On a primetime Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) card kicked off by two upsets, and the Octagon arrival of Daniel Cormier, Ben Henderson retained his Lightweight title by the slimmest of margins over the game Gilbert Melendez Saturday night (April 20, 2013) at HP Pavilion in San Jose, California.
With a split decision of 48-47 across the cards, Henderson notched his third 155-pound title defense in a bout that was closely contested throughout.
Headlining the high-profile UFC on Fox 7 mixed martial arts (MMA) event inside the "Shark Tank," Henderson used small, but ultimately crucial, advantages in his kicking game, as well as the ability to score in a handful of crowd-rousing exchanges.
Neither man was significantly hurt or rocked, and virtually all of the bout was spent on the feet.
In the co-main event of the evening, Cormier’s debut in the promotion came at the expense of Frank Mir, dominating the former Heavyweight champion via a unanimous sweep (30-27) on the judges scorecards.
Let's take a closer look at UFC on Fox 7 and see how the competitors graded out with our latest "Report Card:"
Josh Thomson: A
With a brilliant gameplan that combined his tactical smarts and athleticism, Thomson delivered the best performance on the card, using movement, kicking and quick thinking to constantly keep Diaz off-guard. It was a redemptive return to the Octagon eight years removed from his last appearance, when Thomson was dispatched by a brutal Yves Edward head kick.
Thomson’s ability to extricate himself from bad positions was critical last night. He simply refused to linger in the clinch, or stop moving, which took away two of Diaz’s critical weapons. He also didn’t get sucked into the trap of trading with Diaz, who’ll take one to give one, exploiting Diaz’s weak kick defense and lack of a kicking game to pile up points, setting up Diaz for an epic shin to the head that showed that even Diaz’s outstanding chin has its limits.
"The Punk" stepped into the Octagon as a dim memory of the UFC’s earlier days. He came out of it a legit contender in the promotion’s deepest division, having done something that an impressive cadre of talented guys couldn’t:
He stopped a Diaz.
No cuts, no controversy, no bullshit. That is one hell of a feat.
Matt Brown: A
Gritty, determined and entirely without fear, Brown jumped right on Jordan Mein and delivered a brutal second-round knockout against the favored Canadian, notching the biggest win of his career, and his fifth in a row in the UFC.
It wasn’t like he didn’t take some shots – he did – but Brown’s constant pressure and willingness to let them fly is a kind of taxing element in itself. You’re always retreating because the guy never stops unloading. Throw in a nice triangle-armbar submission attempt by Brown off his back, and we’re looking at a fighter that has dramatically improved in recent years.
Brown figures to be most exciting against guys that will trade with him, and who wouldn’t want to see him throw bombs with the likes of fellow welterweight sluggers Robbie Lawler or Erick Silva?
Ben Henderson: A-
For a guy who has won his first seven UFC bouts by decision, Henderson is probably the most exciting decision artist in the sport. And it’s not like he isn’t trying to punish people, either. His thudding leg kicks are a wondrous thing to see, and hear, and his incredible quickness was on display as he managed to beat Melendez in a couple of key scrambles to possibly sway the judges his way.
Henderson executed a pretty solid gameplan last night, seemingly knowing his kicks would pile up points and influence the judges. However, he nearly squandered it in the fifth, letting Melendez score more as he mostly retreated through the first half of the round.
Smartly, Henderson realized he would have a tough time taking the spry Melendez down, but also that Melendez couldn’t take him down, either, even when catching his kicks – so Henderson simply kept driving them home. This was a very close win that, unrightfully so, was booed by the fans, though that’s expectable because of the hometown Bay Area crowd obviously in Melendez’ favor. Henderson has proven extremely tough to beat, and a rematch would be a solid proposition.
Both would make adjustments off of tonight, and fans would no doubt want to see it.
Gilbert Melendez: B+
The former Strikeforce champ was solid last night, using excellent counter-wrestling to negate Henderson’s occasional takedown attempts, and catching several of the champ’s kicks. Melendez, however, couldn’t quite muster enough consistent offense, especially with his hands, and that may have been the difference, especially in rounds two through four, during which Henderson seemed busier and more diverse in his approach on the feet.
Melendez came on strong in the fifth, as Henderson seemed to feel he had it in the bag, and the duo made for some great exchanges and dizzying scrambles down the stretch, neither able to establish the takedown nor a dominant series of strikes.
Last night was a great introduction for Melendez to the biggest audience of his career. He came up short by a mere point, and definitely figures to be back in the title mix soon. What’s great is with the depth of the lightweight division, there are compelling matches to be made with "El Nino." Last night, he and Henderson’s mutual athleticism, speed and resilience sort of canceled one another out, but it’s testimony to how good Melendez is that he came so close to lifting the champion’s belt.
Daniel Cormier: B+
A good fighter knows how to apply his advantages, and Cormier is proving a past master at that. Smothering Mir against the cage, and using good defense when in standing range in the center of the cage, Cormier negated Mir’s best weapons in driving home a punishing effort last night, albeit without the stoppage he obviously wanted.
