The Calm Before El Nino
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,
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
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.
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
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.
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,
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
"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
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
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
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
"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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