by Mick Hammond – MMAWeekly.com
Even the best fighters can go through a rough patch.

Regardless of stature in the sport, no one is immune from stumbling occasionally. It’s rebounding from that rough patch that truly separates a top tier fighter from the rest. This is the current conundrum for Gilbert “El Nino” Melendez.

Formerly the Strikeforce lightweight champion and top-ranked fighter in multiple weight classes, Melendez now finds himself with two losses in his last three fights, looking for a way back to prominence.

“The year as a whole was an okay year for me,” he said of 2008. “It wasn’t the best, but now that it’s the end of the year I’m feeling great and looking forward to 2009.”

After losing his first time ever, to Mitsuhiro Ishida on New Year’s Eve 2007, Melendez split his fights in 2008, defeating an overmatched Gabe Lemley in March, and losing his Strikeforce title to Josh Thomson in June.

“I got caught up in the stand-up game a lot,” he commented. “I feel confident with my stand-up and everything, but to progress in this sport sometimes you have to neglect something.

“I feel like I neglected my wrestling, and it showed out there. I got taken down a lot against Ishida and against Josh, too. I thought I could have prepared better, and I could I have done better in structuring my fights, but I felt like I always went out and gave it my best.”

Since his loss to Thomson in June, he has focused on rebuilding himself from the outside in, starting with the opening of his own gym in San Francisco.

“Of course it’s a long term investment as well, but (I did this) mainly to have my own gym, my own ring, and practice when I want,” commented Melendez. “I felt like I was jumping gyms a lot, and now I live in my own gym and I feel like more than anything, I built this for myself.

“Right now, I’m just trying to get good bodies in here to work out with me. So yes, it was a business investment, but more than anything it was an investment in me progressing in the sport and becoming a better and smarter fighter. That was the main reason.”

Even though the focus has shifted to his own business, Melendez continues to work with longtime teammates Jake Shields, and Nick and Nate Diaz, among others in the Cesar Gracie family of fighters.

With that side of his career settled, Melendez is focused on regaining his status as one of the best fighters in the world.

“I plan on being busy, because I’ve got the itch to fight again,” he said. “Things kind of brushed my way, like maybe going to Japan to fight, and I almost kind of wanted to jump on it, but I love Strikeforce and am having a good time with them.

“I have one fight left, and I want to focus and do really good on my next fight for Strikeforce and take it from there.”

There is one fight in particular he has in his sights for his Strikeforce return.

“One person I would love to fight is Ishida,” he exclaimed. “If they could give me Ishida again on a Strikeforce card, I would be more than happy to take that fight.

“That’s who I’m asking for, that’s who I’d like, and you can put that in bold lettering. I’d like to have a rematch with him, take the next step and defining myself these next couple of years.”

According to Melendez, things may have come too fast, too easy in the past, but he plans on working hard to regain what he’s lost and prove he’s one of the best in the world for a long time to come.

“I just want to thank my sponsors, Fairtex, Eternal Unlimited, Tagg Radio, Kelly’s Auto Body Shop in Santa Ana, and everyone else, thank you,” he concluded. “Just be ready for 2009; I’m going to be fighting a lot.

“If you want to train, come to El Nino Training Center in San Francisco. Look us up, we’re around; come join the team and train with us, it’s going to be an exciting year.”