This Saturday night (April 9, 2011) at Strikeforce: "Diaz vs Daley," the Strikeforce lightweight title will be on the line as current champion Gilbert Melendez will take on Tatsuya Kawajiri in a rematch that's been over four years in the making..
Melendez is one of Strikeforce's most experienced fighters and he'll be looking for a high profile victory after nearly a full year away from the cage. "El Niño" wants to be considered the best lightweight in the world for quite some time now and with all eyes on Strikeforce this weekend, he'll have an opportunity to prove it.
Kawajiri is not your typical Japanese fighter. He's a well-rounded mixed martial artist who cuts a decent amount of weight to make 155 pounds. Many fans felt he defeated Melendez the first time they fought and he's out to prove it. He'll be coming to fight in America for the first time just for the opportunity to avenge his loss.
When these two men fought each other the first time, Melendez was the prospect and Kawajiri was one of the best lightweights in the world. It was a tremendous see-saw battle that saw both men get dropped in the first 30 seconds. The fight was close, but "El Niño" did enough to impress the Pride judges and was awarded the victory.
Can Kawajiri even the score? Will Melendez make his statement to the MMA world? Which fighter has evolved the most since their first fight?
Check out our preview after the jump:
Record: 18-2 overall, 8-1 in Strikeforce
Key Losses: Josh Thomson (Strikeforce Melendez vs Thomson), Mitsuhiro Ishida (Yarennoka New Year's Eve 2007)
How he got here: After losing a Strikeforce title match to Josh Thomson in the middle of 2008, Gilbert would go on to win the interim title and 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.
Unfortunately, "El Niño's" victory was marred by his participation in the post-event brawl, his resulting suspension and his recovery from a broken hand that put the belt on the sidelines for nearly a year. After talk of a potential match with Bellator champion Eddie Alvarez fizzled, Melendez accepted a title defense against Kawajiri on relatively late notice.
How he gets it done: Gilbert Melendez has evolved drastically as a mixed martial artist in the last few years. Where he once stood a sloppy, brawling wrestler, he now stands as a technician of the sport. Melendez has spent countless hours in the gym perfecting his jab, which can now be considered one of the best, if not the best, in the division.
Melendez defeated Kawajiri the first time around with a mixture of wild aggression in his striking and takedowns. Gilbert now has the option of picking Kawajiri apart standing and wearing the Japanese fighter down until takedowns come easily. Melendez also wants to make a statement with this fight so expect him to really open up with his striking if the opportunity arises.
Record: 27-6-2 overall, 0-0 in Strikeforce
How he got here: "Crusher" stood on top of the lightweight division in Japan during a period in the sport when Zuffa no longer promoted the division and all the world's best 155-pounders fought in the Land of the Rising Sun. He came up short in very entertaining, high-profile bouts against the likes of Eddie Alvarez, Takanori Gomi and Shinya Aoki, and thus does not have the name recognition with the casual fans that a fighter of his caliber deserves.
Kawajiri rebounded from his Aoki loss by putting on a dominant grappling clinic against former Strikeforce lightweight champion and Gilbert Melendez rival, Josh Thomson, this past New Year's Eve at the Dynamite!! 2010 show. Thomson was a win away from a trilogy fight with "El Niño" and with the victory, Kawajiri stole his momentum and his title shot.
How he gets it done: Kawajiri is a grappler first, striker second. While they once were striking equals, he can no longer afford to stand and trade with Melendez for extended periods of time. It may not be as flashy and it may not win him a ton of fans, but the smartest thing for "Crusher" to do is to push Gilbert into the cage, attack from the clinch, and work for takedowns. If Melendez gets carried away with his striking, Kawajiri could find the perfect opportunity to take the champ down and finally be allowed to use elbows when the fighting gets up close and personal.
Fight "X Factor:" To me, the biggest factor of this fight has nothing to do with age, mind-set or skill. It's all about experience, and it's not the typical experience one thinks of with a veteran. While Kawajiri has fought longer than Melendez and more often, he's never competed in America. "Crusher" has thirty-five MMA bouts and two K-1 kickboxing matches, all in Japan. He's also never fought in a cage and in the Strikeforce conference call, he admitted he hadn't even prepared for competing in one.
Fighting in a cage is very different than a ring. There aren't sharp corners to maneuver opponents into and the edges of the fence don't nearly have as much give as the ropes. Also, a fight is much less likely to be stood up in a cage because there is zero chance of either fighter falling out unlike a ring. Kawajiri will have his work cut out for him adapting to the changes.
Bottom Line: This match could be drastically different than the first time these two men met. Kawajiri was able to trap Melendez in the turnbuckles of the ring in their last fight and some of his most damaging blows were knees to "El Niño's" head after stuffing his takedown attempts. Melendez also had to fear penalties for stalling that would cost him 10% of his fight purse.
With no ring, no yellow cards and no kicks to the head of a grounded opponent, some of Kawajiri's best weapons have been taken away from him. He may resort to make up for it by drawing Melendez into a brawl. With the Zuffa purchase of Strikeforce weighing heavily on his mind, "El Niño" could very well oblige him and turn this into an all-out war. Get your popcorn ready.
Who will come out on top at Strikeforce: Diaz vs Daley? Let us know in the comments below!