The Strikeforce lightweight title is on the line with two warriors gear up for their trilogy fight this Saturday night (May 19, 2012) as 155 pound champion Gilbert Melendez looks to defend his belt against Josh Thomson in the co-main event of Strikeforce: "Barnett vs. Cormier" in San Jose, California.
Josh Thomson came back from a long layoff to defeat former welterweight title challenger K.J. Noons in his last bout, a performance he wasn't particularly proud of, but he got the title shot anyways due to the lack of depth in the promotion. He has a very interesting history, having spent 50 minutes thus far in the cage against Melendez, splitting their first two bouts and he'd love to win the rubber match.
Gilbert Melendez is widely regarded as one of the best lightweights in the world. He's unbeaten in nearly four years and has avenged both of his losses. He still wants to be the number one ranked 155-er and he'll need to have a dominant showing against Thomson, the last man to beat him, if he wants to prove it.
Will "El Nino" bring the heat against Thomson on Saturday night? Can Thomson gut through his nagging injuries and pull off the upset? What's the key to victory for both men this weekend?
Let's find out:Josh Thomson
Record: 19-4 (1 no contest) overall, 10-2 in Strikeforce
How he got here: Josh Thomson, now 33 years old, has been competing in mixed martial arts professionally since 2001. After just six fights, he was already making his UFC debut in 2003, which was right before the promotion shut down the division for a few years.
"The Punk" went 2-1 in the UFC before transitioning to Strikeforce where, after losing a title fight against Clay Guida in his debut, he was able to take over the division with an eight fight winning streak which included capturing the title and defending it twice, even defeating Gilbert Melendez in a thrilling five round battle.
Unfortunately for the American Kickboxing Academy product, Thomson would suffer a series of leg injuries which forced Strikeforce to create an interim championship, and he would lose his title to Gilbert Melendez in his return. Since losing hit belt, Thomson has narrowly squeaked past Pat Healy and JZ Cavalcante and was defeated by Tatsuya Kawajiri.
He's had his Strikeforce return delayed by another long string of injuries but was finally healthy and ground out an ugly decision in his last bout against Noons to earn his shot.
How he gets it done: Josh Thomson is a bit of a jack-of-all-trades. He's got a very well-rounded game and, when healthy, he's one of the most dangerous lightweights in the world.
In the stand-up department, he should really focus on bringing back those brutal push kicks which were so effective in the first fight with Gilbert Melendez. He got away from them in the rematch and he hasn't really gone back to them much, but they are really powerful and can keep "El Nino" off-balance.
I'd highly recommend he not stand and trade punches with Melendez in the pocket as he'll just be asking for trouble.
Thomson likely has a short window in this fight so if he wants to make something happen, he needs to do it early. I don't know what his cardio will be like, but his best round the last time against Melendez was the first and he'll likely only have 10 minutes tops before Melendez completely takes over so he has to make the most of it.
Record: 20-2 overall, 10-1 in Strikeforce
Key Wins: Shinya Aoki (Strikeforce: Nashville), Clay Guida (Strikeforce: Revenge), Tatsuya Kawajiri 2x (Strikeforce: Diaz vs. Daley, Pride Shockwave 2006)
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 last 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 instead he defended his belt against Jorge Masvidal in a rather lackluster affair.
After Nate Diaz gave him a tremendous shoutout on national television, calling him the best in the world at lightweight, Melendez will have a shot to prove it on Saturday 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 Thomson 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. After having gone the distance against Thomson the last two times around, there would be no bigger statement than if he can finish "The Punk" early in the first.
Fight X-Factor: The biggest X-Factor for this fight has to be the injuries, age and the wear and tear on Josh Thomson. He looked great the first time he faced Melendez but that seems like an eternity ago now. He's gone through so many leg, foot and knee injuries since that he is not going to have the same hop in his step, the same conditioning, the same power or the same anything.
Melendez, however, is still very much in his prime and has looked solid in his last few fights. If Thomson isn't 100 percent, he might be on the receiving end of a serious beatdown, especially as this fight moves into the later rounds
Bottom Line: I expect both men to come out of the gate on fire. The first round of the last Melendez-Thomson fight was one of my favorite rounds of 2010. Both guys can still bring it and they've got a strong history with each other. I expect them to exit their comfort zones in a hurry and get right down to slugging it out and trying to take each other's heads off. However long this fight lasts, it should be entertaining, much more entertaining than Thomson's last bout against Noons.
Who will come out on top at Strikeforce: "Barnett vs. Cormier?" Tell us your predictions in the comments below!