The Strikeforce lightweight title is on the line tomorrow night (December 17, 2011) as champion Gilbert Melendez takes on challenger Jorge Masvidal in the main event of Strikeforce: "Melendez vs. Masvidal" in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Melendez is highly regarded one of the best 155 pound fighters on the planet. He made a statement earlier this year in a rematch against Tatsuya Kawajiri, showcasing his evolution as a fighter and he'll be looking to prove he's simply on another level compared to the rest of the division.
Jorge Masvidal has been on a terrific run in Strikeforce. He halted Billy Evangelista's undefeated streak in his return to the promotion and then destroyed former EliteXC lightweight champion and Strikeforce welterweight title challenger K.J. Noons over the course of three rounds to earn his shot at the belt. He feels now is his time to be champion and he's got a tall order.
Will Melendez continue to prove he's head and shoulders above the Strikeforce lightweight division? Does Masvidal have what it takes to play spoiler? What is the key to victory for both men tomorrow night?
Let's find out:
Record: 19-2 overall, 9-1 in Strikeforce
Key Losses: none
How he got here: Gilbert Melendez had his first professional fight in the WEC, actually becoming the first Strikeforce lightweight champion in just his fourth professional bout. After a terrific run in Shooto, Melendez would debut in Strikeforce, eventually defeating Clay Guida to capture the Strikeforce lightweight title.
After losing his Strikeforce title to Josh Thomson in the middle of 2008, Gilbert would go on to win the interim title and then avenge both of his career losses to Mitsuhiro Ishida and Thomson, unifying the belts in the process. The Cesar Gracie fighter handily defeated consensus number two-ranked lightweight (at the time), Shinya Aoki, on national television at Strikeforce in Nashville last April.
Melendez accepted a title defense against Kawajiri on relatively late notice earlier this year and then absolutely thrashed him with a first round technical knockout victory. He made great use of the new unified rules Strikeforce employed, blasting "Crusher" with a series of elbows to the head. There were rumors of him joining many of his fellow champions in the UFC, but he'll instead defend his belt against Masvidal tomorrow night.
How he gets it done: Where he once stood a sloppy, brawling wrestler, now stands as a very aggressive and technically sound striker. Melendez can pick his opponents apart with his jab or he can lunge inside and go to work with his powerful and precise hooks. He's got a multitude of weapons at his disposal and don't be surprised one bit to see him really utilize his elbows, even standing if the fight enters the clinch or gets up close and personal.
Melendez still has the wrestling base to fall back on, but I don't expect him to go to the ground unless he hurts Masvidal standing. He's going to be using his footwork to create an opening to pounce inside and land big strikes. He wants to prove he's the best lightweight in the world and he can't afford to slip here.
Expect Melendez to be very aggressive, perhaps even leaving himself open to counters simply because he wants to continue making statements. Dana White says "El Nino" is going to stay in Strikeforce for a while, but perhaps if he can go out and destroy his opponent quickly, he'll spawn a movement from the fans that will force the UFC's hand.
Record: 22-6 overall, 4-0 in Strikeforce
How he got here: Jorge Masvidal has been everywhere. After starting his career with a plethora of fights in the Absolute Fighting Championships, he made his debut in the upstart Bodog Fights promotion where he would go 3-0 before the promotion disbanded.
Masvidal would take his talents to Japan, going 2-1 for Sengoku Raiden Championships before signing to compete in the inaugural Bellator lightweight tournament.
After defeating Nick Agallar in just over a minute in his quarterfinal fight, Masvidal would be placed on the receiving end of one of the greatest submission in mixed martial arts history as Toby Imada scored an impromptu inverted triangle choke after getting thoroughly beat on for two-plus rounds of the Bellator lightweight semifinals.
"Gamebred" bounced around several promotions, even fighting eventual Strikeforce welterweight title challenger Paul Daley at welterweight (and holding his own) before making his return to the promotion in 2011. Masvidal would dominate previously undefeated lightweight Billy Evangelistain his return to Strikeforce earlier this year to jump up to contender status in Strikeforce's thin lightweight division and he would cement that status by smashing K.J. Noons with a dominant decision victory that saw him hurt the former welterweight title challenger badly in the first round.
How he gets it done: Masvidal is a very patient fighter, but his skills are top notch. He won't shy away from standing with Melendez as long as he feels he can spot an opening and pounce. Look out for his knees. Masvidal has long legs and can explode forward with a flying knee either to the head or the body and both are equally dangerous.
Something that would not surprise me one bit would be to see Masvidal utilize some of his wrestling at times in this bout. He's been improving leaps and bounds and his single leg is actually getting pretty good. If Melendez gets too aggressive, Masvidal will be prepared to change levels and take him down where he can work some strikes from top position or at least win some points for the judges.
Masvidal has a very slight height and reach advantage, so I expect him to stay back a bit, work his jab and not commit to anything unless he's absolutely certain there won't be any negative repercussions. This is his moment to shine and he can't afford to make a mistake by being reckless.
Fight X-Factor: Gilbert Melendez has talked openly about wanting to fight for the UFC title, even battling former Bellator champion Eddie Alvarez. He wants to fight the best lightweights in the world and unfortunately, those don't belong in Strikeforce at the moment. Jorge Masvidal is a solid opponent, but he's nowhere near the top level of 155 pounders, so is Gilbert Melendez motivated for this fight? He has all the skill and talent in the world, but if he takes Masvidal lightly, he could be in for some serious trouble.
Masvidal has a dangerous skill-set and he could easily take advantage of Melendez if he catches his opponent sleeping.
Bottom Line: While Jorge Masvidal may not be a major household name, he's done more than enough in his last two Strikeforce fights to earn this shot. He's got enough talent to make this an interesting fight, even if Melendez shows up in top form. Expect some fun striking exchanges, although with Masvidal's patience, this won't be a stand-up "war" that fans would probably like to see. There is potential for a very exciting knockout from either man as both have power in their punches. If Masvidal can take Melendez down, however, it could get a bit ugly as he hasn't mastered his top control to the point where he can really rain down punches on his opponent. Either way, each man should have his moments and this should be a terrific main event.
Who will come out on top at Strikeforce: Melendez vs. Masvidal? Tell us your predictions in the comments below!