–Kenny Rice

“It was his best fight ever,” Cesar Gracie smiles broadly as he recounts Gilbert Melendez’ first round thrashing of Tatsuya Kawajiri to keep his Strikeforce Lightweight belt.

At his Pleasant Hill, California gym, there is a lot for Gracie to smile about. Nick Diaz is preparing to box possibly Fernando Vargas in late summer and in the gym on this day are Nate Diaz working a heavy bag getting ready for his next UFC fight, and in the ring Jake Shields gets ready for his biggest fight ever against Georges St. Pierre in UFC 129. But at the moment the Melendez victory resonates. “He is coming into his own.”

On Inside MMA, Melendez doesn’t disagree with the assessment. “It’s one hundred percent branding yourself, fighters bring out different styles in you. I know it was my best butt whipping ever, I hope my best fight is ahead.”

He laughs at noting the last time he was on the show and the discussion was when he might get to fight a UFC champ was probably “four or five years away.”  This was at the start of the year when few if any had an inkling the UFC was buying Strikeforce in just a few weeks.

“It’s changed hasn’t it?” Melendez beams before entering the studio. “It’s all business always. But as usual great fights for me leads closer to getting a unification shot in the lightweight division. I think some of it will depend on how the Strikeforce heavyweight tournament goes, the interest in that. If those of us (still under Strikeforce contracts) continue to show force and put on great fights then eventually it could lead to something really big.”

He thinks of something like he has participated in, big show, big fights, special night. “Like they do in Japan on New Year’s Eve. The Strikeforce champs and the UFC champs and titles on the line all the way. It’s certainly more realistic than earlier this year isn’t it?”

There are few fighters at the top level who are adapting, improving as much with every fight as Melendez. And a future date with Frankie Edgar or Gray Maynard to come up with the undisputed king of the division brings smiles to all at Cesar Gracie’s camp, knowing they have been witnessing the best of Melendez and what is yet to come.

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