(This story appeared in today’s edition of USA TODAY.)
It was nearly two years ago that a grinning Gilbert Melendez stood before news reporters at a prefight media workout and spoke about the wonderful things that were sure to happen to him now that Zuffa, parent company of the UFC, had purchased Strikeforce, where Melendez reigned as lightweight champion.
“People are going to get all the dream fights they wanted,” Melendez said in April 2011, weeks after the sale was announced.
He really seemed to believe it would happen in a timely fashion, too. Poor guy.
Two years, three Strikeforce title defenses and one year-long layoff later, Melendez (21-2 MMA, 0-0 UFC) is getting his dream fight — a crack at UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson (18-2 MMA, 6-0 UFC) in the UFC on FOX 7 headliner at HP Pavilion in San Jose (FOX, 8 p.m. ET Saturday).
For Melendez, it’s a chance to make a good first impression in the UFC after toiling for years in its shadow. It also is an opportunity to prove that even though he made a name for himself outside the sport’s biggest organization, he is no less deserving of a top ranking because of it.
“To the common fan, I’m 0-0,” Melendez told news reporters this week. Hardcore MMA fans might know who he is and what he has done regardless of how this fight turns out, he said, but to everyone else, “If I win, it will legitimize everything. If I don’t, it won’t.”
Stakes like that make this more than just another title fight, and not just for Melendez. Henderson has been the UFC’s 155-pound champion for a little more than a year, but he’s still searching for a signature win that will launch him into the superstar stratosphere. Beating a champion from another organization, who long has been regarded as one of the top lightweights outside the UFC, would be a great way to do it.
That’s why you’d expect the UFC to be shouting from the rooftops about this main event. Here we are, four months into 2013, which UFC play-by-play man Mike Goldberg promised would be “super fight year,” and this is the first champion vs. champion matchup that truly fits the bill. So why does this fight week feel almost like an afterthought, with no prefight news conference, no open workouts, none of the fan-friendly festivities we’ve come to expect from the UFC?
Maybe too much of the organization’s promotional muscle is dedicated to pumping up next week’s UFC 159 pay-per-view event. Maybe it figures this fight sells itself. Neither explanation would be fair to Henderson and Melendez, who are deserving of a big push before Saturday’s champion-on-champion showdown.
Fans say they want super fights. Here’s one, right under our noses. If you miss it, you might not see another for a long time, and the wait can be excruciating. Just ask Melendez.
For more on UFC on FOX 7, stay tuned to the UFC Rumors section of the site.
(Pictured: Gilbert Melendez)