Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011 | 6:10 p.m.
Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez is cautioning everyone not to write him into the UFC just yet.
Melendez is widely considered one of the two best 155-pound fighters in the world and speculation about him meeting the UFC champion has raged over the past eight months. But Melendez (19-2 MMA, 9-1 SF) will first have to get by Jorge Masvidal (22-6 MMA, 4-0 SF) first in the headlining bout of Saturday’s Strikeforce card, which will air on Showtime via tape delay at 9 on the west coast, in San Diego.
Melendez promises the task isn’t as easy as everyone, including oddsmakers who have made “El Nino” a major favorite over Masvidal, is painting it.
“He’s underrated,” Melendez said. “It’s a good challenge. And he’s somebody that’s been fighting in the circuit for a long time. I was outside of the UFC, so I kind of anticipated fighting him even a couple of years ago.”
Even with Melendez trumpeting Masvidal’s credentials, the five-round championship bout isn’t garnering an excess of attention. Melendez is still asked more about the UFC.
He’s heard people say he’s destined to run over Masvidal and that the Miami, Fla., native is not on his level.
“That talk bothers me because some people are ignorant,” Melendez said. “They don’t really follow the game that much.”
Or they at least haven’t followed the career of Masvidal closely. Masvidal has toiled in smaller promotions for eight years, but has done with so with great success.
He dropped back to lightweight for his last two fights and promptly won both of them to earn a shot at the Strikeforce title. But Masvidal found himself having to campaign for the opportunity to face Melendez as UFC talks heated up.
Masvidal said facing Melendez was more important to him than fighting for a championship belt.
“It doesn’t matter what people say about him or anything,” Masvidal said. “I just want to fight him. He’s a solid fighter and that’s all that matters to me.”
UFC champion Frankie Edgar is the only lightweight in the world more heralded than Melendez at the moment. Melendez’s status makes this weekend’s bout the greatest opportunity of Masvidal’s time in the sport.
“Obviously, I’d like to go to the UFC or wherever I’m going to make the most money,” Masvidal said. “That’s important to me.”
Masvidal has come a long way in fighting. He’s perhaps the only fighter who has excelled in mixed martial arts after starting with a street fighting background.
Masvidal first became known as a participant on Kimbo Slice’s infamous South Florida backyard brawl videos. But he got into a more traditional training regimen and developed his striking to a high level.
Masvidal has lost some fights on his way to the top, but none in lopsided fashion.
“I think Jorge, with any of his losses, he probably wasn’t as motivated sometimes,” Melendez said. “This is a fight where Jorge, I’m pretty sure, is pretty damn motivated.”
Masvidal might even hold an advantage over Melendez on his feet. Melendez hinted his gameplan could involve bringing Masvidal to the ground.
Melendez may be one of only a few who realize it, but Masvidal is dangerous.
“At the end of the day, no matter what’s at stake, it’s just a fight,” Masvidal said. “It’s not like Gil has a gun and I’m going in there empty-handed.”