MMA: Gilbert Melendez
Jackson (33-11) will make his first appearance of 2014 against Christian M'Pumbu at Bellator 110 on Friday in Uncasville, Conn. The card will be televised on Spike TV.
The bout is part of a four-man light heavyweight tournament, which also includes former Strikeforce champion Muhammed Lawal and Mikhail Zayats. With a win on Friday, Jackson is expecting a somewhat quick turnaround to the tournament final.
Jackson, 35, hasn’t fought three times in one year since a monster campaign in 2007, when he defeated Marvin Eastman, Chuck Liddell and Dan Henderson, unifying the Pride middleweight and UFC light heavyweight titles in the process.
“These days, I do whatever I want,” Jackson told ESPN.com. “I don’t do stuff because people bully me or make me do it contractually.
“If I want to fight three times, I will. I know for sure I’m fighting two times pretty soon. I could fight four times this year. When I was in Pride, I fought six times. If I’m healthy and I want to do it, then I’ll do it.”
The biggest problem, as it has been for Jackson, could be avoiding long breaks from the gym in between fights. He admits it’s still a challenge to work out on a regular basis, especially when a fight isn’t booked.
“In my old age, I should get smarter and train year-round,” Jackson said. “This is not my hobby. A lot of people are fan-boys who do it year-round. No disrespect, but that’s not me. It’s hard for me to get out of my house and train twice a day.”
With his tournament semifinal bout days away, “Rampage” Jackson talked about his upcoming opponent, a knockout win over Joey Beltran in November and some of the bigger headlines currently dominating mixed martial arts.
ESPN: You were thrilled with the restoration of your knees heading into your previous fight. How have they held up since?
Jackson: You know, one of my cars is a stick shift and when I change the gears, my knees bothered me. I stopped driving that car and my knees immediately felt a lot better. I thought something was wrong with them, but it was driving that car. It was one of my favorite cars, a Dodge Challenger, but I think I’m going to have to sell it.
ESPN: You earned your first knockout since 2008 in that fight against Joey Beltran [at Bellator 108]. Was it a satisfying win for you?
Jackson: I could just say this: It’s no secret Beltran took the fight on short notice and he’s never been in the cage with a person like me. He was swinging, even though he did push me up against the cage and kneed me in my bad knee. I can understand that, though. He wanted to win. Beltran is a very hard guy to knock out. I showed people I still have thunder in my hands. It’s hard -- any time you are an athlete and you try to explain to a non-athlete why you can’t do everything the way you used to because of injuries, they think you’re making excuses. No, I’m trying to explain why I’m not the same as I used to be.
ESPN: Before the fight, Beltran promised to stand in the pocket and give you a brawl, but you could tell he had more of a strategy once it started. Did you expect that?
Jackson: A lot of people don’t understand, I’m one of the few fighters left. I’m a dying breed. I go out there and try to fight. I wasn’t surprised when he did that. People have a little cowardice in them. There’s always a chance I could knock them out and people worry about that. They go out there and do what they’ve got to do to survive. And win. America is all about the win. It’s not about the show anymore. I don’t agree with that way of thinking.
Jackson: He has a real serious injury. Me and Tito are cool. We’re not besties or anything, but he has a neck injury. I don’t want to be held accountable for hurting Tito because I know for a fact I got Tito’s number. I really can hurt Tito if I want to, so it’s probably best if that fight doesn’t happen.
ESPN: Is that your way of saying he probably needs to retire?
Jackson: I’m not saying that. I would like to see Tito fight somebody else -- see how he do. See that he’s OK and in good enough shape to fight. Then I’d be interested in fighting him again. I’m not going to say he needs to retire. Tito might have fight left in him. He’s had bad luck with injuries. Every athlete goes through that.
ESPN: Are you excited to be in this Bellator tournament, working towards a belt? Or does that part of the game not mean as much to you now?
Jackson: I don’t focus on what people say. People don’t know me and they don’t know what motivates me. I’m looking forward to getting in the cage and fighting. I’ll do anything I have to do to win this fight. Honestly, the belt is not my motivation, but I’m in this tournament. My motivation is to be the best I can be. I’m not looking to lose.
ESPN: What was your take on the Gilbert Melendez situation -- him agreeing to terms with Bellator, and the UFC deciding to match the contract?
Jackson: Bellator is growing rapidly. If Bellator keeps making decisions and doing the stuff they are doing, I see a lot of fighters trying to get out of their contract and come to Bellator -- just based on sponsorships alone. Right now, the UFC was smart in matching Bellator’s offer. I guarantee you Melendez would have been happier here in Bellator. He’s a great fighter. I wish he could have been over here.
ESPN Stats & Information
At UFC 167, many felt that Johny Hendricks did enough damage against Georges St-Pierre to become the new UFC welterweight champion. On Glenn Trowbridge’s scorecard, Hendricks did just that. The other two judges (Sal D’Amato and Tony Weeks) saw the first round for the champion, giving him the 48-47 decision and the victory for St-Pierre’s UFC record-breaking 19th win inside the Octagon.
While the decision can be argued for both fighters, it marks just another recent example of champions barely leaving the Octagon with their titles.
