Keri Melendez endured the toughest fight of her young MMA career so far Saturday night – overcoming a first-round scare and earning a close split decision over Dakota Zimmerman inside the SAP Center in San Jose at Bellator 206.
Judge Derek Cleary scored the bout 29-28 for Zimmerman while judges Marcos Rosales and Wade Vierra scored it 29-28 in Melendez’ favor.
SFBay also favored the San Francisco native 29-28.
Melendez told SFBay that while it wasn’t her best performance, she was happy to go the distance, especially after fighting through illness earlier this week:
“Just pulling through and getting the ‘W’ and going all three rounds – getting all that experience in the cage – was crucial for me.”
She said she was surprised by Zimmerman’s strength and the continuous holding she did throughout the featured women’s flyweight bout.
But Zimmerman (0-1) almost secured victory in the first round when she landed a takedown and trapped Melendez in a triangle choke before transitioning into an armbar with mere seconds remaining.
Despite the scare, Melendez (3-0) rebounded in the second round by reestablishing her stand-up game and landing a plethora of knees to Zimmerman’s body.
Zimmerman continued to hold during the third round and landed another takedown, but Melendez countered by placing her feet against the cage and rolling over into a modified ground and pound.
Melendez said she would like to fight once more before the end of the year, particularly setting her sights on the Dec. 15 Bellator Hawaii card that will be headlined by women’s flyweight champion Ilima-Lei MacFarlane (who was in attendance Saturday night) defending against Valerie Letourneau.
Melendez received an offer to compete in Bellator in 2015 from her good friend and current Bellator president Scott Coker.
Though she didn’t have any MMA fights under her belt at the time, Coker also offered her the opportunity to compete in kickboxing, which she immediately reveled in.
She earned three-round unanimous decision wins in both of her kickboxing bouts, defeating Hadley Griffith at Bellator/Glory: Dynamite 1 that September at the SAP Center and Sarah Howell at Bellator 157: Dynamite 2 in St. Louis in June 2016.
Melendez, a 12-year kickboxing veteran, said she told Bellator that she wanted to compete in MMA so she could challenge herself and ultimately become a versatile competitor:
“I wanted to be an expert at Muay Thai. I wanted to be an expert at jiu-jitsu and be an expert at wrestling and boxing – I wanted to do it all. I always I knew that I wanted to transition into MMA just because of the challenge. But for them to give me such a big platform and make an offer, it lit a fire under me that once I did my kickboxing, I had a goal set to do MMA next.”
Her MMA debut came to fruition in November 2016 at Bellator 165 also from the SAP Center when she knocked out Sheila Padilla in under a minute.
But a torn ACL in her left leg shortly after resulted in a 19-month layoff and prevented her from competing at Bellator NYC last June, which she said was heartbreaking.
She recently returned to top form in June at Bellator 201, dropping Tiani Valle with a straight right hand and forcing her to submit to the rear-naked choke for her second consecutive first-round stoppage.
While she credits her Muay Thai and jiu-jitsu backgrounds for making the transition from kickboxing to MMA less difficult, Melendez said she’s very thankful for the time and dedication she’s received from her husband and head coach Gilbert Melendez:
“Time is precious and he sees a lot of potential in me and he always has. He’s been very supportive (with) all the knowledge that he’s gained from his teammates. I’ve gotten so much support from this community and from him just giving himself to me. I’m his number one student. I want to show the world everything he’s shown me and hopefully it translates to the cage that Gilbert is not only an amazing fighter, but he’s an amazing coach.”
Melendez said that while she is proud to be married to her husband, she wants to be recognized as more than just “Gilbert’s wife” and aspires to do so through hard work and remaining a smart, cerebral fighter – which she says separates her from the rest:
“That’s one of the best compliments that I can get – that I use my head. I think in there, it’s a chess match, and I’m very cerebral in there.”
While Saturday’s bout was contested in the women’s flyweight division (125 lbs.), Melendez has yet to compete above 116 lbs. as a mixed martial artist.
She said she hopes Bellator eventually establishes a 115 lb. division in the future as she wants to establish herself as one of the best female strawweights in the world and eventually become a world champion:
“My goal is just to keep putting on good fights in whichever promotion it is. But right now, Bellator is my family. They treat me really well and Scott Coker is amazing. So I don’t have any aspirations to go anywhere else. But maybe later am I opposed? No, because I want to stay in the 115 lb. division and if Bellator doesn’t open that up, then I might have to think of other options.”