Heading into his fight against Diego Sanchez, former Strikeforce Lightweight Champion, Gilbert Melendez says the fight may not be a belt but there is a title on the line.
"We have a lot of Mexican-American pride on the line here so we want to see who the toughest Mexican-American in the cage is," Melendez said. "Diego's been a pioneer in this sport, he brings a lot of courage to the cage, he has that warrior spirit and I'm the same type of guy."
Melendez grew up in Santa Ana, California and said he can best speak to his Spanish-speaking fans once the cage doors swing shut.
"My Spanish is horrible coming from Santa Ana and everything," Melendez joked. "But a good way for me to relate is when I fight. There's definitely Mexican blood in me. I take pride in that warrior spirit. I grew up watching Julio Cesar Chavez, Chiquita Hernandez, De La Hoya as well, those are some of the fighters I looked up to. I take pride in that and I want to be that guy."
But beyond their heritage, Melendez sees a lot of similarities between himself and his opponent.
"There has been a blueprint, the best way to fight Diego is to stick and move, how to fight him is to not fight him, try to win the score cards but that's not my style," Melendez said. "It's been the same for me too, those who have been successful with me have been sticking and moving and kind of avoid the fight."
Melendez recalls the phone call he got from matchmaker Joe Silva who approached him with the idea of fighting Sanchez.
"I got excited, I thought it made for a good matchup, I got the chills," Melendez said when describing the call.
Growing up in Orange County, Melendez himself was raised in a nurturing environment but said he saw firsthand some of the struggles young people faced in his predominantly Hispanic neighborhood.
"Santa Ana is a rough city but I was lucky enough to be surrounded great people," Melendez said. "And you definitely got to be able to hold your own and you can't be no punk."
Melendez said he saw friends in his neighborhood be treated unfairly at times by authorities.
"I like the Santa Ana Police Department, there are a lot of good people out there but you don't want to be nervous when you see a cop, you should feel safe," Melendez said. "I guess you just had that nervous feeling out there [when I was younger.]"
Melendez's father is from Tijuana and his mother was born stateside but both of her parents are from Mexico.
Before Melendez found mixed martial arts, he went to college to pursue a degree in education and said he wanted to be a teacher, a career path he was attracted to because of three prominent role models.
"Beside my mother and father who inspired me, in high school I was around great teachers and I loved the idea of being a teacher and teaching high school wrestling because that was something my coach [Scott Glabb] did and he was someone I looked up to as well," Melendez said. "Wrestling kind of kept me straight."
"I didn't get my degree but sometimes I do want to go back to make my dad and my family proud," Melendez said.
"I got a great gym in San Francisco, but my dad says it would look a lot better if you had your college degree up there," Melendez joked. "That's the kind of stuff my dad tells me. That is parenting."