Two lightweight champions will collide this Saturday night (April 20, 2013) as UFC champ Ben Henderson takes on Strikeforce champ Gilbert Melendez in the main event of UFC on Fox 7 in San Jose, California.
Henderson has looked better and better, most recently dispatching Melendez's teammate Nate Diaz in the December Fox show. Now, he's looking to finish off Team Cesar Gracie and continue his lightweight title reign.
Melendez went on a tear in Strikeforce, winning and defending his title over the course of four very successful years, but with opposition thinning, many called for him to join UFC. Now it has finally happened and he'll try to live up to the hype as the number one contender.
Record: 18-2 overall, 6-0 in the UFC
Key Wins: Frankie Edgar 2x (UFC 150, UFC 144), Nate Diaz (UFC on Fox 7), Jim Miller (UFC on Versus 5)
Key Losses: Anthony Pettis (WEC 53)
How he got here: Ben Henderson was a two-time All-American at Division II Dana College while earning a double degree in criminal justice and sociology. Instead of pursuing a regular career, he tried his hand at cagefighting, compiling a 2-1 record and kept at it. It didn't take him long to be noticed. Henderson was fighting for Mark Pavelich's MFC within 18 months and earned an invite to the WEC just over two years into his professional career.
He was thrown into the fire immediately, earning stoppage victories over Anthony Njokuani and Shane Roller which earned him an interim WEC lightweight title shot against Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone at WEC 43.
Henderson was still green at the time, but he gutted through a multitude of submission attempts from the former bullrider, using his wrestling to outscore him positionally in what was voted 2009's "Fight of the Year." He unified the titles against incumbent champion, Jamie Varner with a third round guillotine choke and would once again have to face Cerrone for the title at WEC 48, the first and only pay-per-view the promotion ever attempted. In what was expected to be a repeat of their first epic war, the "Smooth" one, choked out Cerrone in less than two minutes to defend his belt.
Henderson would fight one last time for the WEC against the upstart Anthony Pettis. We all know how that played out, with the kick heard 'round the world, which allowed Pettis to come back and win a decision.
In his UFC debut, Henderson put on a strong showing against submission specialist Mark Bocek and he followed it up with one of the most impressive victories of his career, a three round domination of then-number one contender Jim Miller at UFC on Versus 5. With the victory over Miller, he earned a match against Clay Guida and put on a show en route to another dominant and very exciting decision victory to earn his crack at the championship.
He made the most of his shot, earning a unanimous decision over Edgar to dethrone the champ and he defended his strap against "The Answer" in controversial fashion last August. He removed all doubt that he was the best when he crushed Nate Diaz with a dominant five round decision victory in December.
How he gets it done: Henderson simply needs to utilize what worked in the last fights but to more extremes. He used terrific pressure against Edgar and Diaz with his kicks and his wrestling.
If Henderson can initiate a clinch, I can see him really working Melendez over as the Strikeforce champion will have no escape from the champion's strength on the inside.
Lastly, Henderson's wrestling could be key. If he's losing the fight on the feet, he can always fall back on his wrestling. Melendez is a solid wrestler in his own right, but with his size, he could probably be able to outmuscle him and drag "El Nino" to the canvas. Pure athleticism, size and strength are likely going to be what helps him win.
Record: 21-2 overall, 0-0 in the UFC
Key Wins: Shinya Aoki (Strikeforce: Nashville), Josh Thomson 2x (Strikeforce: Barnett vs Cormier, Strikeforce Evolution), 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 lightweight title.
After losing his Strikeforce title to Josh Thomson in the middle of 2008, "El Nino" would go on to win the interim belt and then avenge both of his career losses to Mitsuhiro Ishida and Thomson, unifying the titles 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 Tatsuya Kawajiri and 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 barely scraping by with a split decision victory over Thomson, he's finally making that UFC debut with the title on the line.
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.
Melendez still has the wrestling base to fall back on, but I don't expect him to go to the ground unless he hurts Henderson standing (which has happened before). 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 a pair of lackluster title defenses, he's facing a multitude of questions and has a ton to prove in his UFC debut.
Who will come out on top at UFC on Fox 7? Tell us your predictions in the comments below!