Flashback: Last Man Standing

From 2011, a profile of one of the best lightweights in the world, newly annotated.

In Flashback, I dig into my archives to share some of the fighter profiles I’ve written over the past 12 years.

I’ve published several Flashback entries this year. They were all straight copy and paste jobs, with an occasional bit of formatting. They offered nothing new, nor did they add anything of value. I will admit to you, right now, that I viewed them as an easy way to keep a steady stream of content rolling out to you. That’s laziness on my part. I apologize.

I’d still like to continue walking down memory lane from time to time, though. So I’ve come up with a new idea for this series: Annotations.

They look like this. I use them to add context, to reminisce, to share things I did include the first time around and to make fun of my own writing.

Is this a feature you think you’ll enjoy? Are there certain types of anecdotes you’d like to see me include in future installations? Am I wasting your time and mine?

Tell me.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: You are my boss. This publication, this business, would not exist without you. So if you have critiques or constructive feedback or you think I need to pull my head from my ass, please tell me.

Supporters may reach me at jeremy@whizzered.com, or you can just reply to this email.

Originally published on Heavy.com
December 16, 2011

Gilbert Melendez is in limbo. He’s been in limbo for so long, in fact, that limbo has become the status quo.

I probably felt clever after finishing this sentence back in 2011. Now, I'm not even sure it makes sense. 

Melendez is the last man standing in Strikeforce, a promotion that seemed to be gasping for air just a few months ago, only to be resuscitated by Dana White and apparently given a new lease on life. His friend Nick Diaz dropped his Strikeforce welterweight title and scurried over to infamy and fortune in the UFC. Melendez was supposed to follow Diaz out the door, and White even told media earlier in the fall that he was working on getting Melendez over to the UFC as soon as possible.

And yet here sits Melendez, preparing to defend his Strikeforce lightweight title against Jorge Masvidal on Saturday night at the San Diego Sports Arena instead of beginning a training camp to face Frankie Edgar for the UFC lightweight title at the Saitama Super Arena in Japan. If Melendez is disheartened by this turn of events, he’s doing his best not to show it.

“My life is too short and my career is too short to be too bitchy about this situation. I’ve got some fights that I may have to honor in Strikeforce because I have a contract with them,” Melendez says. “If I need to stay there, I’m going to be sure and be happy with it and deal with it. But the goal is be the best in the world and it’s tougher to do that in Strikeforce.”

Eight years later, Masvidal is one of the sport's biggest stars while Melendez—who never attained the stature we all thought was a certainty once he reached the UFC—was recently released from his contract. Through it all, Gilbert is still the same even-tempered guy he was back in 2011.


All Melendez ever wanted was to be the best in the world. Well, that’s not entirely true. Mostly he wanted to fight, and he’s done that pretty well over the course of a nine-year career that has taken him from Santa Ana to Honolulu to Lemoore to Tokyo and back to San Francisco. He’s competed at Rumble on the Rock and in the WEC and PRIDE and has finally settled in Strikeforce despite not really wanting to be settled in Strikeforce.

I like to think I've improved as a writer since 2011, but reading this story back, I see some of the same beats and structures I use to this day. The "from Santa Ana to Honolulu to Lemoore to Tokyo and back to San Francisco" and "has finally settled in Strikeforce despite not really wanting to be settled in Strikeforce" lines are absolutely something I would still write.

What he really wants is to face Edgar or other top UFC lightweights, and he’s not getting the opportunity to do so. Sure, he puts on a good face and answers all of the questions in the non-controversial way that fighters tend to do. He says he’ll stick around Strikeforce if that’s what Zuffa wants. He’s a good company man, after all. But what he’d really like is for the UFC to either bring him into the Octagon or send some top lightweights his way.

“I think Jorge is like the last true challenge there. I think he is a true challenge and I think he’s better than a lot of lightweights in the UFC. But if I do get past this guy, and I plan on that, there really aren’t too many more people. He beat Evangelista. He beat K.J. Noons,” Melendez says. “It would be awesome if they did bring some top people from the UFC and did something interesting like that. But I don’t care. I love Strikeforce, I love Showtime and if they can bring some of the top guys over here, that would be pretty cool and interesting. Dana said he was going to make it worth our while, so I have to have faith in that.”

Despite what he says, I’m certain Melendez wants more than a spot in whatever Strikeforce becomes. I ask Phil Baldacci, Melendez’ long-time training partner and cornerman, if Gilbert seems more determined to prove to his new bosses that he’s worthy of being in the Octagon.

“I wouldn’t say he’s more determined, because he’s always determined to prove he’s the best, whether he’s in Strikeforce or the UFC,” Baldacci says. “Regardless of who he’s fighting or where he’s fighting, he knows he’s gotta go out and show everybody that he’s the best. I think that’s what drives him.”

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.

Again: Eight years later, Masvidal is one of the sport's biggest stars. But in 2011, he was an afterthought; he would keep Melendez busy until the UFC saw fit to bring him over for a reunion with Scott Coker—who spent his days as a UFC employee playing golf in the Bay Area—and other former Strikeforce stars.

“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.”

Melendez beat Masvidal by decision, as expected. What he did not expect—what nobody could have expected—was that the win over Masvidal would only be followed by two wins over the next eight years. Melendez beat Josh Thomson in May 2012 before moving to the UFC, where his only promotional win was over Diego Sanchez in a classic brawl at UFC 166.

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.

Melendez was one of MMA's early "outside business" success stories. Like Randy Couture, Melendez recognized that running a gym exclusively catering to professional fighters was a money-losing proposition. And so like Couture's gym in Las Vegas and AKA in San Jose, Melendez' gym was open to the public. 

Being a pro fight gym is cool, but it's the kickboxing classes aimed at young moms looking to get/stay in shape that really keeps the lights on.

“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.

This entire last section should have been cut in editing. 

It just doesn't fit the rest of the story. Gil had been great to me (and always has), and I probably felt like I needed to mention his newly-expanded business. If I were editing this story today, I would've chopped off everything after "we knew he's going to be ready." But that's hindsight, right? 

When I read some of my old stories like this, I often cringe. I didn't cringe reading this story. This does not mean it's a great, or even a good, story; it is a pedestrian (and boring) pre-fight piece. You can find 100 of them today if you visit any of the top MMA publications out there. 

I wrote a lot of these over my career, and I mastered the art of producing them. I'd interview a subject for 10 minutes or so. Twenty minutes after the interview, I'd hit the publish button. I didn't put much thought into narrative or story; I just got it out fast. I am thankful I no longer have to write this kind of story. 

But I am also thankful that, if it were required of me, I absolutely could do this again. It's a tool I never would've developed without doing it, repeatedly, for years.