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Strikeforce lightweight champion excited by possibilities after UFC purchase

Gilbert Melendez Jr. has a history with Tatsuya Kawajiri, Saturday’s opponent

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

Gilbert Melendez Jr., left, and Shinya Aoki pose for a photo to promote their lightweight championship bout last year, which Melendez won by unanimous decision.

Strikeforce

Las Vegas Sun sports reporter Case Keefer talks with Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez about his Saturday bout against Tatsuya Kawajiri, fighting in Las Vegas and training partner Nick Diaz.

SAN DIEGO — Gilbert Melendez Sr. used to have a hard time believing just how good of a fighter his son was.

Even after Gilbert Melendez Jr. started his professional career 11-0 and captured the Strikeforce lightweight championship in the process five years ago, his father tried to temper his enthusiasm.

Then came a unanimous decision victory over Tatsuya Kawajiri in a PRIDE event on New Year’s Eve 2006, which made it tough for Melendez Sr. to deny his son’s prowess any longer.

“Kawajiri knocked him on his butt, but his wrestling instincts took over,” Melendez Sr., who also serves as his son’s manager, said. “It made me realize he had a great chin, and I’d never seen him that aggressive before.”

As important of a performance as Melendez Sr. thought that bout was for his son, it pales in comparison to Saturday’s rematch at Valley View Casino Center. Melendez Jr. (19-2) takes on Kawajiri (27-6-2) for the 155-pound championship belt in the co-headlining contest of Strikeforce: Diaz vs. Daley.

The 28-year old Melendez Jr. says he has plenty of extra motivation after Zuffa, the parent company of UFC, purchased Strikeforce last month. Melendez Jr. has never competed in the UFC, so this is his first fight under the Zuffa banner. A win would move him closer to a potential showdown with the UFC lightweight champion, a battle he’s confident he could win.

“I’ve had a lot of pressure on myself campaigning that I’m the No. 1 lightweight in the world,” Melendez Jr. said. “I’ve been asking to get a little more exposure out there and I think I’m gaining a little bit more with the Zuffa buyout.”

Melendez Jr. avenged both of his career losses, to Josh Thomson and Mitsuhiro Ishida, in two of his last three fights. He’s bulldozed almost everyone else and has a 6-1 career record in title fights.

He’s unanimously ranked among the top five lightweights in the world, but it was always pure speculation of how he would match up with other promotion’s fighters before the Strikeforce sale.

If Melendez Jr. gets by Kawajiri, fans will naturally clamor for him to go up against top UFC 155-pounders like Frankie Edgar, Gray Maynard and Anthony Pettis. And Melendez Jr. wouldn’t resist.

“I’ve beaten everyone out of the UFC who is somebody,” Melendez Jr. said. “It’s not that I only want to fight the UFC guys, but I’ve handled business outside of the UFC. I’ve handled everybody.”

But there are still plenty of mixed martial arts enthusiasts who think Melendez Jr. shouldn’t have gotten by Kawajiri, 32, the first time around. Melendez Jr. has seen posters on Internet message boards call the decision “ridiculous” and argue that Kawajiri won.

Kawajiri still hasn’t gotten over the defeat.

“I thought that fight was a draw,” Kawajiri said through a translator. “Since then, it’s been five years and we’ve both grown a lot. On Saturday, we’ll be competing in a war.”

Melendez Jr. hasn’t said anything negative toward Kawajiri in the build-up to the fight, but it clearly bothers him when he’s not given credit for a victory.

“We have some unfinished business from four-and-a-half years ago,” Melendez Jr. said. “I got the ‘W,’ but I can’t stand people saying I lost that fight or it was a draw or whatever. I’m looking forward to making this one decisive.”

Melendez Jr. said he has improved a lot more than Kawajiri has since the last time they fought. He referred to himself as “a kid back then” and agreed with his father that it was an important step in his maturation process as a fighter.

Melendez Jr. is entering his prime now, which makes super fights with the UFC’s elite lightweights such an attractive option. The UFC purchase may have come at the exact right time.

“This is where he wants to be,” Melendez Sr. said. “I think it’s because the casual fan only knows the UFC and the hardcore fans know Strikeforce. He wants to market himself and needs the casual fans.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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