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Gilbert Melendez on new deal: 'Everyone thinks I'm this millionaire or something now'

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Esther Lin

The word's long since gotten out that Gilbert Melendez got a sweet deal to stay with the UFC.

But the former longtime Strikeforce champion had a message for those he think it may have gotten to his head.

"Everyone thinks I'm this millionaire or something now," Melendez said on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour. "But that's not the case."

Maybe not, but Melendez sent a jolt of electricity through the MMA world by the way he handled his contract negotiations. Melendez got an offer from Bellator, then received a lucrative counter-offer from the UFC to remain with the company, opening other top fighters' eyes to the notion that there could be a true free market situation for fighters between MMA's top two companies.

"People were encouraging me," Melendez said of other fighters who took time to reach out to him. "I know they were happy for me, their own experiences, my intentions weren't to try to start start anything, I'm glad everyone was behind me, everyone does what they have to do, but my goal wasn't to start any sort of commotion, this was standard business."

For Melendez, although he said nothing about it in public at the time, step one toward securing his new deal was his UFC 166 brawl against Diego Sanchez, which finished high on most fight of the year lists. Sanchez admitted his approach to the bout was similar to that of a baseball player entering his "contract year" during his prime.

"They're like contract years, you know," Melendez said. "You better deliver when you're on your contract year and that definitely was on my mind, you know, in that third round and during that fight and I had to win and I had to deliver and prove my worth. That was my goal in that fight."

Melendez, who was represented by Rodolphe Beaulieu of Creative Artists Agency, who also manages former welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, pretty much fell off the grid at that point. Other than a prematurely announced bout with Khabib Nurmagomedov ("Let's just call it a miscommunication at the time," Melendez said), Melendez stayed out of the headlines until the swift period of events in which Dana White told Melendez to look elsewhere, and he signed a deal with Bellator.

"I don't know how things work all the time," Melendez said of his team's approach to contract negotiations, "but I don't think some of that stuff needs to be public, that was for me to talk about with my management team and for me to talk to the UFC and all that

"I knew the way we were going to approach it," he continued. "I didn't think it needed to be out there or any controversy behind it, I just didn't want any outside influence. It's always a delicate situation, and handled delicately, sometimes under the radar is the way to do it."

A personal chat with UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta after the Bellator offer came in was the turning point in the deal.

"Lorenzo did hop on the phone and expressed passion for sport and how much he wanted me to be part of it," Melendez said. "I really appreciate that. The things he said on the phone, it's business of course, but ultimately he has a real passion for the sport, and of course, my passion for the sport as well, you try to put your emotions aside during this transition and this business deal, but emotions did come out a little bit, but I did appreciate his passion for the sport. It was a turning point, I like what he said, he made me feel good, he made me feel welcome there."

Under the terms of the deal, Melendez will coach on the 20th season of The Ultimate Fighter opposite the current lightweight champion, Anthony Pettis. The two will meet in the traditional coaches fight, with the title on the line, sometime late in the year.

If there's any one mild downer to the whole scenario, it's that the world's top two lightweights will end up out of action for over a year: Pettis has been out with a knee injury since winning the belt from Ben Henderson on Aug. 31; Melendez's last fight was his memorable brawl against Sanchez.

Even then, though, "El Niño" is looking at the upside.

"I've been there before," Melendez said. "I took a year off. I'm older in this sport, I get banged up here and there. I've done it before, taken a year off and come back, I'm okay with it, and also, what I'm okay with is Anthony Pettis will be out longer and is also come back from an injury. That makes a little bit easier. I'd like to fight a little bit sooner, but it's the way it worked out, I'm going straight into a title fight."