It's difficult to find an elite fighter in a more unenviable position than Gilbert Melendez. The Strikeforce lightweight champion is caught in some sort of negotiated space where he can't be poached for the UFC's needs, yet UFC is seemingly unable to find anyone from its considerable roster to take the up the Strikeforce challenge against him.
At this point, Melendez knows he's stuck. That doesn't mean, however, he's got a negative attitude about it all. At least not right now.
"Obviously to be the number one fighter in the world you got to be the UFC champ. It's just the way it is," Melendez told the media on conference call on Thursday to promote his co-main event bout at the finals of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix. "And right now I'm just trying to put on shows and get better in the sport. It's just to get better and take some risk out there."
Translation: I can't advance my career, so I might as well focus on being an entertainer who takes risks in fights I should be able to win rather handily.
This is the position Melendez occupies today. He's facing Josh Thomson for the third time on May 19th in a fight that's very winnable and does nothing to advance his position as one of MMA's three top-ranked lightweights. Thomson is no pushover, but if Melendez is as focused on winning as he is winning with flash and style, maybe it's not the appropriate fight for someone at his level.
Melendez's limbo didn't always seem hopeless. UFC President Dana White once suggested Melendez would be welcomed into the UFC lightweight division. Top UFC lightweights were also rumored to be going to Strikeforce to give Melendez the fights he merited. "Well, I initially had those discussions and there was some hope of maybe fighting BJ. [Penn]. Even some talk of maybe Gray [Maynard]," Melendez confirmed during the call.
Those discussions, however, never amounted to any change and Melendez's situation is unchanged. "But, that's all it was, talk. It never became inked in paper or nothing like that." With neither possibility likely to ever happen, the Strikeforce champion is forcing himself to not dwell on dreams deferred.
"I'm not worried about [becoming the top lightweight in the world] no more," said Melendez. "I'm just going to keep doing my thing and performing and I'm trying not to look at that anymore. I'm just trying to find different motivations like the paycheck and my team and my family."
Is there really an upside to Melendez's predicament? Maybe. It can't be all bad, right? Without the challenges that come with facing the world's absolute best, Melendez suggests there is a good side to be had. Specifically, he believes training is more fun, his stress levels lower and he can focus camps around generally getting better as a fighter without too much attention being paid to a particular opponent.
"It's actually been good. It's been fun," Melendez suggested. "I'm going to be doing this for a long time. I hear Josh Barnett talking about he's been fighting for 15 years. If I'm going to do this, I'm going to have fun and not be stressed going out to every practice and just do the best I can do."
You have to hand it to Melendez. His situation would drive a lesser man to the point of frustrated madness. Yet, the 30-year-old champion seems intent to not let the limits of his Strikeforce predicament dictate whether he's able to be fulfilled. For now, there's nothing he can reasonably do except win and improve, so Melendez is forcing himself to dwell only on the portions of his life that can be changed or improved.
"And, that's what I've been doing. Just training my butt off and the stress is there but not so bad. And, it is what it is. I just got to roll with the punches on this."