On October 19th at UFC 166, Gilbert “El Nino” Melendez will lock horns with Diego “the Dream” Sanchez in what many MMA fans consider to be a dream match-up between a former Strikeforce kingpin and a former contender in the UFC lightweight division. After coming up short in his attempt to dethrone the then-champ Benson Henderson at UFC on Fox 7, fans questioned whether El Nino was the real deal or an overrated fighter coming from a lesser talent pool in Strikeforce. I believe that Melendez is the real deal. I would hardly consider someone who holds wins over Josh Thomson (2x), Shinya Aoki, Tatsuya Kawajiri (2x), Jorge Masvidal and Clay Guida to be overrated. He has bad intentions for his opponent once the cage door closes. He utilized strong counter wrestling to stifle the predominantly wrestling-based strategy used by Mitsuhiro Ishida and won their rematch by TKO, he demonstrated great counter-punching in his Strikeforce title defense against Masvidal and showed the heart of a champion in his scrap against Henderson.

Many have questioned the caliber of opponents that Melendez faced in the Strikeforce circuit. Critics claimed that Aoki and Kawajiri failed in their North American ventures into Strikeforce because they were not used to the cage and the elbows that were permitted in North America. Critics also claimed that Melendez could not be considered to be an elite lightweight fighter because he struggled to win decisions against Thomson (winning two very close decisions and losing an equally close decision), while also struggling to win a decision against a one-handed Masvidal, who entered the Strikeforce lightweight title fight with a broken hand. I believe that Melendez’s stellar performance against Henderson proved that El Nino was more than just hype. It was an absolute scrap where both fighters left everything in the cage. Henderson and Melendez stood toe-to-toe throwing a constant stream of elbows and punches in the second round that left no doubt that Melendez was the real deal. The violence continued three more rounds, and when the dust settled Henderson retained his lightweight title winning the bout by split decision (48-47 Melendez, 48-47 Henderson 2x). He may not have dethroned the king, but he demonstrated heart in the cage that would have made Rocky Balboa proud.

So what does all of this mean as Melendez prepares for his fight against Sanchez on Saturday? I believe that we are going to see a motivated and more refined Melendez. Melendez is an ever-improving fighter that always brings his “A“ game on fight night and I don’t expect anything different this weekend. You can expect Melendez to use his counter-wrestling and strong counter-punching to brutalize an overly aggressive Sanchez, who is likely going to try to turn the fight into a grappling match to show off his skills as a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt. Even if Melendez finds himself in a grappling match, Melendez is no slouch on the mat. He possesses a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu brown belt under Cesar Gracie and trains with the likes of Nick and Nate Diaz and the American Jiu-Jitsu extraordinaire Jake Shields, so don’t expect Melendez to feel overwhelmed by Sanchez’ jiu-jitsu.

My prediction: Melendez by Unanimous Decision