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Keri Melendez poised for comeback after ‘heartbreaking’ injury layoff

Bellator Kickboxing Press Conference
Keri Melendez faces Tiani Valle at Bellator 201.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Keri Melendez had all the makings of a breakout star for Bellator heading into her first-ever MMA fight.

She carried legitimate Muay Thai credentials, trained alongside the likes of Jake Shields and the Diaz brothers, and just so happened to be married to former Strikeforce lightweight champion and two-time UFC title contender Gilbert Melendez.

The stage was set for a spectacular debut at Bellator 165 on Nov. 19, 2016 and “The Queen of the Skrap Pack” delivered with a 47-second finish:

It was exactly what Bellator officials were looking for. An exciting face to potentially build a strawweight division upon, a strong striker, and a personality who is as comfortable starring in Dave and Buster’s commercials as she is in a Bellator Kickboxing ring.

The promotion’s faith in Melendez was evident as they booked her second fight for their monster New York debut on June 24 of last year. She calls San Jose home, but an impressive showing at Madison Square Garden would have gone a long way towards building her fan base on the east coast.

Then, disaster.

A month out from the event, Melendez suffered a knee injury that would not only force the cancellation of her Bellator NYC bout, but leave her sidelined for over a year and a half. When she steps into the cage again to fight Tiani Valle on Friday at Bellator 201, it will be 19 months since her last fight.

“Oh my goodness, it was heartbreaking,” said Melendez, speaking to MMA Fighting about her injury. “I already had weeks in the books for that camp. I had like six weeks because I knew 10 weeks out that I was going to fight in that card. So I had six weeks of awesome training and then I was like, okay, I’m going to gear up for my last four weeks and then I tore my ACL, so it was pretty devastating. And just being out for a year, and my expectations — I really wanted to fight in May and it didn’t work out.

“This whole year has been grueling. The first six months were probably the worst, then after that I could start boxing, then I saw some light. But it’s been frustrating, a roller-coaster ride of emotions. It’s not fun at all getting injured. I don’t plan to get injured anymore.”

It was the second time Melendez had dealt with an ACL tear. Eight years ago it was her right leg, this time her left. The first knee injury ordeal was a completely different experience, as she became pregnant with her daughter Leylakay around that time and was able to focus entirely on motherhood and physical rehab as opposed to actively preparing for a fight.

Melendez had hoped to compete in May, but other minor injuries began to pop up and she had to inform Bellator officials that her comeback would be delayed. She praised the company for being accommodating and finding her a spot on Bellator 201.

In a sense, Melendez now has to reintroduce herself, her successful debut rapidly becoming a speck in the rear-view mirror of the non-stop sports news cycle. Several female stars have continued to thrive in the meantime, such as Bellator flyweight champion Ilima-Lei Macfarlane, who headlines Friday’s show, featherweight champion Julia Budd, and intriguing flyweight upstart Kristina Williams, who also competes Friday.

Keri Melendez celebrating her successful MMA debut at Bellator 165 with husband Gilbert
Bellator MMA

If Melendez was looking to be a pioneer for the 115-pound fighters in Bellator, she’s going to have to start from scratch. And if the division doesn’t develop, she may have to move up to find more high-profile competition.

“This darn injury set me back, I was hoping to maybe open their eyes and that they would want to start bringing in some more strawweights and I hope they open up that division, but I’m not opposed to going to flyweight,” said Melendez. “But right now I would like to stick to strawweight for a couple more fights and then see where it takes me, and if they only stay with the 125-pound division, then I just might have to move up.”

As far as experienced opponents go, Melendez could do a lot worse than Valle. The Hawaiian fighter is 1-0 as a professional, but has an extensive amateur background. That’s exactly what the 34-year-old Melendez is looking for at this stage of her career, not wanting to take a step back in her evolution as an MMA fighter.

“I’m excited. When they told me this girl is the girl, I said yes, let’s sign the contract,” said Melendez. “I’m not too sure if she’s 8-2 or 8-4 as an amateur, but that is definitely a lot more experience than I have. And I think her pro MMA fight she ended up TKO’ing the girl and I think it was with the knees, so yes, I’m excited for that, I’m excited for this challenge.

“It’s awesome that she’s a striker. I want to go out there and show I’m the better striker. I think predominantly her strength is her hands and I’m definitely not going to shy away from any part of the striking. So yes, I am excited to fight somebody who has experience and a winning record.”

The journey to potential stardom in Bellator, whether it be under their MMA or kickboxing banners, begins anew for Melendez at the Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula, Calif., on Friday. But right now the focus is entirely on picking up win number two.

“I don’t want to put that kind of pressure on myself, but I would love that if it happened organically and I’m just out there making it popular for Bellator, then that would be amazing,” said Melendez in regards to leading the strawweight charge. “And if it happens, it happens, and if it doesn’t, I’m not going to bank on anything or think in my mind that they’re gonna do this for me or they have to do anything for me.”

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