Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez is considered one of the best 155-pound fighters in the world. He is 19-2, and has won five consecutive fights. But one glaring hole remains in his impressive resume -- a run atop the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Melendez's opportunity opened earlier this year when Zuffa, the parent company of the UFC, purchased Strikeforce. UFC President Dana White spoke about moving Melendez to the higher-profile company, and that likely will happen if Melendez defeats Jorge Masvidal in the main event of Saturday's Strikeforce card in San Diego.
The event will air live (Showtime, 10 p.m. EST, tape-delayed on the West Coast). Melendez, 29, a native of Santa Ana, Calif., acknowledged the recent discussion about his potential entry into the UFC.
"We've talked about it a little bit," Melendez said. "Before the big buzz about me jumping over to the UFC, and before Dana White started mentioning my name and the whole rumors started going on, my contract was already signed to fight Jorge a couple weeks before that. You get a little excited hearing all that stuff, but that was my focus as soon as I signed that deal. It's obvious it's something we've been talking about. I think it's inevitable. The top fighters need to go to the UFC, and I'm one of those guys."
Masvidal, while not as revered as Melendez, offers an imposing challenge to the plan. Masvidal, 27, from Miami, dropped from welterweight to lightweight for his last two fights and earned decisions against K.J. Noons and Billy Evangelista to improve to 22-6.
"A lot of people have been talking nonsense that Jorge is no good, that (I am) going to run right by him," Melendez said. "That talk kind of bothers me because some people are ignorant, and they don't follow the game that much. If you don't fight in the UFC, they think you're no good."
Melendez knows that a good outing against Masvidal, along with the opportunity to join the UFC, can lead to his ultimate prize.
"The goal is to be No. 1 in the world," Melendez said. "If I have to beat Jorge, if I have to beat someone else, if I have to beat five more people before that, so be it -- the sooner the better.
"I think I deserve the chance at the UFC title. If I can get it as soon as possible, that would be great. If not, if I have to keep winning and keep working hard -- I feel like that I'm constantly improving myself in this MMA industry -- then so be it. It's inevitable. I'm coming for that spot."
Also on the card: Cristiane Santos will try to defend her women's featherweight championship against Hiroko Yamanaka. Light heavyweights Gegard Mousasi and Ovince St. Preux and lightweights K.J. Noons and Billy Evangelista will also fight.
The preliminaries include: welterweights Jerron Peoples and Roger Bowling; lightweights Caros Fodor and Justin Wilcox; heavyweights Devin Cole and Gabriel Salinas-Jones; light heavyweights Fernando Gonzalez and Eddie Mendez; and welterweights Herman Terrado and Chris Brown.
The UFC will return to Fox on Jan. 28 with three fights live from the United Center in Chicago. Former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans will face undefeated Phil Davis in the main event, with a bout against champion Jon Jones awaiting the winner.
The top middleweight contender will be crowned when Chael Sonnen fights Mark Munoz. The winner will face champion Anderson Silva. Michael Bisping and Demian Maia, another pair of highly touted middleweights, will also fight on the card.
UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre will miss his scheduled fight against Nick Diaz in February because of a ligament tear in his knee. Diaz will fight Carlos Condit instead for the interim title.
UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz and Urijah Faber will be coaches for the next season of "The Ultimate Fighter," which debuts March 9 on FX. ... Strikeforce announced its first card for 2012: Jan. 7 from The Joint inside Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. It will be televised on Showtime, and feature middleweight champion Luke Rockhold against Keith Jardine in the main event.