Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez recently took some time to talk with Mark Wayne of Fightline.com to discuss his upcoming fight with number two ranked lightweight, Shinya Aoki, this weekend at Strikeforce: Nashville.
FightLine.com: In a recent interview, you mentioned that one of your favorite fighters is Dan Henderson. How do you feel about your friend and teammate Jake Shields fighting Henderson this weekend?
Gilbert Melendez: Well, even though Dan Henderson is one of my favorite fighters, Jake Shields is like my brother and he’s like family. You know, blood is thicker than water and Jake is family to me, so of course I’m rooting for Jake 100 percent. I mean, for us it’s cool. It’s a dream come true to see that. To me, Jake is a regular person and for him to be fighting a living legend, it’s awesome. We kind of sit back and trip out and laugh on that because it’s kind of cool. A guy we grew up on, Jake is fighting.
FightLine: I know that you have fought on the same card as your teammate Nick Diaz, and now you and Jake are appearing together on Saturday night’s “Strikeforce: Nashville” card. Does it help you to fight on the same card as a teammate?
Melendez: Yeah it does man. I usually like Jake in my corner a lot and unfortunately he’s not gonna be there. You know, [that adds] a little bit extra confidence but the fact that we’re fighting on the same card this weekend, we get pumped up and we get the energy from each other and we look forward to it and everything. But I’d rather actually have him in my corner. At least I get to be in his corner.
FightLine: For sure. You and Jake are in a similar situation in that a lot of people have both of you as the underdog on Saturday night. You’re taking on Shinya Aoki, one of the best lightweights in the world, and you aren’t usually in the underdog position. Do you feel any extra pressure because of this?
Melendez: I actually like being the underdog, it’s great. I’m fighting the number two ranked fighter in the world; I’ve got everything to gain here. But the more I look at it, people actually have a lot of confidence in me. I thought everyone thought I was going to lose originally but I’m pretty excited that actually a lot of people think I’m gonna win and come through with it. I think more pressure is on him. He’s trying to put Japan on the line. “The MMA scene in Japan is on the line,” is what he’s saying in interviews. For me, I’ve got everything to gain here and I actually feel very confident in this fight and I think I’ve got what it takes to beat him.
FightLine: Absolutely. I was actually going to ask you if you feel like Aoki is putting too much pressure on himself. He made that comment in an interview that if he loses to you Japan will become a US MMA colony, so he seems to be carrying a lot of weight into this fight.
Melendez: Yeah, I mean, it’s just crazy. MMA is definitely my career and I’m very proud of my accomplishments and I take pride in what I do and I work very hard at it, but it’s not my life. For him it seems like he’s putting his whole life and everything on the line. I’m lucky, you know? I got great friends, I got great family, and if I lose, I still have them there. I have a great girl; I’ve got all that stuff. I feel complete without fighting and I feel like he needs to do it to make himself feel complete, you know? And if he puts that pressure on himself and he doesn’t come through then who knows where he’s gonna be? It’s possible and I think it’s crazy that people do do that to themselves but I’m up for the challenge and I want to beat him.
FightLine: This could be a result of the language barrier or misinterpretation but in most of his interviews Aoki comes across as a pretty eccentric guy. What are your thoughts on him, as a person and as an opponent?
Melendez: He has a lot of heart, you know? He’s very emotional. He cries when he wins, he cries when he loses. He’s flashy with his fights; he’s confident, he’s cocky. He’s willing to break arms. From those things that I’ve seen, I like him. I think he’s great for the sport, he’s a great character. He’s a great fighter. He’s like a video game character to me. He’s cool, you know? I respect him. I’m a fan of MMA first, you know, before a fighter.
FightLine: Aoki did break Mizuto Hirota’s arm with a nasty hammerlock in his last fight. Does that up the stakes for you in this fight or do you just see that as a hazard of MMA competition?
Melendez: I consider it a hazard of MMA competition, of course. I know what I’m walking into. Fans sometimes don’t; fans are mad at refs, like, “They’re not stopping it in time” or, “There’s too much blood”. But I know 110 percent what I’m getting in to when I walk into the ring or cage. I know I may get knocked out, I know I may get my arm broken, I know I may put someone to sleep. I recognize all of those consequences and I understand it. I’m a grown man when I walk in there. But after… my [last] fight I did call [Aoki] out. After I won my title back from Josh [Thomson], I called him out and two weeks later it’s New Years Eve and Aoki’s fighting Hirota and we’re all gathered around the TV and he breaks the dude’s arm. We all stay quiet for two minutes until my friend says, “He’s gonna break you’re f***in’ arm, Gilbert!”, and we all start laughing. So we joke about it; it’s not that big of a deal to us. But he’s definitely intimidating, it’s scary but it comes with the territory. No big deal.
FightLine: You were supposed to fight Aoki before in PRIDE and you had to pull out because of a burst bursa sac in your elbow. There was talk of a second fight after that but it never materialized. What happened there? Can you comment on that?
Melendez: Yeah, definitely. In 2006 we were supposed to fight, it was August, and I had bursitis and I continued to train and I ruptured my bursa sac in the process so I really couldn’t fight. My training was messed up for three weeks and I had to pull out. It was the first…[pauses] It was the only fight I pulled out on. We were supposed to line up and I went to Japan that week, that I was supposed to fight him, anyways and after he beat Clay French they called me into the ring and we did the whole, “Hey, let’s fight New Years Eve”. I really don’t know what he said because he’s Japanese but something along the line of us fighting on New Years Eve. So we were set up to fight New Year’s Eve. I was training up for it and then four weeks out they switched my opponent to Tatsuya Kawajiri. So I fought Kawajiri instead and that was kind of the end of our story for the time being.
FightLine: Okay, last question, Gilbert. You hold a win over top UFC competitor Clay Guida, and you’ve said in interviews before that you feel like you match up well with all of the UFC lightweights. Do you ever see yourself competing in the UFC?
Melendez: Um, I do. I see myself competing against some of the fighters. I’m very happy with the Strikeforce organization. They take care of me well. They’re putting me on Showtime, they’re putting me on CBS. They allowed me to avenge both my losses and now they’re giving me the number two fighter in the world. So, as of now, I see myself going with Strikeforce for as long as possible because they take care of me so well. But yeah man, of course, the common fan recognizes the UFC a hundred times more than any other organization and I feel like sometimes, to get that respect, you might need to go out there. But I think Strikeforce is on to something and I’m actually able to get my respect and my exposure through them so I’m pretty happy. But there are people I see myself fighting in the UFC; [I’m] not necessarily going to be going into the organization. But [UFC president] Dana White hasn’t called me up or hasn’t expressed great interest in me or tried to reach me or anything and [Strikeforce president] Scott Coker gives me a lot of attention, so right now I’m happy where I’m at.
FightLine: Well, thanks a lot for your time Gilbert and good luck Saturday.
Melendez: I appreciate that.
Gilbert will face Shinya Aoki for the Strikeforce lightweight championship on the main card of Strikeforce: Nashville, Saturday night on CBS.