani on February 12th of 2014. "It's not going well. I couldn't care less about it anymore. I like Gilbert Melendez, I don't like his management."
Melendez's manager, Rodolphe Beaulieu, also manages former UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre.
"Being Georges St-Pierre's best friend, doesn't make you a good manager," White said. "If [Melendez] wants to fight in the UFC, he better talk to (UFC CEO) Lorenzo (Fertitta) quick."
"He better start looking elsewhere," said the UFC President.
Melendez took White's advice to heart and did exactly that. On the open market, he secured an offer from World Series of Fighting. More importantly, though, Melendez reached an agreement with Bellator MMA. Two days after White told Melendez to seek offers elsewhere, Rebney and Bellator released a press statement hailing the potential lightweight realignment.
"The moment Gil was legally able to explore the free agent market, Gil's management team reached out to me and we began figuring out how to bring Gil to Bellator," Bjorn Rebney said at the time, via press release. "It's no secret that I've been a big 'El Nino' fan for many years. Gil was one of the first fighters I tried to sign when I launched Bellator back in 2008, and he's grown and developed into one of the best and most exciting lightweights on earth. Gil has a vision for what he wants to accomplish both inside and outside the cage and we can help make his vision a reality. We are in the business of developing and showcasing the greatest fighters on earth. That's what we intend to do here with Gil and it's what we'll continue to do in the future."
In the release, Bellator noted UFC still had matching rights, which they eventually exercised in an attempt to prevent Bellator from having one of the sport's best lightweights. By February 23rd, Melendez was back with the UFC and according to several sources, now one of the sport's highest-paid athletes. Later that day, it was announced Melendez and Pettis would coach opposite one another on season twenty of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF).
None of this is to suggest Melendez couldn't or wouldn't have earned another title shot on his own without the help of management or another organization to boost his leveraging power. He was consistently ranked near the top of the division both before and certainly after his defeat of Sanchez at UFC 166. With fighters like T.J. Grant on ice due to concussion woes or Henderson having already been in title rotation too much, Melendez was on anyone's shortlist as a title contender.
But as we saw, fast tracking Melendez back to a title shot wasn't the plan. UFC management appeared to want Melendez to face top contender Nurmagomedov, likely as the first fight on a contract Melendez was simply unwilling to sign. In fairness to UFC, Melendez's win over unranked Sanchez might've been entertaining, but isn't sufficient on its own to put 'El Nino' directly back into the title picture.
What, then, is the takeaway here?
Is it good to have another organization where fighters can leverage their value? Sure. Was it beneficial for Melendez that he was able to shop an open market at the conclusion of his contract? Of course. Bellator's existence, though, is something beyond Melendez and his management's control. Additionally, the timing of the expiration of his contract was set in long before he ever dreamed of ever fighting in the UFC.
In a week where the value and role of MMA managers becomes uncertain with the announcement of the UFC's new Reebok-made uniform, it's worth reminding ourselves of their (at times) extraordinary value.
It's true Melendez's unique predicament didn't involve sponsorship concerns (at least none we are aware of), but it's also true a clever and experienced manager was able to navigate a precarious and hugely important moment in his clients career. Melendez is 32 years of age. His chances of earning UFC gold past Saturday are not particularly strong. One can make the case the negotiations in February and play by Melendez to get what he wanted all along - a better UFC contract on his terms - were the most important of his career.
This isn't about fighters sticking it to management. This is about the two sides working together to find a mutually beneficial arrangement. If UFC didn't perceive having Melendez in the stable as worthwhile, they'd have let him walk. Melendez would likely still be paid well in Bellator, but wouldn't have the opportunity at sporting greatness he has on Saturday. His play all along, which he stated outright after the fact, was to get back in the UFC. Melendez and the UFC both won here by agreeing to terms they found workable.
But that only happened because of circumstances which Melendez's management deftly used to make the terms more equitable. Without Beaulieu's assistance, Melendez's future would be anything but certain. That, ultimately, was Beaulieu's contribution. He and Melendez worked together to leave nothing to chance. They wanted what they believed Melendez was worth, wouldn't take no for an answer and used their leverage to secure, in writing, a more positive outcome.
There are plenty of incompetent managers both today, and in the history of combat sports, but that caricature of them as duplicitous thieves is often undeserved, especially at the high end of today's game. Managers can and often do provide extraordinary value. Whether that will be true going forward is uncertain, but it is worth reminding ourselves as Melendez prepares himself for the biggest fight of his life on Saturday that he almost certainly wouldn't be here without his.