The Calm Before ‘El Nino’

Jun 26, 2008



PLEASANT HILL, Calif. -- Despite the shade available thanks to tree after cookie-cutter tree, this town -- true to its name except for today -- is suffering through a crushing, dry heat that is crawling toward the mid-90s.

Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez (Pictures) smiles as he stretches. Cesar Gracie (Pictures)'s camp, tucked away in one of the million commerce havens in the area, is emptier than usual. Lit only with whatever sun finds its way through the neatly arranged trees, MMA stars Jake Shields (Pictures), Nick Diaz (Pictures) and Nate Diaz are lingering around the same mats on which Melendez relaxes.

Chatting with an unusually low energy, Melendez talks with everyone in the gym until he starts to roll on the mats. Nick begins to tangle him up. Gilbert fights out. They are flowing.

The movement comes together seamlessly between the black belt and the purple belt, carrying them all the way off the mat. They exchange anaconda chokes -- one successful and one not. It's not important to know who caught whom. It continues. Replacing the professional Everlast timer found in most gyms, Gracie calmly says, "Time."

Melendez is known for his unrelenting pace: a pace that earned him the nickname "El Nino" early in his career, that saw him break down UFC fireball Clay Guida (Pictures) to capture the gold he wears today, that kept up with "The Endless Fighter" Mitsuhiro Ishida (Pictures) in the lone loss of his career.

But today he works patiently in Nate Diaz's guard. The winner of "The Ultimate Fighter" grapples him off the mat opposite the side where Nick ran Melendez out minutes before. Melendez works even with random body parts fighting off of the bare floors.

"Time."

Two ceiling fans are dormant above the mats. The heat alone is reason enough to turn them on. Factor in the sweat, the rising body heat and leaving them off should be a misdemeanor. Round after round, each minute pushes past 2 p.m. and the day's high temperatures.

In the midst of all the slow, technical grappling and calculated scrambles, Melendez slams Nick Diaz in a sort of wakeup call to the entire gym. The sudden burst of energy that leads to the thud of Diaz's body seems natural. It relays an undeniable truth about Melendez. When he is calm, don't expect it to last.

"Time."

Gracie, in green cargo shorts and a red Ecko shirt, jumps on the mat as if he were in fight shorts and a rash guard. He demonstrates some move variations with Melendez. Once, twice. Question, answer.

When asked about Melendez, Gracie says with a sense of disbelief that he is "an animal."

The champion is now done training for his bout Friday with Josh Thomson (Pictures). The calm continues, the storm yet to come. The 155-pound clash has dynamic written all over it.

"I was born for this," Melendez says.

It took the Pride veteran a while to realize that, though. Jake Shields, once a colleague of his at San Francisco State University, invited his teammates to train to fight. Everyone looked at the clean-cut Southern Californian and pegged him as a liar. He doesn't fight, they thought.

"Nah, I never seen you in any UFCs," said the Mexican-American Melendez, who thought he was "badass already."

His swagger and curiosity prompted him to accompany Shields -- then working his way through Gladiator Challenge -- to Cesar Gracie's camp, where a chubby white belt humbled him with a double armbar. Jesse Taylor (Pictures), of "The Ultimate Fighter" fame, was the only other SFSU wrestler to take up Shields' offer, but Melendez was the only one who stuck around.

This is the origin of the Jake Shields Fight Team. Both are loyal disciples of Cesar Gracie, but Melendez credits the Rumble on the Rock tournament champion with bringing him into the sport and making him the first member of the Shields squad.

Melendez dropped out of school and began living paycheck to paycheck. Work check to fight check. Construction and running plates to WEC, Shooto and Strikeforce, all on his way to becoming a full-time fighter.

Now recognized as one of the best lightweights in the world, he faces a familiar -- and dangerous -- foe in Thomson.

The UFC veteran welcomed Melendez from the East Bay to the South Bay to train at his gym, American Kickboxing Academy. The two sparred. They hit each other in Javier Mendez's ring. They rolled on Dave Camarillo's mats. They understood each other, exposed each other and taught each other. They fought.

As well-rounded mixed martial artists, the results were never the same. Melendez won. Melendez lost. Of course it was sparring. They went hard but not their hardest. There was nothing to fight for. That is not the case this Friday night.

"We've done about 15 times for free. Now we're gonna get paid for it," says Melendez.

The champion stopped making the hour-plus drive to San Jose in September 2007, anticipating the fight that failed to materialize after Thomson lost the inaugural Strikeforce title to Clay Guida.

A torn shoulder shelved Thomson and the bout further, but the friends are ready to mix it up now. The fight has no manufactured hype. "The Punk" has been tame and respectful. Both expect a war and, as Melendez points out, no one is undertraining or overconfident. To prepare for five five-minute rounds of combat, they also stopped speaking to each other over the past few months.

Melendez sees the fight simply: "It's who is going to be more ready, who is going to want it more. We're both going to edge it out either way."

For Thomson, a win restores him to the status he carried into a 2004 clash with Yves Edwards (Pictures) for the strapless 155-pound UFC crown. For Melendez, a win is another notch on his star-studded belt. More importantly, it is an elite victory in the United States to be broadcast on HDNet.

"It's huge because Gilbert definitely deserves that," says Gracie, who believes Melendez's jiu-jitsu for MMA is black belt level. "He fought most of his career in Japan and he's well known over there. Very famous. With that, he wasn't seen here a lot on TV unfortunately.

"Hardcore fans know who he is, but common people don't. They're gonna get an opportunity to see him fight in the States, and he can show his talents."

The trainer was as motivated as his fighter after the first loss of Melendez's career. A reliance on top position found Melendez losing against Ishida last December. With Thomson enjoying a size advantage in the 25-minute fight, Gracie ensures that Melendez will be ready to get up and escape when needed.

The loss to Ishida has invigorated Melendez too. It taught him the importance of having a game plan and executing it. In front of Thomson's hometown, that will be essential.

Melendez doesn't fear a pro-"Punk" crowd, however. He believes San Jose is just as much his.

"I have to make it a little personal for myself," he says. "I feel like he's standing in my way of my success. I have to do what I have to do to succeed."

Whatever cheers and jeers emanate through the HP Pavilion, "El Nino" promises to run in the direction of the storm.

"I predict a war," Melendez says, "and I predict Gilbert Melendez coming out with a ‘W,' man, because he wants it more."

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