Conor McGregor asked an important question last year, one that commanded a great deal of public attention — who the fook is that guy? It turns out his name is Jeremy Stephens, and he’s a guy that chops down lead legs with his own shin bones and feet, like a human scythe cutting through corn stalks. In his 26th UFC fight, Stephens went to Edmonton and attacked Gilbert Melendez’s left leg. He attacked it so thoroughly — and so often — that it gave his audience a case of the winces. Twenty-four hours later, that same leg had bloated like a cigar that had been left inside a glass of beer over the weekend.
It was nasty.
The crazy thing is, Melendez fought the bulk of the fight with that bum leg. It was mangled in the first round, and yet somehow he lasted the full 15 minutes. He kept moving forward, trying to exact his own offense, a painful game of improv if there ever was one. He moved in on Stephens throwing combinations with that lame leg left out, and ever so often Stephens would slash it with a kick. Melendez went down on a couple of occasions, having nothing to hold him up, and invited Stephens to come join him on the ground. One time towards the end of the first round, somewhat inexplicably, Stephens accepted this invitation. He swam into Melendez’s guard and tried to caveman him with some ground and pound. With having postponed his wedding to fight Melendez at UFC 215, perhaps he had no intention of going the whole weekend without finding himself in somebody’s guard.
It got worse from there. The “Lil Heathen” kept blasting it. Blowing it up. All while headhunting him with his fists, just in case Melendez were to look down to assess the swollen, pulsating burden he once knew as his leg.
“I think I’m done, bro,” Melendez told his corner between the second and third round. “Nonsense,” his corner told him (I’m paraphrasing). “You can do anything in f***ing five minutes.”
That’s not entirely true. You can’t hold your breath for five straight minutes, nor your palm over a flame — but you get the point. Melendez went out for the third round with his hobbled lead leg pointed out towards Stephens, courageous in that he knew exactly what was coming. That is, more punishment. Stephens kicked the living hell out of it. Melendez, still gamely winging punches to the bitter end, survived to hear the scorecards.
Who knows, maybe for the final time.
If this is the last look we get of Gilbert Melendez with his shoes off inside a cage — or at least the cage with eight sides — perhaps it’s fitting. He has been just that kind of warrior in the true warrior sense. “El Nino” has been through many storms in a career that spans 29 pro fights. There were those times that he and Josh Thomson went to battle, in particular the second meeting when he avenged a loss and won back — or more officially, unified — the Strikeforce title. That was a classic. There was the time he came within brushing distance of the UFC title against Benson Henderson, ultimately dropping a split decision. If one of the other two judges had squinted, who knows?
He’s even survived Reebok’s egregious attempts to rebrand him “Giblert.”
A cruel game such as prizefighting requires the thickest of skins. And Melendez has had that. Back when he came over from Strikeforce as the reigning lightweight champion, there was no indication that he would be slowing down anytime soon. Remember how cool it was to contemplate Melendez fighting the UFC’s best after he defended the Strikeforce title four times en-route? Those were good times. So many possibilities.
In recent years Melendez has found himself in the unfortunate situation of “trying to turn things around.” Heading into UFC 215, he had dropped three straight fights, and four of five overall since coming to the UFC. He’d tested positive for a banned substance for his clash with Eddie Alvarez, and spoke of it as little as possible. And like former champ Rashad Evans, who snuck quietly down to Mexico City recently to try and break his skid against Sam Alvey, Melendez went north to Canada to try an break his. He arrived in Edmonton on virtual tiptoe, trying not to drum up too much attention (though when you have Nate Diaz as part of your faction, that’s not an easy thing to pull off).
Things didn’t work out. It’s now been nearly four years since Melendez beat Diego Sanchez in a memorable Fight of the Night at UFC 166 in Houston. Back then it felt as though he’d be in contention for years to come, yet that remains his only victory in the UFC. Sometimes in fighting a single loss becomes two, and two becomes a pattern, and the pattern, when stretched over years, looks like a spiral. Melendez somehow saw it through, but in the end didn’t have a leg to stand on.
Melendez got his leg crushed, and Stephens got his arm raised. Everything that happened in between was as admirable as it was hard to look at.