by Mitch Gobetz – MMAWeekly.com
“El Niño” Gilbert Melendez has hit the Pride Lightweight division with a bang. He made his Pride debut against Nobuhiro Obiya in August in Bushido 12. Melendez dominated the bout impressively and earned a unanimous decision victory. Many people knew that “El Niño” was for real, but Pride was ready to put him to the test.

On New Year’s Eve, Melendez was indeed tested. He took on the extremely tough Tatsuya Kawajiri in a very exciting match that some claimed could have been Fight of the Year. Melendez joined MMAWeekly last week to talk about his fight and upcoming career goals. Many people wondered how Gilbert would handle the pressure of fighting somebody the caliber of Kawajiri on Pride’s biggest show of the year. “I’m nervous every fight and it wasn’t just another fight for me,” the California native admitted. “If I would have lost this fight, it would have meant nothing, me being 13-0.”

Melendez, who is now the #3 Lightweight in the MMAWeekly Rankings, was dropped hard in the first round, but the 24-year-old knew that he had to keep going. “The day you get hit, do you stay down there or get back up?” But Melendez came back with a vengeance and eventually dropped Kawajiri, just as he had done to Gilbert earlier.

Kawajiri is an extremely tough fighter and put on a good fight, but in the end, “El Niño” was just too much. Melendez’s high pace and constant pressure persuaded the judges to vote in his favor. MMAWeekly Radio asked Gilbert if he was nervous about the judges’ decision. “Even when I’m dominating, I always ask my corner if I won that round. We were in Japan, and not to say the judges are biased, but you are fighting in his backyard.”

The victory was a satisfying one for Melendez as it catapulted him in the MMAWeekly rankings from number ten to three. Some fighter’s don’t care about rankings, but Gilbert does for personal achievement. “One of my goals was to get in the top five by the end of the year, and I did it on New Years Eve.”

The future seems bright for Melendez and a shot at Pride Lightweight champion Takanori Gomi is in his sight. “I want that belt, man. I think Gomi’s a hell of a fighter, but I want that belt. I want his belt and I want it bad. Let’s make it happen.” With all of the hype of the Lightweight Grand Prix in 2007, there is an excellent chance that their paths may cross. When asked if he would participate in the grand prix, an energetic Melendez says “Sign me up. I’ll do it man.”