April 18, 2013

"El Niño" on the Horizon: Strikeforce's Melendez Hopes To Bring Winds of Change to the UFC's Lightweight Division

By Raphael Garcia

There are some things in life that are worth waiting for longer than others. At UFC on Fox 7, the mixed martial arts community will get to see one of those opportunities finally come to pass, when Gilbert Melendez makes his Octagon debut. After so many years of claiming to be the best lightweight in the world, but not fighting against the best opponents in the UFC, Melendez will, at long last, step into the bright lights with a chance to definitively prove it.

Since the first time he won the Strikeforce lightweight title back in 2006, Gilbert Melendez has fostered a cult following. As he continued to compete in the promotion, he slowly became one of Strikeforce’s flag bearers, and did so proudly as he turned away opponent after opponent. Over two title reigns within that organization, Melendez only suffered defeat to Mitsuhiro Ishida and Josh Thomson, but was able to return the favor to both of those individuals in dominating fashion.

As the years passed, he would shout from the rooftops that he was the world’s best lightweight, but names such as BJ Penn, Frankie Edgar, and Gray Maynard were consistently ranked above him. The current UFC lightweight champion, Benson Henderson, became the top lightweight in the world after having leapfrogged Melendez, much to his dismay. Yet Melendez continued to toil away in Strikeforce, taking bouts that experts considered “beneath” him in the talent category. But after securing his second victory over Josh Thomson last year, it was apparent that Melendez was no longer interested in the rat race that had become the Strikeforce lightweight division.

On two occasions before the company was completely absorbed into the UFC, Melendez was expected to place his title on the line against Pat Healy. However, both of those fights would be cancelled, as the champion would cite injury after injury to have the bout postponed, and eventually scrapped. Healy suggested that the champion was ducking him, but in reality this was the best business move for “El Nino.” This is because he is now walking into the UFC to give the fans the first Champion vs. Champion bout since UFC 82, and on the promotion’s biggest free television platform to boot.

This fight is a very difficult one to call. While betting odds will favor Henderson, much of that can be attributed to mainstream recognition. Melendez has all the abilities necessary to put together a strategy to defeat Henderson much like Edgar did, but also convince the judges that he truly did so.

Both Henderson and Melendez use a pressure style that is meant to keep them in their opponents’ faces from the very start of the fight. According to Fight Metric Henderson is much more accurate with landing his strikes, by a 45 percent to 33 percent margin, but Melendez throws more power, as he lands 3.56 significant strikes per minute, compared to Henderson’s 2.93. An interesting note to this bout is how well Henderson will use his size to control where this fight takes place. Both athletes are solid MMA wrestlers, but Henderson is more prone to complete the takedown, as he scores 3.2 takedowns per 15 minutes of action in comparison to Melendez scoring just 1.94. Melendez hasn’t competed against a fighter who is as physically imposing at lightweight as Henderson, so that size advantage may come into play multiple times throughout the fight.

Gilbert Melendez may be the best fighter to ever walk into the UFC carrying a title from an outside promotion. He’s begged fans and media alike to consider him the top name in the weight class, and now his opportunity to solidify that claim is here. He’s the last member of the “Skrap Pack” to get a UFC title shot, but is perhaps the best suited to win one. There’s so much on the line for “El Nino” this weekend, but none of those things may be as important as his chance to say “I told you so.”

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UFC on Fox 7: Henderson vs. Melendez is due to take place on April 20, 2013 at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, California.

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