Right now, what drives Melendez is Masvidal and the perception that he’s facing an opponent who has very little chance to win. It’s an idea Melendez strongly disagrees with. He knows Masvidal is a dangerous opponent, and says that he’s only being overlooked because, well, he fights in Strikeforce.
“Basically, he’s not a UFC fighter. And he hasn’t had the eyeballs on him. That’s basically it. This guy fought Paul Daley in a battle, and I thought he won that fight. That was on a show that wasn’t even televised. It’s hard to even find it online. Nobody got to see Jorge fighting Paul Daley, a 170-pounder, and almost beating him,” Melendez says. “Daley was one fight away from fighting for the UFC title. If he’d beaten Josh Koscheck, he might have been up there.
“Most people don’t think you’re any good if you’re not in the UFC. A guy like me constantly has to prove himself because I’m not in the big show.”
A fight like this one, with an opponent like Masvidal, seems tailor-made for a letdown. It’s a fight Melendez should win. To the fans, a win over Masvidal won’t mean much because he’s supposed to beat Masvidal. He’s a heavy favorite, and really, who in the world is Jorge Masvidal, anyway? It’s a minefield, one that Melendez is very cautious of.
“One-hundred percent. This is where I’m supposed to choke. This is where I have everything to lose and Masvidal has everything to gain. But when you become the champ, that’s all there is,” he says. “When does St-Pierre have anything to gain? When does Anderson Silva have anything to gain? They have everything to lose now. That’s what is going to be my true test – being able to handle that pressure. That’s all there is. I just have to handle it.”
Baldacci agrees with his mentor.
“From the outside looking in, it’s definitely one of those fights where he has a lot to lose and not a lot to gain, just because of the general lack of awareness of Masvidal. But from Gil and our camp’s perspective, we know Masvidal is a tough guy,” Baldacci says. “He’s one of those guys that gets up for the big, important fights that mean something and maybe doesn’t get up for other fights that aren’t as big. We know he’s gotten better over his last couple of fights in Strikeforce. We know he wants the title, and we know he wants Gil, so we know he’s going to be ready.”
And so Melendez goes about his daily routine, preparing to face Masvidal as if he were preparing to face Edgar or Ben Henderson or any other top-ranked lightweight. He opened a new gym this year, moving from the tiny one-room facility he’d occupied with fellow Skrap Pack members since 2008 into a sparkling new 7,000 square foot building with all of the amenities you’d expect to find in a modern MMA gym.
“It’s been awesome. I have a home and I don’t have to leave. My standup coach is there. I get to double up practices. After grappling I can hit pads and after I hit pads I can drill some grappling again,” he says. “Everything is real accessible. Running a business is sometimes a tough thing to get used to, but luckily I have my fiancé and a great group of guys helping me.”
The group of guys Melendez refers to includes Baldacci, a former Oregon State wrestler who was coached by UFC legend Randy Couture during college. It also includes fellow Cesar Gracie proteges Nick and Nate Diaz and Jake Shields, all of whom have been by Melendez’ side throughout his career. They’ve been there through thick and thin, through controversy and glory and all through those hard and angry sparring sessions where best friends try to knock each other out.
And though all of them have achieved some measure of fame and fortune, they remain students of the game, fighting with a chip on their shoulder, trying to prove to the rest of the world that they’re the real deal.
Even though we knew this a long time ago.
Jeremy Botter is the associate editor for HeavyMMA.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremyheavymma