Brisbane-based kickboxer and Bellator MMA fighter Keri Melendez is a two-sport professional athlete eyeing a pioneering role in women’s MMA…with team support from her eight-year-old daughter.

Keri Melendez (right) hits Thai striking pads held by her husband and fellow pro fighter, Gilbert “El Nino” Melendez (left). They co-own El Nino Training Center in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill district. (Photo by Natalia Nazarova)

Keri Anne Taylor-Melendez recently had an awkward parent-teacher conference regarding her eight-year-old daughter Leylakay.

Melendez had been caught off guard when Leylakay’s teacher remarked, “I heard you’re fighting on TV and your daughter says you and her dad are a little famous.”

A self-identified introvert, Melendez hasn’t quite made peace with the media obligations and TV presence her fight career demands, especially when compared to her extroverted husband Gilbert, a former 155-pound world champion and UFC title challenger.

So she attempted to downplay Leylakay’s overshare: “No, I don’t know what she’s saying. I’m not famous at all.”

Keri Melendez a week out from her fight, standing in front of her gym, El Nino Training Center. (Photo by Natalia Nazarova)

All notoriety (or lackthereof) aside, Melendez does indeed fight on TV. In fact, this weekend she’s slated for the first bout on the main card of a high profile MMA showcase in San Jose—Bellator 206—at the SAP Center this Saturday.

A versatile pro fighter, Melendez is 2–0, in both kickboxing and MMA respectively, since she began fighting for Bellator three years ago. This weekend’s fight—an undercard to one of 2018’s biggest title showdowns between champions Gegard Mousasi and Rory MacDonald—is a pivotal moment for Melendez, as both a mom and a fighter.

First and foremost, her primary goal is to make her daughter proud. In the process, she’d love if her career could serve as an example to empower women along the way too. It’s a lot of pressure, although she’s aware that’s inherent to fighting — tradeoffs that come from having a wide platform like the one Bellator provides.

“To show that you don’t have to give up your dream,” Melendez said following a training session at the gym she co-owns, El Nino Training Center, which is named after husband’s fighting moniker, in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill. “I could be this business owner, fight at this high-level, be a mother, really showing my daughter that [I am] making her and my family proud. It’s a lot.”

(Clockwise from the top) Melendez shadowboxes at the El Nino Training Center in San Francisco on September 22, 2018, a week before her fight with Dakota Zimmerman at the SAP Center, San Jose; Melendez wrapping her hands prior to training; Keri’s husband Gilbert Melendez—an accomplished MMA fighter—helps her get her gloves on during a recent training session. (Photos by Natalia Nazarova)

From the ring to the cage

Melendez has been fighting in the Bay Area on non-televised contests for over a decade. Under Bellator (an international fight promoter that plays Pepsi to the UFC’s Coca-Cola), her fights are now available everywhere — in millions of homes domestically on the Paramount Network and in over 100 countries abroad. In addition, a worldwide streaming audience can now watch Melendez compete via Bellator’s partnership with sports service DAZN, which hosts Saturday’s Bellator 206 event. Bellator President Scott Coker has allowed Melendez to perform in prime slots to build her star potential, thus she is keen to ascend as much as she can with her remaining MMA fights.

“I am a little older,” the 34-year-old said. “I have a daughter, a business and a lot of things going on. It makes it hard. Everything is hard but everything is worth it.”

Melendez’s focus on challenging herself in mixed martial arts came in just the last few years. Bellator caught wind of her MMA aspirations and quickly floated her a contract in July 2015. Her debut came in September with a kickboxing bout in which Bellator ran a special co-promotion fight card that featured their MMA cage next to a kickboxing ring, alternating between the different combat sports in the contrasting spaces. The event introduced her to Bellator’s audience this way to hype her abilities as a two-sport athlete. It was a welcome homecoming in San Jose for Melendez since she previously held off her fight career for marriage, motherhood and the attention her family business needed.

“I took the fighting career for granted when I didn’t have one,” Melendez said. “Now being able to be signed on such a big promotion, I just feel I’m still motivated.”

Gilbert and Keri Melendez. (Image courtesy of Bellator)

She has always juggled professional fighting and family life. Kickboxer Keri Anne Taylor met MMA champ Gilbert Melendez through the insular fight community over a decade ago. She hyphenated her name to take on his, gave birth to their daughter eight years ago, backed him through his championship reign (and subsequent chase) totaling four years, all while they set up and ran their martial arts gym business in San Francisco and raised their family on the Peninsula.

Melendez debuted in Bellator as an MMA fighter in late 2016, beating her first opponent with strikes in less than a minute. Bellator immediately looked to elevate Melendez, featuring her on a flagship New York City fight card in the world’s most famous arena, Madison Square Garden, before a torn ACL abruptly sidelined her. She did not compete once in 2017. The lost opportunity due to injury devastated her.

“It went through my mind my career could be over,” she said, “but one month after my surgery I was like, ‘There’s no way. I’m going to fight.’”

Gilbert Melendez lifts up Keri following a MMA win in Bellator’s cage. (Image courtesy of Bellator)

She recovered and picked up her second MMA win this June — this time via submission — in another first round victory.

Keri Melendez’s Bellator 206 training camp hasn’t been entirely smooth. Her longtime striking coach Jongsanan “The Woodenman” suddenly departed to start his own gym after a decade-plus training the Melendez’s. She noted he was a “good friend and a great coach” but El Nino Training Center welcomes what a new instructor can bring athletes and students in their facility. (Photo by Natalia Nazarova)

“The girl I was fighting was 10 years younger than me. It was like, ‘Do I still have this?’” she said. “‘Am I still going to make it?’ I put a lot of pressure on myself anyways, so getting that win was the start of something. I want to stay active until I’m done fighting.”

In this sense, Keri’s motivation to persist despite setbacks is to test and display her talents, win or lose—it’s more journey than outcome.

Melendez understands she’s in a fortunate position no matter the unforeseen circumstances. Her entire career occurring on national TV is a luxury most fighters don’t have.

“I didn’t want to have regrets. I didn’t want to think back, I just supported Gilbert’s career and I didn’t try for myself,” she said. “Gilbert has always been pretty supportive of me when he knew I wanted to be serious about it.”

Melendez sees herself competing at least three more years. That can be the blink of an eye in the fight game, but can leave a well-defined career or legacy in the same time frame.

Keri Melendez in front of El Nino Training Center’s front desk. (Photo by Natalia Nazarova)

Families who fight together…

Preparing for a fight while also raising a child elicits many complex emotions in Melendez as the fight nears. Leylakay has grown up in the gym with her parents, tumbling around the mats, stretching and dancing with her family or even members. Not to mention she’s already advanced novice ranks in jiu-jitsu. The significant time spent in a gym during fight camp can wear on Leylakay too. So Keri, committed to communication in her household and her gym, checks in on how Leylakay is doing because she respects her opinion like any other teammate. Leylakay told her a week away from the fight, “I will not complain.”

It’s a disciplined stance from an eight-year-old, who awaits the payoff of dedicated makeup time to her once the fight is done.

Fighting is a selfish process, thus Keri Melendez gets sad she can’t read to her daughter every night like normal, even if Gilbert picks up the slack. Getting back to the family routine is a goal throughout training camp just like bringing home a victory.

When the Melendez’s explain to their daughter that these fight camps aren’t forever, Leylakay is not afraid to give her parents blunt advice on their prizefighting careers: “You guys can’t retire.”

The whole gang: Gilbert, Leylakay and Keri. (Image via Keri Melendez’s Instagram)

That’s probably due to the thrill Leylakay gets from seeing her mom in a Dave and Buster’s commercial or doing a cameo on Nickelodeon’s Jagger Eaton’s Mega Life that she still insists they replay on DVR nearly two years later. Retirement is inevitable for fighters, so they are enjoying these quirks while they last.

Melendez loves the confidence and healthy lifestyle that martial arts develops, and in order for more people to find it and live it like she does, commercials and cameos are a necessary opportunity to seize upon. In this regard, the martial arts lifestyle has become closely tied to her family, business, and identity.

“Mentally, physically, emotionally, everything — martial arts gives you confidence,” she said. “There’s so much that martial arts gives. Me training and dedicating my life to it, it would be a shame not to go out there and test myself in front of the world and let them see everything I’ve worked for.”

(Clockwise from top) Melendez rests on ring ropes in between striking Thai pad rounds at El Nino Training Center; She sprints at Skyline College’s track; Melendez hits boxing mitts with coach Jairo Escobar at Skyline. (Photos by Natalia Nazarova & Danny Acosta)

Made to wait for new weight

Whatever happens next for Keri Anne Taylor-Melendez’s fight career, she’s counting on her performance Saturday night to further catch her promoter’s attention.

“I’m hoping Bellator opens a 115 [pound] division,” said Melendez because Bellator does not feature her optimum weight class at the moment.

If she can stay healthy through her contest in San Jose, she’s open to competing in MMA again on Bellator’s December 15 event in Honolulu, Hawaii, headlined by flyweight champion Ilima-Lei Macfarlane versus Valerie Letourneau.

Keri Melendez has her hand raised after a MMA win in Bellator. Skrap Pack is her team’s name. (Image courtesy of Bellator)

“Maybe the belt could be motivating, if I do end up going to 125 [pounds], it must be for a belt because there’s no way I’m just going to go to 125 for funsies,” Melendez said, who is undersized at 125-pounds.

Fighting in Hawaii is a dream for Melendez. Her husband fought there early in his career before they were together. Gilbert Melendez went on to become a men’s MMA pioneer by solidifying lower weight divisions in Japan and domestically on Showtime, CBS, and FOX broadcasts. Keri Melendez may follow suit. She has a chance to fashion herself a pioneer for women’s MMA if her performances in Bellator— she welcomes future kickboxing bouts under their banner as well — push the promotion to open a new weight division for female competitors, crowning a 115-pound champion.

The weight class and finding an opponent with a stellar reputation is what’s crucial for Melendez’s next step. It’s why the one opponent Melendez was — respectfully — willing to name despite her reserved disposition is Letourneau, who previously fought for the UFC’s 115-pound title.

Melendez doesn’t know if she’s superstitious or not. It’s why she won’t serve up a prediction for Bellator 206 like first round knockout win, “but I do see myself winning in every scenario that happens,” she said of Saturday’s fight. “I see myself coming out on top.”

Keri Melendez walks off the mats at El Nino Training Center after finishing her workout. (Photo by Natalia Nazarova)

Watch Keri Melendez compete: stream Bellator 206 on DAZN this Saturday 10pm EST/7pm PST or see it it live in San Jose, tickets and more information on bellator.com

Follow Keri Melendez on Twitter and Instagram @kerimelendez415

Gilbert Melendez on Twitter and Instagram @gilbertmelendez

For more info on El Nino Training Center, go to www.elninomma.com

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Danny Acosta Profile Photo

Danny Acosta

100% Mexellence. Filmmaker. Writer. Photographer. www.dannyacosta.net

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