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Teammates open Strikeforce’s Zuffa age with a bang

Will Nick Diaz and Gilbert Melendez receive shot to unify UFC and Strikeforce belts?


Associated Press

Gilbert Melendez celebrates after beating Mitsuhiro Ishida, of Japan, for the Strikeforce mixed martial arts Interim Lightweight Championship match on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2009, in San Jose, Calif. Melendez won by TKO in the third round.

SAN DIEGO — Good luck telling Nick Diaz and Gilbert Melendez that mixed martial arts isn’t a team sport.

Melendez and Diaz are long-time training partners at Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in San Francisco who ushered in a new era of Strikeforce together Saturday night at Valley View Casino Center.

In the first major Strikeforce event under the ownership of Zuffa, the parent company of the UFC, Diaz and Melendez fed off of each others' presence and defended their respective championship belts.

“I started from scratch with these guys,” Melendez said. “I'm a Nick Diaz fan, I’m a Nate Diaz fan, I’m a Jake Shields fan. It runs deep for us. It gets emotional out there.”

Melendez mauled Tatsuya Kawajiri via TKO at 3:14 of the first round to keep his 155-pound Strikeforce strap. Diaz got his own TKO over Paul Daley at 4:57 of the first round after a welterweight striking war.

Melendez and Diaz have served as two of the most visible faces of Strikeforce in recent years. It’s only appropriate that they’ll together deal with the first wave of speculation and demand regarding potential mega fights with UFC champions going up against Strikeforce’s top fighters.

Those questions already reared themselves minutes after Saturday’s fight card.

“We haven’t even had that conversation of when it would happen,” said Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker. “But I think when the fans demand it, those fights will happen. And personally, myself as a fan, I would love to see it.”

Melendez is already lobbying for the chance. He improved his record to 19-2 and won his fifth straight in the victory over Kawajiri.

As far as Melendez is concerned, now is the time to unify the two titles. He wants the winner of the lightweight championship fight between Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard at UFC 130 in May.

“I’m not the UFC champion, but I’ve been around this sport a lot longer than Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard,” Melendez said. “If you look at the stats and what I’ve accomplished, I think I’ve accomplished more.”

If Melendez needed to prove his mettle Saturday to show he was ready, consider it accomplished. The fight with Kawajiri (27-7-2) looked nothing like the contest between the two five years ago in PRIDE when Melendez eked out a unanimous decision.

Melendez rushed Kawajiri and dropped him within the opening minute using a knee and vicious right hand. Kawajiri got up only to experience more pain.

Melendez continued his assault until he found himself on the ground in top position. Once there, Melendez fed Kawajiri enough elbows that the referee had no other choice but to pull him off.

“Kawajiri is no joke,” Melendez said. “The pressure was there. I’m happy I performed for Strikeforce.”

Diaz is much more silent about fighting the UFC welterweight champion, but the reasons are obvious. Another one of his Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu teammates, Jake Shields, faces Georges St. Pierre for the belt at UFC 129 in Toronto at the end of the month.

Diaz naturally predicts Shields will win. But those two are adamant they would never even consider facing each other. If St. Pierre does emerge victorious and stay in the 170-pound division, however, expect to hear Diaz campaigning for a shot at him.

“We’ll see what’s up,” Diaz said. “I need to get paid.”

Diaz (25-7) will command a heavy purse if he keeps putting on performances like the one against Daley (27-9-2). It was a five-minute war of momentum-shifting, face-swelling action.

Diaz left himself open early in the fight and taunted Daley by yelling profanities and challenging him to engage. Daley, a renowned striker, wailed away and appeared to have Diaz in serious trouble after sending him to the mat on two occasions.

Usually knocking down an opponent twice is a dominant round, but not in this contest, because Diaz did the same. He connected a multitude of shots to both Daley’s head and body.

Diaz won the key exchange of the night with less than 20 seconds remaining in the round. Diaz looked dazed as he backed away with 10 seconds left, but that was better than Daley who stumbled to the ground.

Diaz chased after him, turning a near slip-up into a resounding victory.

“I didn’t feel like I was in danger,” Diaz said.

Diaz credits his calm to experiences in training camp with the likes of his brother Nate and Melendez.

There’s no denying their team has already risen to the top of Strikeforce. Before long, they’ll have their chance in the UFC.

“It gets real discouraging in camp when I spar with Nick, Jake and Nate,” Melendez said. “I’m like, ‘I’m not ready for a fight.’ I think I’m going to get my butt kicked. Then I go fight and I’m like, ‘These guys are 10 times easier than my teammates.’ It makes me feel how good our team is.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at

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