Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Featherweight veterans Jeremy Stephens and Gilbert Melendez will battle this Saturday (Sept. 9, 2017) at UFC 215 from inside Rogers Arena in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
In his 10th year as a UFC veteran, Stephens is a staple of the promotion. Despite some recent hard times — the brawler has lost three of his last four to top competition — “Lil Heathen” is in little danger of receiving a pink slip. In fact, he’s still highly ranked in a majorly competitive division. Melendez cut his teeth in Japan and Strikeforce, but he’s nevertheless a long-time vet and among the best Lightweights of all time. This will be his first trip down to 145 pounds, and he’s hoping it will rejuvenate his career after a trio of losses.
Let’s take a look at the keys to victory for each man:
Key Wins: Renan Barao (UFC Fight Night 88), Dennis Bermudez (UFC 189), Darren Elkins (UFC on FOX 10), Rony Jason (UFC Fight Night 32)
Key Losses: Max Holloway (UFC 194), Frankie Edgar (UFC 205), Cub Swanson (UFC Fight Night 44), Charles Oliveira (TUF 20 Finale)
Keys to Victory: Stephens is a bruiser. He’s reasonably tough to take down and land the occasional shot of his own, but mostly he walks foes down and tries to take their heads off. While his kicking game and technique have certainly improved in recent years, the bottom line remains the same.
He should have a pretty willing dance partner in “El Nino.”
For once, Stephens should not have to worry much about chasing his opponent around. Melendez works the outside somewhat, but he tends to stand his ground and fire back in exchanges. That’s what Stephens desires, but he cannot get overeager in exchanges.
There’s a fair chance that Melendez will only brawl until he can wrestle. With that in mind, Stephens cannot swing wild until his foe is hurt or tired, as he’ll give up takedowns otherwise. Instead, Stephens would be smart to target the body, which will keep his center of gravity low and attack Melendez’s conditioning.
Key Wins: Josh Thomson (Strikeforce: Barnett vs Cormier, Strikeforce: Evolution), Jorge Masvidal (Strikeforce: Melendez vs Masvidal), Shinya Aoki (Strikeforce: Nashville)
Key Losses: Eddie Alvarez (UFC 197), Anthony Pettis (UFC 181), Benson Henderson (UFC on FOX 7), Edson Barboza (UFC on FOX 20)
Keys to Victory: Melendez is a gamer. There’s no doubt that he is skilled in all areas — Melendez can box well with a sharp right hand, wins the majority of wrestling exchanges, and famously survived five rounds on the mat with Shinya Aoki — but it’s Melendez will and pressure that have won him so many fights.
He’s likely in for a dogfight here, so they’ll come in handy once again.
On some level, this bout is a test of Melendez’s ability to cut to 145 pounds. If he can hit the number and perform well — without fatiguing and losing his edge — he should be able to control this fight. Stephens is dangerous, but he’s the kind of striker that Melendez knows how to navigate. Between the technical striking edge and his more consistent wrestling, Melendez should be able to out-land and out-point the brawler.
The question is whether Melendez can avoid the brawl. Stephens hits harder, and he thrives at punishing opponents who slow down. If Melendez falls off the game plan or gasses, he’ll be in a very dangerous position opposite an opponent trying to hurt him.
Bottom Line: It’s a pretty important bout for both men.
Stephens is something of a gatekeeper to the Top 10. Those that defeat him are ready for the top of the division, while any who come up short have some flaw preventing them for ranking among the best. He’s pretty firmly in that position unless he dramatically improves or drops off, so this fight won’t affect his ranking all that much.
The only issue is that three-fight losing streaks suck, but again, Stephens won’t be released. Hell, Dana White even tried desperately to bail him out of jail to save a preliminary fight at one point! Stephens is an OG, and he’s safe.
As for Melendez, this is less true. He’s a well-liked slugger, but he is also expensive and has an ugly record inside the Octagon. Level of competition only matters for so long, as a fourth consecutive loss could end his UFC career. Alternatively, a win puts him around the Top 10 of a new division. It’s hard for me to see him as a title contender at this point in his career, but he deserves the chance to give it a shot with a victory.
At UFC 215, Jeremy Stephens and Gilbert Melendez will brawl to open the main card. Which man will have his hand raised?