Photos by Dan Shapiro
Back when UFC lightweight Gilbert Melendez first started competing in professional mixed martial arts, the thought of women fighting live on American television was unimaginable.
Even men were barred from the public airwaves in the early aughts, the sport of MMA deemed too violent for mass consumption. But fast-forward a decade, the women are duking it out on mixed martial arts’ biggest stage. And mentoring the UFC’s newest crop of female talent is Melendez, who believes that MMA is about to take a significant leap forward in the American cultural milieu as a champion of gender equality.
“Women play a strong role in our society all around, and they need to get a little more credit,” offers Melendez, who recently made his reality television debut as a coach on the twentieth season of The Ultimate Fighter, which, for the first time, features an all-female cast. “I hope it does empower women… I’m all for it. It contributes to the growth of the sport.”
Husband of female Muay Thai fighter Keri Anne Taylor, and father of a four-year-old daughter, Melendez, 32, has all the reason to forecast that MMA will eventually break down gender barriers and make a positive impact on American culture. He’s seen this all before, only abroad.
Part of a generation of athletes who fled to Japan to ride the sport’s popularity in Asia, Melendez, a northern California native, was thriving in Tokyo while mixed martial artists were struggling to find acceptance domestically. As part of the Pride and Shooto promotions, Melendez witnessed an entire nation of men, women, and children take to MMA. And he believes that American mainstream audiences are now ready to provide a similar embrace.
“When I went to Japan, it was kids in the stands,” comments Melendez. “Now [in the states]… it’s not only gonna be 18 to 30 year old men. It’s gonna be a family thing,”
Melendez was quick to sign up for his new reality TV gig and coach on TUF. Once the UFC asked him to participate in its debut foray into women’s strawweight territory, Melendez rallied his Skrap Pack teammates Jake Shields and Nate Diaz to join him in Las Vegas and train with some of women’s MMA’s top athletes.
It was Melendez’s hope to impart wisdom on, and instill work ethic in, the new 115-pound fighters, citing attributes like loyalty, family, persistence, and dedication as hallmarks of their San Francisco-based squad. He not only shared the team’s characteristic of “giving all your effort and going out there and performing… don’t stall,” but he also had another motivator heading into the filming of TUF, a lightweight title shot against champion Anthony Pettis, which is set to go down on December 6 in Las Vegas.
“I’m not scared of Anthony Pettis. He doesn’t make me scared. His kicks don’t scare me at all,” states Melendez, who will fight for the UFC belt for the second time in 19 months. “I feel like I’m more versatile. I know he’s very athletic, does some spinning shit, you know. I think I have better boxing. I’m more aggressive, I think I have better wrestling, I have better grappling.”
Melendez is now busy at his El Niño training center, preparing for his title shot against Pettis. But in between training sessions and day-to-day operations at the gym, this former Strikeforce titlist who has never been finished in professional competition also battles against uneducated public perceptions of MMA fighters from behind the sports desk, working as an analyst for ESPN and FOX.
He has witnessed a gradual loosening of the mainstream’s overly judgmental tone on MMA, and predicts that mass acceptance is now far away. But Melendez also offers due credit to UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey, who has managed to inspire feminine pursuits through a sport that is most often associated with a brutish machismo, broadening the appeal of mixed martial arts.
“I think it shows that women are very strong. Obviously she brought all kinds of eyes to the sport that wouldn’t normally watch MMA,” adds Melendez. “It’s important to know that just cause we’re fighting doesn’t mean that we’re violent, doesn’t mean that we have ill intentions.”
With Rousey now a perfect 4-0 inside the octagon, parlaying her cagework into a trio of Hollywood film roles, Melendez can feel the tides turning. He knows that MMA will continue to grow, but is equally concerned with the cultural influence and impact of mixed martial arts, convinced of the sport’s ability to transcend language and national boundaries.
And while his upcoming stint on TUF is also being touted as a landmark moment for women’s sports, Melendez remains focused on the traits that bind all MMA fighters. Whether man or a woman, Melendez believes that MMA has the potential to be a strong and positive force in American society.
“People are just scared of fighting,” says Melendez. “People don’t want to show their kids MMA, [but] soon they’ll realize… fighting and wrestling and horse playing and rough housing is something I think our culture needs a little bit more. People can get a little thicker skin and should be able to take a butt kick and a smile sometimes.”
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