As Gilbert Melendez enters what could be his last fight under the Strikeforce banner, he admits that he can't help but pay attention to the rumors that are circulating and suggesting what will likely be a move to the UFC at some point next year.
Still, the reigning Strikeforce lightweight champion remains grounded, acutely aware of the challenge that well-traveled veteran Jorge Masvidal presents during their scheduled title clash on December 17 at the Valley View Casino Center in San Diego, California.
“I’m very excited for this fight,” Melendez told reporters during a Tuesday media conference call. “I think Jorge is a very tough guy. He’s not very popular, so he’s pretty underrated. It’s a good challenge. He’s someone that’s been in this circuit for a long time outside of the UFC so I’ve wanted to fight him for a couple of years now. He looked really good against K.J. [Noons] Looked in good shape. Looks like he’s really adapted to the weight class. He’s a complete MMA fighter.”
Melendez must continue to have Masvidal in his crosshairs. Despite falling in two of his last five bouts, “Gamebred” remains as dangerous as ever, evidenced in his three-round mauling of Noons this past June.
The American Top Team product also owns career wins against the likes of Yves Edwards, Joe Lauzon and Satoru Kitaoka and will hold a significant edge in experience over the champion.
“You get motivated when you’re the underdog or when there’s a lot of hype,” explained Melendez. “A lot of people are saying that Jorge isn’t good enough or that I’m going to blow him away but a lot of people are ignorant. They think that if you don’t fight in the UFC that you’re no good.
“So what’s been the challenge for me is motivating myself and staying that way. This fight is for me to prove that I can defend my throne. I’m the big favorite here and I have a tough guy in front of me so I have to come through. It’s more important to me than to anyone else.”
A win over Masvidal could propel Melendez straight to the UFC, as a multi-fight deal with Strikeforce that was recently inked more than likely has an opt-out clause that could send the 29-year-old to MMA’s top organization and right into the UFC’s lightweight division and a possible immediate title shot.
Rumors swirled this fall that a showdown with Masvidal wouldn’t even materialize and that Melendez already had his bags packed. UFC President Dana White’s public comments about coveting the former PRIDE standout only fueled the fire.
But as Melendez will tell you, talk is all the two sides have done, so far.
“We’ve talked about it a little bit… big fights and jumping over to the UFC,” said Melendez. “Before Dana White started mentioning my name and before the rumors started going around, I had already signed to fight Jorge. It’s exciting to hear that kind of stuff, but Jorge has been my focus since we signed to fight.
“It’s obvious it’s something that we’ve been talking about. I think it’s inevitable. The top fighters go to the UFC and I’m one of those guys. I’m not in it all the time, but there is some dialogue going on. I’m in this to be the best fighter in the world and the only way to do that is to win a UFC title.”
A move to the UFC will come to Melendez’s delight, but the Cesar Gracie protégé also isn’t against sticking around the Strikeforce ranks for a while if need be.
“If I can move over as soon as possible, then that’s great,” Melendez said. “ If I have to keep winning fights and continue doing what I’m doing, then so be it. But I think that if I get past Jorge and stay in Strikeforce, I think I’ve done my thing there.
“If they brought some UFC guys over and I fought them in Strikeforce, that’d be awesome. I just want a top fighter. Scott Coker has always brought me top guys out of nowhere. He’s brought me [Shinya] Aoki and [Tatsuya] Kawajiri. Just when I don’t think I have a challenge in front of me, Scott has always pulled someone out and gave me one. So I have no doubt that they’ll be able to find someone for me.”
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