Josh Gross
Friday June 27th, 2008

In recent weeks, Gilbert "El Niño" Melendez has been flooded with reports of injury, illness and infection from the camp of his Strikeforce opponent, and friend, Josh Thomson.

Rarely are fighters so willing to speak about adversity-filled training camps, especially on the eve of important bouts, which Friday's Strikeforce (airing live from the HP Pavilion on HDNet at 10:30 p.m. ET), undoubtedly is for both men.

However, without hesitation, Thomson volunteered information about his troubles.

The 29-year-old downplayed his chances against the lightweight champion as he discussed his heath issues: problems stemming from a surgically repaired shoulder, an antibiotic-requiring illness and a nagging staph infection.

His openness has since turned to speculation and the speculation to clarification from both sides.

Some have construed Thomson's words as an attempt to lay down a framework from which he could explain away a loss. His response to such a claim:

"Watch the fight. There aren't going to be any excuses. Even if I was 110 percent and showed up to fight my best fight I've ever fought in my life, this is one of those fights when you fight someone like Gilbert -- you can bring your 'A game,' but if he's brought a little bit better game, he's going to beat you. That's the fact of the matter. It doesn't matter whether I was sick; it doesn't matter whether I was hurt -- I could bring my best game and still, against somebody like Gilbert, he can just show up and win that night."

But Thomson's issues -- and their associated hype -- hasn't fazed the champion.

"I don't know what peoples' game plans are, if he's intimidated or playing possum," said the top five ranked Melendez. "I'm expecting a 100-percent Josh -- a Josh that's ready to fight. I'm ready to fight. I'm expecting a war."

Sporting impressive records and résumés, the Bay-Area lightweights share a similar pace in the cage. Thomson (14-2, 1 NC) is flashier, offering high kicks and jumping knees just as easily as single-leg shots. Melendez, who rebounded from the first defeat of his career on New Year's Eve in Japan by pummeling an overmatched Gabe Lemley at the end of March, is workman-like, but nonetheless impressive.

Clay Guida knows all about Thomson's flash and Melendez's grit. The Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter battled both men to 25-minute decisions, outpointing Thomson in five rounds to claim the Strikeforce title before relinquishing it to Melendez in his ensuing fight.

"I think they match up the way Josh and I matched up," Guida said.

Following the loss to Guida, Thomson started sparring regularly with the high-riding Melendez after the champ's Dec. 31, 2006, decision over Tatsuya Kawajiri.

"I was looking to get my game back on track, really trying to focus on what I needed to do to become a better fighter," Thomson recalled. "Gilbert is somebody that helped me get there."

Melendez, 26, also benefited from time in the gym with Thomson.

"We both have an advantage and we both have a disadvantage" coming into Friday's title fight," Melendez said. "I think we helped each other out a little bit. I got really good sparring out of him."

Sessions in the gym ended amicably when talk turned to a sanctioned meeting in the cage. For his last four camps, Melendez (14-1) has not walked through the doors of San Jose's American Kickboxing Academy, Thomson's longtime professional home.

To prepare for the fight against his training partner and close friend, Melendez made his usual rounds with welterweight Jake Shields. He also spent a couple weeks in San Diego preparing with the welterweight champion of The Ultimate Fighter's first season, Diego Sanchez, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu legend Saulo Ribeiro.

Though the championship bout hasn't garnered nearly the amount of attention that Strikeforce: Frank Shamrock vs. Cung Le drew from Silicon Valley fans earlier this year, Friday's lightweight clash is drawing more than enough interest to make it a viable main event for Strikeforce and HDNet. Still, don't expect many surprises from either Melendez or Thomson.

"They're both very good athletes," Guida said. "They're both good fighters. They're young and they know how to go out and give people something to look forward to."

Intending to use speed and footwork to offset Melendez's wrestling and pressure, Thomson believes he can avoid the champion's solid right hand by moving laterally. Counting on his striking to get to Melendez in the fight, Thomson acknowledged that just because he might hold advantages in specific aspects of the matchup -- "I'm better technically on the ground, submission-wise. But that doesn't mean I can submit him and that doesn't mean I can knock him out." -- there aren't any guarantees he'll be able to execute the plan he wants.

Guida, for one, doesn't think it'll happen: "I think Gil is pretty much going to run over him."

But, the prospect of fighting someone the caliber of Melendez after the most difficult training camp of his career makes the entire experience worthwhile -- no matter the struggles beforehand.

"This is why people fight," Thomson said. "I fight to learn about myself."

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