Gilbert Melendez has seen it all during his 15 year career in mixed martial arts.
He’s been on the highest highs while ranked as one of the best lightweights in the world, as he competed in Japan as well as his run as champion in Strikeforce. More recently, Melendez has suffered through the lowest lows while enduring the first three-fight losing streak of his career.
At 35, Melendez is still more than capable of reinventing himself. That’s why at UFC 215 this weekend he’ll drop down to 145 pounds for the first time since he was winning championships at 143 pounds back in 2005.
“Definitely a fresh start,” Melendez explained to the Fight Society podcast when asked why he’s moving to featherweight at this stage of his career. “I’ve had a rough road at [155 pounds]. I’ve fought the best there and I’ve lost to some of them, but I’ve done well. I just feel like guys are becoming better at cutting weight and there’s a science to it now and cutting 20 pounds isn’t as bad if you can diet well. That’s what I’m really doing, I’m getting into my diet and I’m maximizing that. I want to be the bigger, longer fighter at [145 pounds]; have that length advantage. I feel like I used to have that at 55, but as the sport evolves you see a reach like mine at 73 inches, it used to be pretty long at 55 and now you have a ton of 76-inch reaches.
“I’m looking to go to 45 to get a fresh start. I used to be there and now that I’m dieting I feel good there. I feel this is where I should be.”
Now there are those who will say Melendez isn’t moving to featherweight as much as he’s fleeing from lightweight where he dropped three fights in a row.
Melednez says that couldn’t be further from the truth, especially when examining the losses he’s suffered in recent fights.
It was just three fights ago when Melendez was battling for the UFC lightweight championship where he suffered a second-round submission to Anthony Pettis. He then fell in a very hotly contested split decision to Eddie Alvarez before battling Edson Barboza for three rounds last July.
The losses still sting no matter how much he puts them into perspective, but Melendez knows that he can still compete with the best in the world at 155 pounds. The difference at featherweight is Melendez truly believes he can get back to being one of the best in the sport again.
“There’s three losses in a row and then there’s three knockouts in a row,” Melendez said. “I feel like I’m a competitive fighter and fights against Benson Henderson and fights against Eddie Alvarez, in my heart I know it says a loss on my record, but I don’t walk around and feel like those are losses. So really, yeah, the masses might look at it a certain way, but for me it helps me stay settled in a certain way.
“I don’t feel like a defeated fighter. I don’t feel like I’m hanging on too long and getting knocked out and knocked out and just getting clowned left and right. That’s when you’ve got to walk away, I think, from the sport or reconsider it. I don’t feel like I’m getting dominated. I feel like I’m competing with the best and I’m still doing fine out there.”
This weekend at UFC 215, Melendez will seek to show just how relevant he can be at featherweight when he faces heavy-handed slugger Jeremy Stephens.
On paper this looks like a potential “Fight of the Night,” but Melendez knows if he goes out and implements his best weapons this won’t be a war… it will be a statement victory as he introduces himself to the 145-pound division.
“I’m not afraid to say that I think I am the more skilled, technical, and more intelligent fighter, and I think that will play a difference in this fight,” Melendez said about Stephens. “I think he’s a very tough fighter. Not a one trick pony, but maybe he does limit in some of his skills, but they’re the most important parts. We start on our feet and we’re striking so it’s very important to be tough in that area, which he’s great at. I’ve watched some video and I feel like I know what to expect. It’s definitely a tough thing to face but I do feel like I know what to expect.
“I feel like I do have more tricks and tools to play out there.”
The narrative going into the fight will definitely be about Melendez looking to bounce back from his recent losses and testing himself at a new weight class.
Melendez sees things much differently.
He’s gazing at Stephens as his path to get a spot in the Top 10 rankings at featherweight before charging at the top of the division because he’s not moving down to 145 pounds only for a fresh start. He’s going for gold.
“I feel like I am one big win away from being in title contention at 145,” Melendez said. “Just the way things play out and the way the sport works here, you’re essentially as good as your last fight. I think Jeremy Stephens is a very tough task. He’s a bulldozer in this weight class and we’re pretty much similar. I’d like to take his role over in the weight class. Be the guy who takes the center of the Octagon that you try to run from.
“A very dominant win here can really move me up in status in that weight class.”
Listen to the rest of the interview with Melendez along with former light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier on the latest Fight Society podcast. Download and subscribe via iTunes.