It’s always a good problem to have two (or three) contenders with strong cases to fight for a belt. That’s the perpetual state of the UFC’s always-bountiful lightweight division. Ever since Frankie Edgar clogged the top with his battery of rematches -- BJ Penn, Gray Maynard and Benson Henderson -- the challengers have been consistently two and three deep.
To be a 155-pound contender, all you need to have is continued patience and awesomeness.
And that is the ongoing norm for Anthony Pettis, particularly now that it’s been confirmed that Benson Henderson is fighting reigning Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez on April 20 at UFC on Fox 7. Pettis’s own fight with Donald Cerrone on Jan. 26 in Chicago is all about the sliding stakes. It’s for understudy purposes; for the right to be next next. In essence, Pettis needs to beat Cerrone to continue his holding pattern. That’s not entirely ideal.
Here’s the thing, though: Pettis-Henderson II has a nice, long shelf life. The attraction of that rematch will hold.
The same’s not necessarily the case for Melendez, who has been ranked on pound-for-pound lists since Henderson was fighting Diego Saraiva in Evolution. Until now, he was unavailable to UFC challenges, and we’ve been pining for just such a scenario as this. Now, in a twist of organized fate, he gets his shot at the UFC belt in San Jose, where Melendez has always been right at home. Strikeforce was headquartered in San Jose, where it did burst the seams of “regional.” Melendez was a big reason the thing grew like it did.
Now he gets Henderson and a chance at the UFC strap, and the selling point boils down to one vital thing: curiosity.
Is he as good as we think he is? Melendez has won seven bouts in a row. He hasn't fought in anything other than title fights since 2008. All he does is beat the guy in front of him, even if you (or I) dub that guy a step down from the names he’d see in the UFC. Complaints towards the quality of his opposition don’t belong at his door. He’s always wanted to fight the best there is, even as he’s had to settle for the best available.
The bigger issue, though, is that Melendez only has this kind of unique timing on his side once. He’s coming to the UFC right when all the inter-promotional intrigue is still intriguing. If the UFC cuts a “champion versus champion” type promo for UFC on Fox 7 -- much like it attempted with Nick Diaz versus Georges St-Pierre for UFC 137 -- you’re catching these confluences at just the right time. Melendez, for so long sequestered in Strikeforce where he was dominant and under-challenged, against Henderson, who has lofty aims of one-upping whatever records Anderson Silva leaves behind.
If you stack Melendez against a Gray Maynard first, you run the risk of him being “Lombarded.” And if that seems like an exposure point to Melendez’s detractors, so be it. The truth is, the UFC operates on hype, in which strong hunches, one way or another, play as key of a role as documented fact.
For Henderson, it’s a title defense. For “El Nino,” this fight plays closer to justification.
Is Melendez the best lightweight going? That’s the question that makes him a polarizing figure for fans. He has apologists, and he has detractors, and he has haters. He has believers, too. Strong ones. Insistent ones. Is he as good as his believers say? There’s one way to find out.
And that happens, at long last, on April 20.
As for Pettis, he has history in his back pocket. If Pettis wins at UFC on FOX 6, the much-awaited rematch of WEC 53 looms in the shadows of UFC on Fox 7. There’s an active, deep-rooted vendetta in play for that bit of fence magic Pettis punctuated things with in the last fight with Henderson. He can be on hand in San Jose to challenge the winner.
In reality, nothing much changes other than Pettis -- presuming he beats Cerrone -- has three added months to let things play out. Three months isn’t that long for a guy so accustomed to waiting.