Gilbert Melendez hopes Strikeforce rubber match against Josh Thomson elevates his star power (Yahoo! Sports)


Of the 17 fighters who received votes in the Yahoo! Sports mixed martial arts rankings, five are lightweights. Even a casual observer can see it's the sport's best division with the most high-end talent.

High-end talent, though, isn't all that is required for a fighter to become a star.

There's an elusive something else that is hard to quantify but easy to identify.

Gilbert Melendez and Josh Thomson, who fight Saturday at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif., for the Strikeforce lightweight belt, know that better than most.

Melendez is seventh in the current Yahoo! Sports poll, ahead of such great fighters as ex-UFC champion Frankie Edgar (eighth), Gray Maynard (13) and ex-Bellator champion Eddie Alvarez (T15).

And that doesn't include men such as Thomson, Nate Diaz, Jim Miller, Bellator champion Michael Chandler and others who received nary a vote.

Melendez's talent and performance haven't gone unnoticed within the industry, but he's yet to take off and reach the same level of stardom as many of his elite brethren.

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There was plenty of talk that Melendez would fight ex-UFC champion B.J. Penn before the Strikeforce title fight with Thomson was put together. That bout would have given the charismatic and often acrobatic Melendez a vehicle to become a star, but Penn opted to remain retired.

So, Melendez has had to content himself with a rubber match with Thomson while awaiting the fight that would bring him the widespread recognition his talent indicates he deserves.

"Obviously to be the No. 1 fighter in the world, you have to be the UFC champ," Melendez said. "It's just the way it is. And right now, I'm just trying to put on shows and get better in the sport. It's just to get better and take some risk out there.

"I'm really trying to just become a really good martial artist right now and deliver. But I'm not worried about that no more. I'm just going to keep doing my thing and performing and I'm trying not to look at that any more. I'm just trying to find different motivations, like the paycheck and my team and my family."

Thomson has won three of his last four since a Dec. 19, 2009, loss to Melendez in San Jose that evened the series between them at a fight apiece.

Thomson is coming off a one-sided victory over K.J. Noons in March, but what was most notable was Thomson's reaction to it afterward.

He used his wrestling to control Noons and was never in jeopardy of losing. The victory earned him the shot at the title, but Thomson wasn't pleased with his performance.

"I got the win, but I hate fighting like that [and] it disappoints me that people boo," he said in a Showtime interview afterward. "It's the entertainment business. It's not the way I like to win. Taking him down and getting the win? That should be expected of me. I'm a good wrestler and I have good submissions. … There's no excuse. It was a [expletive] fight."

But they had a good pair of fights against each other previously and seem to be at the peak of their games now.

A win over Melendez would do more for Thomson at this point than vice versa, but neither guy is going to become a breakout star at this stage. It's a matter of stringing together quality fight after quality fight and hoping for a breakthrough.

Melendez has the right attitude, though. You can't become a star by saying you want to do it or even by winning all of your fights. It happens organically. And so Melendez just decided to forget about it and go out and enjoy his job and his life.

"I'm going to be [fighting] for a long time," Melendez said. "I hear [Strikeforce heavyweight] Josh Barnett talking about how he's been fighting for 15 years. If I'm going to do this, I'm going to have fun and not be stressed going out to every practice and just do the best I can do. And, that's what I've been doing, just training my butt off. "The stress is there, but not so bad. It is what it is. I just got to roll with the punches on this."

And some day, hopefully sooner or later, the world will awaken and realize that Gilbert Melendez is a star.

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