When Zuffa took over Strikeforce, they raided the roster, moving most of the top tier fighters to the UFC. Strikeforce champions Jake Shields, Dan Henderson, Alistair Overeem, and Nick Diaz quickly made the jump into the Octagon.
The lone man left out on an island? Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez.
There was a time, when it looked to everyone that the working relationship between Zuffa and Showtime wasn’t working at all, that Melendez was going to make the move alongside his fellow champions.
Showtime became a partner with Strikeforce prior to Zuffa’s buyout. The premium cable network maintained much more control over the product than was typical for a Zuffa broadcast partner, which had become a sticking point. It appeared that a parting of ways was unavoidable.
“We do want to bring Gilbert Melendez over and we’re looking at it right now,” UFC president Dana White said last October, when the Strikeforce/Showtime partnership was in the red zone.
Shortly after White made his sentiments public, the wheels began rolling again, eventually leading to Zuffa working out a deal to keep Strikeforce on Showtime.
One major piece of the puzzle was to keep Melendez, Strikeforce belt affixed firmly around his waist, leading the charge on Showtime.
White announced the renewed deal to keep Strikeforce on the network, saying that Melendez was happy to remain as the promotion’s centerpiece, and that the UFC president would become much more hands-on.
“I will dive into this thing and I will make it right. I will make the fighters who fight over there not worry about what’s going on in the UFC,” said White. “I’m gaining more control over Strikeforce. We’re going to have a lot of cool things happening over the next few weeks.”
It all sounded great in theory, but didn’t quite work out the way the plan was initially laid out.
White tried to live up to his end of the bargain, jumping in, making suggestions to help ramp up Strikeforce; going as far as saying that Strikeforce would not be a second-tier promotion. He intended for it to eventually be considered on equal footing with the UFC.
Despite his efforts, there were powers that be at Showtime seeing things in a different light, eventually leading White to back away.
That left Melendez stranded, trying to prove himself to be the top lightweight in the world with little opposition considered worthy enough for him to stake his claim.
Melendez is now slated to face Josh Thomson for a third time on May 19 in San Jose, Calif. Thomson is a good fighter – one of only two men to hand Melendez a loss – but Melendez dominated him the last time they met. Thomson is also just one fight removed from his last loss, to a fighter that Melendez finished in the first round.
Thomson is a solid opponent, but not one that will prove Melendez’s point. White, and everyone else, knows it.
“Gilbert Melendez is a Strikeforce fighter and he’s been great (to deal with),” said the UFC president. “He wants to come over here (to the UFC) and he wants to challenge himself against the best, and I know a lot of other people want to see it too, but he’s in that Strikeforce deal.”
It’s not that White didn’t try to do something more for Melendez; he did. He tried to get former UFC lightweight and welterweight champion B.J. Penn to face Melendez under the Strikeforce banner, but Penn has been in a semi-retired state since his last loss, still trying to determine whether he will ever fight again. He turned down the offer to face Melendez.
“The thing that sucks for Gilbert, that’s disappointing, I was 100-percent fired up and gung ho to go over there and work on Strikeforce. The whole thing fell apart. I know he’s bummed out about it, and other people are too, but it is what it is. It just didn’t work out.”
The sting is surely even worse for Melendez now, witnessing the likes of Bellator middleweight champion Hector Lombard signing with the UFC, and former Bellator lightweight champ Eddie Alvarez sitting cageside at a recent UFC with White, being courted to move to the Octagon once his current contract is up.
Citing a lack of enough heavyweight talent to run two separate divisions, the UFC also assimilated the Strikeforce heavyweight division into its folds, rubbing more salt in the wound.
And don’t think it’s a money issue for Melendez. He made that clear when talk about moving him into the UFC several months ago had reached a fever pitch. Everyone wants to make more money, but he’s not upset with the money under his current contract.
“Money doesn’t really mean nothing at this point; my money’s good,” Melendez told MMAWeekly.com. “I’m happy with my money. If (White) told me to come fight for the same price, I would do it.
“Either way, it’s inevitable. I’m coming for all the 55-pounders and I really want to prove I’m No. 1. Part of being No. 1 is beating everyone, every match-up. I think I can beat every style out there.”
Gilbert Melendez just wants to be afforded the opportunity to prove what he already believes, that he is the best lightweight fighter on the planet. But it looks like he’ll have to wait a while longer, wading the cloudy waters of Strikeforce.