HOUSTON – UFC President Dana White doesn’t enter the octagon for fights that aren’t the main or co-main event.
For Gilbert Melendez (22-3 MMA, 1-1 UFC) and Diego Sanchez (24-6 MMA, 13-6 UFC), he made an exception.
“I was like, ‘Oh hell ya, I’m going in there,'” White relayed at the post-event press conference for UFC 166, where the lightweights staged a shoo-in candidate for “Fight of the Year” at Houston’s Toyota Center.
After congratulating the fighters in the cage, White then went cageside to gush to the media. And he gave the bout another shout-out in a post-event wrap-up following the pay-per-view main card’s headliner between champ Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos.
“In the 13 years since of being in this company, we’ve seen some amazing fights; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fight like that,” White said. “The fight was insane.”
Melendez earned a unanimous decision over Diego Sanchez and, according to White, put himself back in the running for a title shot, especially since Anthony Pettis supplanted Benson Henderson as the UFC lightweight champion.
In April, Melendez made his octagon debut and was outpointed by the former champ in a fight many thought he won.
“It’s very fortunate for him that Pettis won, because he just camp off a title shot against Henderson,” White said. “Now that Pettis is the champ, he’s definitely right back in the mix.”
The fight’s upside wasn’t limited to Melendez, however. Sanchez, who kept moving forward and swinging for the fences despite a horrific cut over his left eye, earned hearty praise from White.
“Diego’s been out for a while with injuries, and everybody’s been questioning whether Diego belongs in the division, and is he still here,” White said. “He comes right in and fights the No. 2 guy in the world. Diego Sanchez is never out of any fight.
“One of the things that I love when we talk about Mexican fighters … that was a Mexican world war in there tonight. These are two guys that keep moving forward and don’t stop swinging.”
Although the bout was hailed as an instant classic and called by many observers the best fight in UFC history, eclipsing the game-changing scrap between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar in 2005, Melendez struggled to put it into context.
He was, however, a happy man.
“It’s kind of hard to put everything in perspective while you’re fighting,” Melendez said. “I think I stood in there and banged it out with him, too, but I knew I had to keep my feet moving. It was a great fight. I knew I was ahead on the scorecards. Diego’s a great fighter, but I was happy with everything.”
Despite his loss, Sanchez beamed with satisfaction at the opposite end of the stage where the press gathering was held.
Asked whether he was at all concerned about the punishment he has endured in delivering his sixth “Fight of the Night” performance, Sanchez smiled.
“I was built for this fighting stuff, and I’m 31 years old and I’m feeling just primed,” he said. “I had a good time out there with Gilbert. Those are the type of fights you wait for your whole career, because when you’re an old man, you’re going to look back and be like, ‘Yeah, that was fun.’
“I gave the fans an amazing, entertaining fight, and that’s what I do it for. I fight for the fans and this sport. I’ve been around nine years in (the) UFC, and I just love this organization. Every time I get to touch the canvas on my feet, I’m grateful. I take my hat off to Gilbert. I truly believe he’s the No. 1 lightweight in the world. I thought he was the uncrowned champ going into this fight. I thought he beat Benson Henderson, and he avenged his other two losses, too. He’s one of the best in the world, and hey, ‘Rocky’ didn’t get the decision in the first fight, but he dropped him, and I dropped him.
Sanchez felt the fight, which brought the Toyota Center to its feet, was close to a draw. While he might not find much support on that front, his other proposal might have legs, at least in retrospect.
“That’s one of those fights where you need five rounds for two warriors to really dig deep and go to the finish,” he said.
For complete coverage of UFC 166, check out the UFC Events section of the site.
(Pictured: Gilbert Melendez)
John Morgan contributed to this report