Gilbert Melendez has been training for Shinya Aoki for four years.
Not consciously, perhaps. Melendez has done a fine job preparing for other fights during that time, running his pro record to 17-2 and defeating some of the best lightweights the world has to offer.
But hearing Melendez talk about Aoki gives you the impression that the road always led to the Japanese submission fighter. It wasn’t a question of if, but when. It would be the culmination of years of hard work and relentless training.
That moment has finally arrived.
“This fight was supposed to happen a couple of years ago and never did, but he’s always been on my mind,” says Melendez. “The fact that the biggest star in Japan is coming to fight me? I’m pumped about it.”
The DREAM lightweight champion is a submission wizard with a dynamic personality to match, a polarizing combination that has turned Aoki from a simple fighter with a flair for colorful pants into Japan’s biggest current star. Often criticized for being too one-dimensional, Aoki continues to use his jiu-jitsu game to great effect, with fourteen of his twenty-three pro victories coming by way of submission.
Melendez acknowledges Aoki’s dangerous ground game. “The perfect fight for me would not even show my jiu-jitsu skills. It would be something where I knock him out in the first or second round, just doing some sprawl and brawl,” he says. “Realistically, though, it’s probably going to hit the ground, and I’m prepared for that. But my perfect fight would be a thing where we never hit the ground.”
Melendez prepared for Aoki’s submission game by training with Strikeforce middleweight champion Jake Shields and the mercurial Diaz brothers. Shields mimicked Aoki’s style during training camp, giving Melendez a taste of what to expect come Saturday night. “I roll with some of the best jiu-jitsu guys in the world. But with Aoki, he’s a little more dependent on his jiu-jitsu than my teammates are,” says Melendez. “Like Jake, for example. Yeah, he’s got the jiu-jitsu game, but if he’s not comfortable on the ground, he’ll just get back up and strike with you.”
Melendez hopes that a victory over Aoki will establish him as a top-tier lightweight in fighter rankings. It’s a distinct possibility, especially after B.J. Penn’s shocking loss to Frankie Edgar at UFC 112 last weekend. But more importantly than his own standing in the MMA world, Melendez hopes to bring some respect to the Strikeforce lightweight division.
“We don’t get much respect as lightweights in Strikeforce. If you’re in the UFC, you can beat nobody in the top ten, but all of a sudden you’re in the rankings because you’re in the UFC,” he says. “I’m trying to get some respect for the organization. Beating Shinya Aoki will do that.”
“But knowing how some of the people out there do rankings, if I beat Aoki, he’ll just fall completely out of the rankings and someone from the UFC will move up to take his place,” says Melendez.
Rankings are a sensitive subject for the Santa Ana native. His standing in the world of mixed martial arts is important to him, and he’s frustrated with the lack of respect given to he and other Strikeforce competitors.
“I get so bothered by the guys who do these rankings. I wonder how they got their jobs,” he says. “I was the number one featherweight in the world. I’ve beaten a lot of guys and avenged my losses. But if you’re not in the UFC, you just don’t get respect.”
Melendez relates one such frustrating incident. “I ran into a guy who said, ‘oh, you fight in the UFC?’ I’ll tell them that I don’t fight for the UFC, I fight for Strikeforce,” says Melendez. “They’ll tell me that they hope I make it to the UFC some day. One guy asked me if Strikeforce was the minor leagues. That’s all the common fan knows.”
“You have to give credit to Dana White for monopolizing the MMA scene. That’s great for them,” he says. “I just wish people would try to be a little more knowledgeable and that they would seek us out a bit more.”
Melendez can make a splash this Saturday, and in more ways than one. Penn’s loss to Edgar means a dramatic shift at the top of the lightweight division, and a solid victory over Aoki would go a long way towards vaulting him back into the lightweight elite. The fight airs on network television, giving Melendez a chance to make his mark on casual fans.
That’s a lot of pressure for anyone, but Melendez says that the weight of the situation won’t affect him at all. “I handle pressure well because I don’t take life too seriously,” says Melendez. “Sometimes I sit backstage and laugh, because I’m about to fight in front of 18,000 people in the arena and countless more on Showtime. I just don’t let anything bother me.”