There are two title fights scheduled for Strikeforce: "Diaz vs. Daley." The one that's getting the most press is easy enough to guess. It's the headliner with two hot-headed loudmouths with a penchant for playing by their own rules.
The other seems to have fallen through the cracks, even though it pits two top-10 talents in what many think is MMA's deepest and most exciting division. And to boot, these 155-pounders have some history.
Gilbert Melendez defends his Strikeforce lightweight championship against Tatsuya Kawajiri this Saturday (April 9, 2011) in a rematch of their battle from PRIDE FC's "Shockwave" 2006 card, a fight that saw Melendez take the decision. Will history repeat itself? Or will "Crusher" make a name for himself on the American MMA landscape?
Leading up to "Shockwave" 2006, Gilbert Melendez was flying a bit under the radar. He had won and vacated the WEC lightweight title before he spent some time plying his wares in the lighter weight class mecca, Shooto. There, he tacked on three more wins to his spotless record including a (technical) knockout victory over Japanese legend Rumina Sato.
When he returned stateside, he signed with the San Jose based Strikeforce promotion and after winning his debut, was placed in a title bout against then champion Clay Guida. They battled back and forth for 25 minutes but in the end, it was "El Nino's" arm that was raised and he added yet another title to his resume. In less than four years of fighting, he had won two championships and 10 fights.
Never one to pass up an opportunity, he signed with the biggest promotion in the world: PRIDE Fighting Championship. He debuted at Bushido 12, their showcase for lighter weight fighters and won a decision over Nobuhiro Obiya, the then DEEP Lightweight Champion. Four months later, the Cesar Gracie fighter would face the stiffest test of his career.
Tatsuya Kawajiri cut his teeth in Shooto. Before the Frankie Edgars and Gray Maynards of the world, there was one promotion where the top lightweights fought the top lightweights. In the early to mid-aughts, that's where the action was. Even some world class welterweight and middleweight talent was fighting in Shooto. Any non-UFC fighter worth his salt spent some time in the highly regarded promotion. Even UFC champions and contenders like Anderson Silva and Jake Shields have fought under the banner.
Two hiccups in the form of a debut loss and a draw in Kawajiri's second bout soon gave way to seven straight wins in the talent-stacked promotion. This string of victories led "Crusher' to a title eliminator bout with Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) wizard Vitor Ribeiro. The Japanese fighter would suffer his second loss that night but took the setback in stride.
He went undefeated in his next five fights, winning four -- including one over Yves Edwards -- and drawing once -- against Caol Uno. This earned him a title shot at Shooto's 155-pound championship against none other than Ribeiro, who had won the belt from Joachim Hansen a year prior. Victory did not elude him this time and he finished the Brazilian off with punches in the second round. "Crusher" was finally a champion.
But like Melendez, opportunity in the form of PRIDE came knocking and Kawajiri plunged in. He, too, made his debut on the Bushido brand and scored two victories in as many months. But another Shooto star who once held the belt currently strapped to "Crusher's" waist was also on the rise in Bushido. Takanori Gomi, who only finished a third of his fights prior to Pride, had become a knockout machine and a fan favorite among the Japanese audience.
When PRIDE announced a lightweight grand prix, they bucked tradition and booked who many thought were the number one and two seeds, Gomi and Kawajiri, against each other in the first round. Gomi was able to wrap an arm around "Crusher's" neck and with three quick taps, the dreams of holding another championship were dashed.
When he signed to fight Melendez at "Shockwave" later that year, he had four more wins on his resume, two each in Shooto and PRIDE, respectively. But to Melendez, that didn't matter. He was fighting for recognition against a top lightweight talent. He had no personal beef with Kawajiri, he was just the one unlucky enough to be called up.
Let's proceed to the fight, shall we?
The two fighters immediately exchange with Melendez landing a jab and Kawajiri landing a hook before they clinch up against the ropes. After the break, "Crusher" lands a punch that staggers the American and then a few seconds later lands another punch that drops "El Nino" on his ass.
