Strikeforce Lightweight Championship Gilbert Melendez is gearing up to defend his title for the first time since unifying the belt on August 15, 2009 against Josh Thomson. Melendez faces current DREAM Lightweight Champion and Shooto Middleweight Champion Shinya Aoki this Saturday at Strikeforce: Nashville in a bout with Melendez’s title on the line. While holding a 17-2 record – and having avenged both of his losses – Melendez enters Saturday’s event as the underdog.
“I actually like being the underdog, it’s great,” Melendez told Mark Wayne of FightLine in a recent interview. “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.”
Aoki and Melendez were originally slated to square off in 2006 at Bushido 13. Melendez had to bow out of the fight due to an elbow injury (burst bursa sac) that he suffered in training. Aoki would go on to face Clay French, whom he defeated in less than four minutes. Melendez recalls having to pull out of the fight, noting that it was the first time that it had ever happened.
“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,” recalls Melendez. “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.”
Aoki has been putting a lot of weight on the fight in recent interviews, stating, “the MMA scene in Japan is on the line.” He went on to note that if he loses, Japan will become a US MMA colony. Melendez feels that due to those comments, the pressure is on the challenger.
“I think more pressure is on him. He’s trying to put Japan on the line. 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.
“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,” he continued. “For him it seems like he’s putting his whole life and everything on the line… 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 that to themselves but I’m up for the challenge and I want to beat him.”
The bout is Aoki’s first since he broke Mizuto Hirota’s arm with a nasty hammerlock at Dynamite!! 2009 this past New Year’s Eve. Aoki needed only 1:17 to secure the hammerlock and defeat the Sengoku Lightweight Champion. Melendez says that he is ready for anything that happens in Saturday’s bout.
“I know what I’m walking into,” said Melendez. “Fans sometimes don’t; fans are mad at refs, like, “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.
“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.”
Melendez faces Aoki at Strikeforce: Nashville on CBS this Saturday night for the Strikeforce Lightweight Championship. For the full card for this Saturday’s event, click here. For the full interview with Melendez, in which he talks about Dan Henderson, going to the UFC down the line and more, click here.