Long-standing, and the last, Strikeforce Lightweight Champion Gilbert Melendez will challenge Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) 155-pound kingpin, Ben Henderson, this Saturday night (April 20, 2013) in the UFC on Fox 7 main event, which takes place at HP Pavilion in San Jose, California.
Melendez has long been considered one of the very best lightweights in the world. "El Nino" has compiled an impressive record (21-2), competing in high-level mixed martial arts (MMA) promotions like Pride FC and Strikeforce. After avenging both of his career losses in Strikeforce, Melendez shifted his focus to the coveted UFC belt.
Zuffa bought out Strikeforce not long after he mangled "Crusher" Tatsuya Kawajiri in his second title defense. Instead of immediately jumping ship to the UFC, Melendez defended his strap two more times, all while claiming he is the best lightweight in the world.
This weekend, he'll finally get the chance to prove his bold claim. Does he have the skills to dethrone Henderson?
Let's take a closer look:
Melendez evolved from a brawler into a technical boxer. His footwork and head movement are very smooth, and he's managed to out-box his last two opponents, who were skilled strikers.
Melendez has developed a very active jab. To set it up, he feints very well and occasionally goes to the body. When he wants to expand on his combo, Melendez follows his jab up with a straight right hand. The 1-2 is likely Melendez's best combination, as his right lands with a ton of power.
In addition to his 1-2, Melendez throws devastating hooks. His right hook is particularly nasty, and he likes to chain his left and right hooks together. On of his favorite tricks is to lower his level like he's going for a takedown, then rise up with a looping hook. After Melendez starts winging hooks, he'll try to time his opponent's movement with an uppercut.
Melendez is also a capable counter striker. He likes to bait his opponent by moving in close with a jab and then counter their retaliation with a right hook or right straight. Additionally, he'll look to land a hard jab if his opponent comes in too aggressively. His duck and come up into a hook attack works well on oncoming opponents as well.
Melendez mixes knees into his striking very well. When his opponent starts to get overwhelmed by his boxing, they often seek the clinch. "El Niño" is prepared for this and quickly fires off two or three knees to the jaw. Melendez rarely throws more than a few knees in a row, instead, he likes to break away and land a big punch on the exit. He'll also utilize knee attacks when his opponent attempts to duck under his punches.
The biggest problem with Melendez's striking is that he doesn't move his head once he begins a combination. As he moves forward with punches, his defense stops. Masvidal proved this flaw by repeatedly nailing Melendez with a jab as he moved in with punches.
Melendez wrestled in high school, qualifying for states twice, and earned a scholarship to San Francisco State. However, he dropped out of college before he could earn any wrestling accolades.
Despite his lack of wrestling credentials, Melendez is a very dominating grappler. He constantly pressures his opponent, using his striking to open up takedown opportunities. When he shoots, Melendez prefers double legs, and likes to yank his opponents up into the air before bringing them down with a slam.
The most impressive part of Melendez's wrestling game is his ability to strike while he's taking down his opponent. Not his ability to mask his takedowns with strikes, which he also does very well, but the fact that he's able to constantly damage his opponent while attempting a takedown. When working in the clinch for a trip or throw, Melendez is able to get a lot of power behind short punches. He constantly works the body, before switching it up and throwing a power shot to the head.
In particular, Melendez is very nasty from the front headlock. Regardless of whether he is using it to sprawl or trying to keep his opponent on the ground, Melendez abuses his opponent while holding onto them.
Once Melendez is on top of his opponent, he really lets his hands go. Melendez lands fast, hard punches frequently, even when his opponent can control his posture. Against Japanese grappling specialist Shinya Aoki, Melendez repeatedly found ways to mark up Aoki on the ground, despite his excellent guard.
Melendez's takedown defense is even more impressive than his offense. His sprawl is excellent, and he likes to use the aforementioned front headlock to make his opponent's pay for their attempt. On the rare occasions his opponents do get him down, he likes to turtle up and then explode to his feet. Recently, the only person who has had any success getting and holding Melendez down is Thomson, who attacked with some very unorthodox trips.
Melendez, a member of the skrap pack, is a brown belt in jiu-jitsu under Cesar Gracie. In addition to Gracie’s tutelage, he trains with top notch grapplers like Jake Shields and the Diaz brothers.
Despite his rank, Melendez doesn’t have much of an offensive submission game. In fact, he only has one "submission" victory in his entire career, which came in the form of strikes during his Strikeforce debut. Instead of focusing on submissions, Melendez likes to pass the guard and rain down strikes on his opponent.
The more important skill for Melendez is his ability to defend submissions. In this area, "El Niño" is more than proven. In his 23 professional bouts, Melendez has never been trapped in a submission.
Against Shinya Aoki, Melendez demonstrated his defense. At the time, Aoki was ranked among the top five lightweights in the world and had submitted a few top fighters. Aoki was known to have one of the best guards in the world, routinely hitting submissions that most fighters never think to try.
Then, Melendez completely shut his game down. In addition to boxing him up on the feet, Melendez managed to land significant strikes while on the ground.. The way Melendez attack Aoki was brilliant, he’d dive into Aoki’s guard and land a few hard punches, before retreating and forcing a stand up. After a few solid combos on the feet, he’d again punish him on the ground.
Throughout his professional career, Melendez has never been finished. That's both a testament to his chin, which has survived nasty punches, heart, and aforementioned submission defense. Fighting at the top level without ever being finished for as long as Melendez has is an incredible, rarely accomplished feat.
Aiding his ability to fight to the final bell is his cardio. Melendez simply doesn't get tired. In all three of his five round wars with Josh Thomson, Melendez was still able to push the pace near the end of the bout. If Melendez hadn't been able to keep up with "The Punk", he likely would've lost the decision or been finished.
Best chance for success
In order to dethrone Henderson, Melendez will have to nullify two of "Smooth's" best weapons: his low kicks and clinch.
Melendez absolutely has to stop Henderson's leg kicks early. Henderson has brutal kicks, which take their toll in a five rounder, and Melendez cannot afford to take many of them. Instead, he needs to counter with punches or takedown attempts every time "Bendo" kicks. Frankie Edgar made Henderson abandon his low kicks, which had been destroying Edgar's leg, with repeated punches. If Melendez can do the same, it would be very advantageous.
While getting taken down by Henderson is a less than great situation for "El Niño", it isn't a huge problem, as Melendez is very good at scrambling back to his feet. The real issue is being caught in Henderson's clinch. Henderson loves to carve his opponent up with knees from the clinch, and while Melendez has solid dirty boxing, it doesn't compare to brutal knees to the ribs. To stop Henderson from closing the distance, Melendez should look to establish his jab early on.
If Melendez nullifies both of these areas of Henderson's game, he's in great shape. While Henderson is a very dangerous striker, his boxing isn't the best. One thing Melendez should do standing is look to counter all of Henderson's jabs, which is far and away his best punch.
If Henderson can't effectively jab, he's left with his charging combinations, which he generally uses to secure a clinch. This suits Melendez just fine, as Henderson's charge sets up his counter right hand perfectly.
Can Melendez capitalize on the holes in Henderson's game and prove he's the best lightweight in the world, or will Henderson continue his rule as lightweight king?