"Crusher" follows him down but a stop in the action is called as a cut on his cheek is looked at and a yellow card for rope grabbing is handed to Melendez. The fight restarts and it's another whirling dervish. "El Nino" gets a nice Thai clinch and lands a couple of knees while Kawajiri lands overhand bombs. Not even a couple of minutes in and these two lightweights are going for broke.
A clinch up against the ropes is broken up and the two once again meet in the center. Melendez grabs another clinch and begins throwing knees, forcing the Japanese fighter into the corner. He unleashes a wild, swinging combination before shooting in for a takedown. Kawajiri's played the game before and stuffs it easily.
Kawajiri goes for his own takedown but is reversed. Apparently Melendez knows that game as well. They're back on their feet quickly and just as quickly, they're back down to the mat. They jockey for position and eventually the American is able to take Kawajiri's back.
He teases a rear naked choked but the T-Blood camp member is able to scramble out and end up on top of his opponent. Kawajiri holds Melendez in a headlock while trying to land knees at the same time. They end up pretzeled on the mat for a moment until the Cesar Gracie fighter is able to sweep "Crusher" back to the mat.
Melendez shoves Kawajiri into the corner but doesn't do a whole lot while on top. Eventually, a break is called and the fighters start back on their feet. In the exchanges, "El Nino" gets the better of "Crusher," preferring to land straight punches that meet their mark sooner than Kawajiri's looping haymakers. One such jab clocks the Japanese fighter right on the button and drops him to the mat.
He quickly recovers and in the scramble that ensues, finds himself latched onto Melendez's back in search of a choke. "El Nino" is able to pop out the back and another clinch on the ropes is also broken up. The last minute of the first round passes without much incident save for a hook that Kawajiri barrels into Melendez's face.
When the two answer the bell for the second round, they start off like they did in the first. Each fighter is throwing punches with deadly intentions but neither is finding his exact mark. Melendez will tag Kawajiri a few times and "Crusher" will return the favor. It isn't until Kawajiri lands a takedown that it appears one fighter has a clear advantage.
But Melendez prefers to keep the tables a bit more even and immediately pops up to his feet and exchanges wildly with Kawajiri in the corner. He shoots in for a takedown that's stuffed and the two are back to exchanging. One such exchange devolves into that sloppy barroom-type brawling that deep down every fight fan loves. There's not a lick of technique but it's two guys, sapped of all energy, still trying to win the fight at any cost.
Melendez eats a hard jab but answers with a hook that puts "Crusher" on his heels. "El Nino" gives chase and drills a jumping knee into Kawajiri's ribs that send him bouncing into the ropes. It's the last bit of offense in a razor close fight. The final bell sounds in this Bushido-rules match and the judges are left to hand in their decisions.
In what was considered a huge upset, Melendez earned the unanimous decision over Kawajiri that night.
Many felt the decision marred what otherwise could be considered a Fight of the Year contender. But to "El Nino," the overlooked American, it was him getting his due. He always thought he could beat the best in the world if given the chance and he proved it that New Year's Eve night in Saitama.
Now, almost five years removed, we sit on the cusp of their long-awaited rematch. Both fighters have lost twice since then. Melendez to Mitsuhiro Ishida and Josh Thomson -- the latter of which also cost him his Strikeforce championship -- and Kawajiri to Eddie Alvarez and Shinya Aoki, ranked number six and four respectively in the lightweight division.
Melendez avenged each of those losses and even holds a win over Aoki, the last man to best "Crusher." Kawajiri for his part has beaten vaunted 155-pounder Gesias Cavalcante and even split a pair of K-1 MAX bouts, losing the one to Japanese legend Masato.
In the fight game, rematches aren't exactly rare. Rematches of fights from five years ago where each fighter is still relevant, or even moreso, are. "El Nino" walked into Japan as the underdog; this weekend Kawajiri returns the favor in San Diego. Can Melendez capture lightning in a bottle twice? Or will "Crusher" prove that reports of the death of Japanese MMA have been greatly exaggerated?
If Saturday is anything like their first fight, I can't wait to find out.