There is little question Gilbert Melendez has earned the right to compete at the top levels of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. What remains up for debate is just when the reigning Strikeforce lightweight champion will actually get that chance.
"It's frustrating," he said. "It is. It's frustrating that I can't really prove that I'm the No. 1 fighter in the world. There's always going to be debate. It's not so much that I need or deserve to get a title shot right away, just give me a guy who's top five. Someone that's a big name that I can prove myself and make a statement with. I want a top opponent, and that's what I feel I deserve."
While there have been many rumors that he would join several other Strikeforce champs and jump to the UFC, Melendez continues to be left behind to be the star the Strikeforce brand is being built around. Melendez said he will not be satisfied being fed lesser opponents as a headlining attraction in the smaller promotion.
"If this is where I have to be and build up another organization while I'm in my prime and watching my years go by, yeah, it's going to hurt," he said. "I'm in this for a reason, to be No. 1. I have goals. I'm happy with my pay, but I have goals here. Sometimes, it feels like I'm going backwards. I can't see this making any sense to me."
The 29-year-old must, for now, settle for the top spot on the ESPN Insider list of "Future Contenders" in the 155-pound class. The "Future Contenders" series focuses on fighters in every weight class who have the best chance to work their way into a UFC title shot down the road. Eligible fighters are those who:
1. Have not held a UFC belt in the weight class
2. Have not previously fought for a UFC title in the weight class
Fighters need not currently be in the UFC to qualify, but they must be active. Also, holding a title or having fought for a title in another fight league does not disqualify. Melendez said he has made it quite clear to the powers-that-be that he is unsatisfied with his current predicament. UFC president Dana White recently said Melendez has been texting him trying to either get a shot in the UFC or have one of the top contenders come over and challenge him in Strikeforce.
"I've been on him," Melendez said. "I'm trying to be vocal and I'm trying to talk to him. I'm not trying to be a punk or anything. I've been a team player for both organizations and I feel like maybe the team players don't get what they want. I feel like maybe I need to be a little bit more vocal here and not be so much of a team player and do what I have to do to get my shot."
Melendez (14-2) has won seven straight bouts during his second reign as Strikeforce champion and hasn't lost a fight since 2008. He has no idea when he may actually get the chance to prove he is the best lightweight in the world.
"For the last few years, I've felt so close and yet so far," he said. "I feel like I get a taste of it and it just gets taken away. I don't have any clear answer, but it's something I'm willing to push for now. To me, it's unacceptable for me to fight someone that's not in the top 10."
Melendez will obviously have a close eye on the lightweight title bout between Ben Henderson and champion Frankie Edgar at UFC 144. He would like a shot against either one. Melendez said, while there is a great deal of talent at 155, there is room at the top.
"I think it's a very stacked division, but I don't think there's anyone truly holding it down," he said. "There's no [Georges St. Pierre] there. There's no Anderson Silva there. There's no Jon Jones there. It's up for grabs. I think they need someone there to hold it down like that decisively, and I think I'm the man for that job."
Really, he just wants the chance to prove he belongs.
"I think Frankie is a very good fighter and he's definitely no easy task," Melendez said. "Ben Henderson is no easy task. None of these guys are. I'll be honest, I think I'll smash Joe Lauzon. I think I'd smash Anthony Pettis. I think I could smash Melvin Guillard. I think I could smash Jim Miller. There's a lot of people I could smash there and that's just the reality of it. I know they give me a lot of respect, but I don't hear any of them calling me out. I call them out every day trying to get fights with them. They know I'm the top guy out there."
While Melendez has held several belts in MMA, he knows the UFC belt signifies reaching the pinnacle of his profession.
"It's validation," he said. "It's a goal of mine, it's a dream of mine. It makes a statement in my career. If you're the UFC champ, it's like a Ph.D. at Harvard for a fighter."
Here are other prospects for the lightweight division: