Melendez will take step back, mull future after ugly Stephens loss

Gilbert Melendez, left, fell to Jeremy Stephens by decision at UFC 215 in Edmonton, Alberta, on Sept. 9. Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Gilbert Melendez's heart earned him a lot of praise at UFC 215 last weekend -- and he's grateful for the support he's received.

He also never wants to be in this position again.

At age 35, and coming off the worst loss of his 15-year career, Melendez (22-7) admits he has some soul searching ahead of him. He is one of the best lightweights of his generation, but now winless in his last four fights.

The latest defeat, a decision loss to Jeremy Stephens, was difficult to watch. For the second consecutive fight, Melendez's lead leg was hobbled by kicks -- to a point he could barely stand. Prior to the third round, cameras caught Melendez telling his cornermen he was "done," before ultimately gutting through the final five minutes.

The former Strikeforce champion says his brain is healthy, but he's genuinely worried about his leg's ability to take damage any more. He's now faced with a decision every fighter goes through, weighing the benefits of continuing his career or not.

"It's really tough to say 'retire,' but I think for the next few months, no matter what, I'm going to stay outside the gym," Melendez told ESPN's Five Rounds podcast. "See what life feels like without it.

"I'm just wondering if [my leg] is damaged, if it can handle that. I would hate to go back in there and get kicked for a third time in a row and let that happen again.

"I don't like looking the way I did and if I do fight again and it doesn't work out, it will probably be my last fight. If somehow I fight and I look great and I win, I'll probably keep going. I definitely don't want to look like this again. I know it's the fourth quarter of my career and I know I have to think about my family's future and my health."

Just about every fighter struggles with the decision of when to hang up his gloves, and it's not uncommon to see the even the greats exit on a string of defeats.

It's especially tough for someone like Melendez, who has never been knocked out. He hasn't taken the same amount of brain damage as many others.

Is that something Melendez can positively take with him into retirement? Or is it a license to continue? He's uncertain of the answer.

"Even though I got my butt kicked and things went wrong, I feel like I'm on a high right now," Melendez said. "I'm still on a high. It's kind of hard to talk about and I think I will miss it one day. It's hard to walk away when you still think, 'I can do it.'

"I know there are people out there saying, 'Hang it up, Gil.' And there are people saying, 'Don't hang it up, Gil.' As a fighter you go back and forth. It's like this girlfriend you love and you hate, you break up with and then say, 'Sorry, I miss you babe, come back.' It's a real love, hate relationship and at times it's also pretty addicting."

It also pays well. Melendez signed a lucrative contract with the UFC in 2014, and he received a $50,000 bonus on top of his purse for his performance at UFC 215.

UFC president Dana White praised Melendez on social media after the bout, and texted him personally as well. Melendez says he was proud and appreciative of his corner for motivating him through the third round -- even as some say the corner should have thrown in the towel to prevent him from taking more damage.

"I know in the corner I said, 'I'm done,' but it didn't take much to convince me [to finish the third round]," Melendez said.

"Leave that towel in the locker room. I've told the referee, too. 'Do not stop that fight. Let me get knocked out.' I tell the referee that. 'Don't take that from me. You owe me that. I worked my ass off for this so let me see it out.'"

That mentality has made Melendez a fan-favorite over the years, and it's the same mentality that will come into play as he ponders his future.

Although his comments made it sound as if he's leaning toward fighting again, Melendez did say, "I'll be OK with it if I walk away. I'll be OK with it."