Mired in the worst slump of his career, Gilbert Melendez still has the mindset and spirit of a fighter who has a lot of work left to do.
It’s the rest of him that’s being less than cooperative.
At 35, the former Strikeforce lightweight champion hasn’t seen his hand raised inside the cage since winning a unanimous decision over Diego Sanchez almost four years ago at UFC 166. He’s lost his last three fights, and while he’s optimistic about a move down to 145 pounds, he confessed on a recent episode of The MMA Hour that part of the reason he’s been on the shelf for the last year is due to having to recover from knee surgery and that his decision to continue fighting could eventually be taken out of his hands.
“I’m rolling with the punches. My heart is in it, and my mind’s in it at times,” Melendez said. “My biggest thing, I’ll be real with it, is my body. I wear my scars. I’ve had a separated shoulder, busted knees, broken hands, broken collarbones, intercostal muscles torn, broken nose, scars in my face, bashed in my head. These are things that add up after a while and as much as you want to push — I’m a pusher, I like to work hard, but your body tells you slow down, and that’s one thing I’ve been doing is try to listen to my body. I can still compete. The hard thing for me is to get ready for a fight, to really push myself sometimes and bang my body up, and I know I’m trying to alter that a little bit to be ready and not bang my body up.
“Back to the question (of how much longer Melendez wants to fight): As long as my body lets me and as long as my mind is in it. But I don’t enjoy losing and I’ve lost a few fights and really want to get back on track. And I’m not getting knocked out either, I’m not just getting demolished and fetal-ing’ up in the corner. I’m fighting, I’m banging, and I’m not feeling like I’m getting dominated in the sport and still some of these matches I lose in the scorecards, I don’t really go home feeling like a big loser.”
Melendez entered the UFC with a gaudy 21-2 record that included wins over Josh Thomson, Jorge Masvidal, and Shinya Aoki, and he was immediately thrust into a title opportunity against then-lightweight champion Benson Henderson when he came over to the promotion in 2013. He lost a razor thin split decision to Henderson, an outcome that would prove to be the beginning of an ugly trend.
After defeating Sanchez, Melendez fell short in his second bid at a UFC championship when he was submitted by Anthony Pettis at UFC 181, which is to date his only stoppage loss in 28 pro bouts. He would then be narrowly outpointed by Eddie Alvarez (another split decision) before taking another loss on the scorecards against Edson Barboza, though that most recent setback was hardly controversial.
Still, the fact that he was still able to go the distance against the lightweight division’s best has kept Melendez from becoming discouraged, and he’s excited about dropping down to featherweight to fight Jeremy Stephens at UFC 215 on Sept. 9 in Edmonton, Alberta.
“I do love that fight,” Melendez said. “I’ve had some tough fights, I’m 1-4 in the UFC, but I feel like I beat Benson Henderson. I feel like I beat Eddie Alvarez. And I may have lost those fights on scorecards, but I felt like I owned the center of the Octagon. I stand there and bang and guys who have beaten me have usually outpointed me, not really beat my butt. They stick and move or change their game plan.
“Jeremy Stephens isn’t one of those guys. He’s a guy who pushes forward and someone I’ve been asking for, someone who’s not a runner, someone who’s a banger, someone who’s actually going to fight. And I got someone who’s that guy. He’s someone I respect, I like his style, and I think it’s a good recipe for mixed martial arts.”
An all-out war with Stephens doesn’t exactly sound like it will be good for Melendez’s longevity, given the fact that “Lil Heathen” has 16 KOs under his belt. But when asked if growing concerns about concussions and long term brain damage are an issue for him, Melendez answered that it is simply a matter of keeping things out of sight and out of mind.
“Have I heard of it? Have I seen it? When there’s something down my Facebook feed or Twitter feed or about it, I whiff right past it,” Melendez said. ... “I fight for my family, I fight for my team, and I fight for my future and that’s one thing that maybe it crosses my mind, but it’s something I have to put under right now. I can’t put that kind of weakness in my head at this moment.”
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