By Jonathan Solomon
Cesar Gracie’s fight team, consists of a group of fighters who are nicknamed the “Skrap Pack,” and have been considered among the best units in mixed martial arts for years. Accomplishments earned by Nick Diaz, Gilbert Melendez, Jake Shields and Nate Diaz have included championships, main events on pay-per-view and national television plus a healthy amount of criticism from every walk of life in the sport.
Today, each of the four are in the Ultimate Fighting Championships after years of success in other promotions. The elder Diaz, Melendez and Shields were each champions for the Strikeforce promotion and none of the three were beaten for their gold, having left for greener pastures in the octagon instead. Those three in particular were considered elite fighters in their respective divisions and worthy of arguments about whether they could lay claim to being among the best fighters in the world, regardless of weight classes.
However, three of the four failed in their attempts for gold in the organization with the most fans and the largest platform. You are already seeing criticism creep into the picture with Nate and Nick hinting they were ill prepared for their biggest fights. The negativity may continue if Gilbert Melendez falls short, too, next month when he fights lightweight champion Benson Henderson.
The First UFC Title Fight Went to Shields
Jake Shields’ opportunity to prove his doubters wrong came first in the spring of 2011. Months earlier, he debuted in the UFC after 11-years of experience fighting around the globe. He had been the Strikeforce middleweight champion when he upset pound-for-pound great Dan Henderson in his final fight with the promotion. A split decision win against Martin Kampmann at UFC 121 left plenty to be desired as Shields heavily struggled to make the 170-pound weight class and was barely able to move by the time the fight concluded. Years of anticipation concluded in April 2011 when he stood opposite the undisputed king of the welterweight division, and UFC champion, Georges St-Pierre at the Rogers Centre in front of over 50,000 fans. While the champion suffered an eye injury early on, Shields was never able to take the fight to the ground and his status as one of the best submission artists in the game was a non-factor. St-Pierre retained his championship and the first massive opportunity for a Cesar Gracie fighter was chalked up as a loss.
Months later, his father passed away and in the first fight back after the unexpected family tragedy, in September, he was knocked out by Jake Ellenberger in 53-seconds. He was able to earn his second UFC win in February last year when he defeated Yoshihiro Akiyama in Japan, but his next fight proved costly.
Shields overcame Ed “Short Fuse” Herman by decision in his first middleweight fight since the Henderson win, but tested positive for an unknown substance in Colorado (unknown because of state privacy laws).
He has since served his suspension and will return to welterweight and compete against Tyron Woodley in June.
Nate, UFC Veteran, Battled on FOX For Top Spot
Nate Diaz, Nick’s younger brother, was 8-5 in the UFC by the middle of 2011 and decided to return to lightweight after taking several fights at welterweight. He put together three dominant performances, winning bouts against former Pride superstar Takanori Gomi, “Cowboy” Donald Cerrone and Jim Miller, the latter of which headlined a FOX card in the spring of 2012. In those three fights, he earned three separate bonuses for his success and was on the receiving end of his first title shot in the promotion, against Benson Henderson.
Diaz struggled to defend the champion’s wrestling ability and was never able to mount significant offense.
He lost by unanimous decision and will look to rebound on the UFC on FOX 7 undercard against former Strikeforce champ (and Melendez’s greatest rival) Josh “The Punk” Thomson.
Nick Diaz Became Another to Fail Fighting GSP
Then there was Nick Diaz, who for years talked about Georges St-Pierre despite not being in the same promotion. While GSP emerged as arguably the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, the Stockton, California native was beating everyone who came before him from 2008 through 2011. The Strikeforce welterweight champion knocked off everyone from legendary Frank Shamrock to DREAM champion Marius Zaromskis to K.J. Noons and Paul Daley.
He returned to the world’s biggest promotion at UFC 137 and demolished another legend in B.J. Penn, earning him a title fight with St-Pierre. However, the champion was out of action due to an ACL tear and the top contender was forced into a bout with another contender in Carlos Condit. Diaz grew frustrated in their UFC 143 fight because Condit utilized a game plan where he would throw strikes, then back away out of danger. Diaz lost by unanimous decision, but refused to accept that fact, believing he did more to win. Regardless, he failed a second drug test for marijuana and was suspended for a year by the Nevada State Athletic Commission.
Upon his return, he was granted the long awaited title fight with GSP at UFC 158, but he could not inflict enough offense. He lost a unanimous decision days ago thanks in part to his inability to defend enough takedowns and even when he could later in the fight, Georges was able to stand and trade strikes with him.
Diaz is now on a two-fight losing streak with a year out of action mixed in between. Although the former Strikeforce champion has been talking about retirement, his desire for a rematch with GSP or a fight with middleweight champion Anderson Silva, there is no telling what the promotion plans for him next (or if Nick will oblige them).
Now Gilbert’s Turn, Can He Buck the Trend?
Finally, with Jake Shields, Nate and Nick Diaz earning their opportunities to take the their respective top spots in the octagon, but failing, it comes down to one last member of Cesar Gracie’s fight team.
Gilbert Melendez was the final Strikeforce lightweight champion and for years, was routinely in the discussion alongside the host of UFC champions such as B.J. Penn, Frankie Edgar and now Benson Henderson as one of the very best fighters in the world. At 21-2, he has avenged both losses to Mitsuhiro Ishida and Josh Thomson and is on a seven-fight winning streak.
When the UFC absorbed Strikeforce last year, “El Nino” was granted an immediate title fight with Henderson and they will clash in the main event on FOX on April 20 in San Jose, California.
Whether or not he can be the first fighter of his team to become a UFC champion, he has a stiff test because Benson has developed effective submission defense to go along with his speed and wrestling prowess. Melendez himself is a strong wrestler who has been able to utilize effective boxing and strikes to defeat the likes of Josh Thomson, Jorge Masvidal, Tatsuya Kawajiri and Shinya Aoki.
In less than one month’s time, Cesar Gracie’s team may start to be talked about as a group of fighters who, while outstanding, were never able to break through and become UFC champions. Their group has been referred to in the same vain as other successful camps like Greg Jackson’s squad or the American Kickboxing Academy, but the latter two can boast several UFC champions over the years and especially today.
When you look at the upcoming fight next month in that light, Gilbert Melendez’s personal quest against Benson Henderson takes on a whole new meaning.
What are your thoughts?