Cormier’s UFC debut comes at a curious time, as training mate and good buddy Cain Velasquez holds the heavyweight strap, and Cormier’s made noise about dropping down to 205 pounds to tackle Jon Jones. Assuming he could get there – and I’m not entirely sure he could without some considerable trouble – he’d pose some real problems for the Light Heavyweight champ, especially as he continues to improve.
It’s scary when you realize Mir had 22 pounds on Cormier, and was completely manhandled in the clinch. Cormier’s performance against Josh Barnett was similarly impressive – he simply grabs people and they can’t do a damned thing, despite being bigger and far more experienced.
Cormier’s also short at 5’11 for a Heavyweight, which will make for some interesting tactical problems as he faces a better class of opponent, particularly the big hitters. But, for now, he’s a wonder to watch he as dictates where the fight goes, stringing together sequences with a competence impressively developed for a guy with a mere 11 fights.
Jordan Mein: C-
Mein fought a real wildcat in Brown last night, showing some first-round resilience, absorbing a frightful thumping as "The Immortal" came out aggressive and forcing confrontations. Expectedly, Mein found his rhythm after Brown’s initial blitz, landing some solid counter shots.
And near the end of the round, Mein drilled home a gorgeous one-two combination to the head, followed by a brilliantly placed left hook to the liver that would’ve made Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. blush. It crumpled Brown, who was in terrible pain, but managed to gut out the rest of the round.
In the second, however, Mein got sucked back into Brown’s brawling style and got caught, hard, with a right hand that set up the finishing sequence. Mein never really switched gears and went to takedowns to perhaps blunt some of Brown’s standup aggression, hoping to lay back and pick him off with counters. Instead, he was overwhelmed, getting the first loss of his UFC career.
Mien is a talented, experienced young fighter and he’ll definitely have some lessons drawn from tonight. Mainly, to not let the other guy fight his fight, especially one like Brown, whose pure intensity and aggression make up for a lot of technical holes in his game.
Frank Mir: D
Last night wasn’t one of those blowout knockout losses Mir has suffered in the past, where a Brandon Vera or Shane Carwin makes him look like a steppingstone in an epic display of violence ending in a highlight-reel vignette. To his credit, Mir hung tough as Cormier plastered him with constant pressure, from dominating him in the clinches to drilling him with quick, thudding shots in close as Mir was endlessly pasted against the cage.
In the center of the Octagon, Mir had some openings and used them to good effect in spots, landing nice body kicks a few times, only to get pushed on the cage and plastered again. In the third, stepping up the pressure, he was looking good on the feet initially and then inexplicably tied up with Cormier in one sequence – when he could have simply circled back to the center and kept working – and that pretty much scuttled any momentum he had as Cormier continued to light him up with in-close clinch work and dirty boxing.
Cormier’s going to make a lot of heavyweights look listless and a step behind, but Mir didn’t do himself any favors tonight, and didn’t seem to have a plan B in case he wouldn’t be able to match Cormier standing. Unable to remotely position himself to where he could pull guard, he never really seemed to get untracked offensively on the feet for more than the brief sequences where he could land body kicks.
Nate Diaz: D
What makes both of the Diaz brothers so entertaining to watch is that they just don’t give a fuck what the other guy is doing or landing. They are going keep coming after you.
Unfortunately, after years of a mutual display of rock-solid durability by both, Diaz suffered the second stoppage of his career, a and his first in a long UFC campaign against a murder’s row of opponents (he was stopped at 19, against the far more seasoned Hermes Franca). Coming off his one-sided decision whitewash at the hands of champ Henderson, Diaz found himself against a veteran fighter with, it appeared, the right style with which to begin another win streak.
Thomson hadn’t fought in the UFC since 2004, and a rash of injuries had seemingly limited his once-considerable mojo with good, but not great, performances in Strikeforce. However, Diaz seemed unwilling to change tactics once Thomson lit him up with kicks in the first round, using movement and clever stance-switching, showing his typical disdain whenever Thomson landed.
After getting drilled twice by Thomson’s nifty head kicks, Diaz simply kept pressing forward, occasionally tossing off a few terribly-hidden, slow kicks of his own, and resuming his scowl, with things heating up in the second. Then, Thomson drilled him another gorgeous kick, this time landing flush on the skull, crumpling Diaz, who was blasted out with a ground-and-pound finish that prompted a referee stoppage.
Last night was a huge setback for Diaz, who’d hinted at moving to 170 pounds unless he had "big fights." Regrettably for him, his fan-friendly style doesn’t translate well at Welterweight, as he simply gets outwrestled by those with a good pedigree in that department.
Against Thomson, Diaz simply didn’t adapt and showed that every fight is a big fight, especially against a guy like "The Punk" with nothing to lose.
Jason Probst can be reached at www.twitter.com/jasonprobst