UFC 165 - Jon Jones defeats Alexander Gustafsson (48-47, 48-47, 49-46)
In September of this year, Jon Jones made the sixth defense of his UFC light heavyweight title against his toughest challenger to date, Alexander Gustafsson. While Jones outstruck the challenger 28-19 in significant strikes in the opening round, Gustafsson scored a takedown while Jones was stuffed on all three of his attempts.
Gustafsson won Round 1 on all three scorecards. Rounds 2 and 3 are where things got tricky with the judging. Neither man gained a takedown (Jones 0-for-3, Gustafsson 0-for-2), but Jones held the striking advantage in Round 2 26-15 and Round 3 29-26.
Jones won four of the six cards in those two rounds. Round 4 was again close in significant strikes (27-26 Jones), but the champion did more damage, winning all three scorecards.
Round 5 was again close, with the significant strikes even at 24 for both fighters and Jones landing a takedown while stuffing all four Gustafsson attempts.
When the final scorecards were read, Jones was ahead on all cards, earning the unanimous decision.
UFC on FOX 7 – Benson Henderson defeats Gilbert Melendez (48-47, 47-48, 48-47)
Benson Henderson made the third defense of his UFC lightweight title in April 2013, defeating former Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez.
Round 1 went to the challenger despite landing fewer significant strikes 9-7. Melendez did land his only takedown of the fight and landed the better strikes in the eyes of the judges.
Round 2 was again close, with the champion holding a 15-13 significant strikes advantage. Both fighters landed hard shots in the cage, but Henderson won the round on two of the three judges’ scorecards. Henderson responded with his best round of the fight, landing 15 of 29 significant strikes (52 percent) and landed two leg kicks during the round that knocked Melendez off balance.
Rounds 4 and 5 were virtually even on the cards despite Henderson outlanding Melendez 29-16 in significant strikes. Henderson landed 12 leg kicks to help him win Round 4 on two of the three cards.
In the final round, Melendez won two of three cards despite landing only 15 percent of his significant strikes. Melendez won the fight 48-47 according to the first card, but Henderson won 48-47 on the other two cards, retaining his title.
UFC 125 – Frankie Edgar draws with Gray Maynard (48-46, 46-48, 47-47)
Frankie Edgar held onto his UFC lightweight title after a very tough fight with the only man to beat him, Gray Maynard, to start the fight calendar in 2011.
The first round of the 2011 Fight of the Year was its most memorable, with Maynard knocking the champ down three times and furiously landing punches to the head. Maynard would win the round 10-8 on all cards, outstriking Edgar 47-10, with 25 of those deemed significant.
Edgar would rebound in Round 2, outstriking a hesitant Maynard 21-6 to win the round as well as landing the slam that you see in the UFC PPV entrance video today.
Round 3 was the closest round of the fight, with Edgar holding a 21-17 significant strike advantage, but Maynard landed two takedowns.
Round 4 went to Edgar across the board as he landed 52 percent of his significant strikes, the highest in any round. Edgar also landed two takedowns.
With the fight on the line, Round 5 was a 20-16 advantage to Edgar with neither man gaining a takedown (Edgar 0-for-3, Maynard 0-for-7).
Maynard would win on two of three judges’ scorecards to close out the fight. The first announced card of Glenn Trowbridge (only one to pick Hendricks) was 48-46 Maynard, while Edgar won a card 48-46 and the final judge scored the bout 47-47 for a split decision draw.
UFC 104 – Lyoto Machida defeats Mauricio Rua (48-47, 48-47, 48-47)
In October 2009, Lyoto Machida made the first and only defense of his UFC light heavyweight title against Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. Rua came out the gates with his best statistical round, landing 70 percent of his significant strikes (19 of 27).
Machida landed nine significant strikes and stopped Rua’s lone takedown attempt, winning the round on two of three judges’ scorecards. Machida unanimously won Rounds 2 and 3 on the scorecards, but was outstruck 40-16 in significant strikes. Machida did stop each of Rua’s takedown attempts in the rounds and quality kicks the body and legs to win each of the rounds.
The fourth round was a 10-1 striking advantage to Shogun, and he won on two of the three cards. Round 5 was unanimous to the challenger, who mixed in 11 significant strikes to the head and legs while the champion Machida landed six.
In total, Rua outlanded Machida 80-38, with a 49-4 advantage in strikes to the legs. Machida did his damage with punches and kicks to the body, holding a 24-16 advantage. When the scorecards were read, Lyoto Machida won all three cards with identical 48-47 scores to retain his UFC light heavyweight title.
In the UFC’s 20-year history, only one champion has ever lost his title by way of split decision (Kevin Randleman to Bas Rutten at UFC 20). Whether it’s intended to be or not, the words of the famous wrestler Ric Flair come to mind: “To be the man, you have to beat the man.” In the world of the UFC, most of us are still wondering if there’s an exact definition to what that means.
A deep breath. A pause. And acceptance.
"When you fight Diego, you get the chills, like, ‘ooh, It's going to be messy here,'" Melendez told media just days before he was scheduled to fight Sanchez on the pay-per-view card at UFC 166 in Houston, Texas.
"He's a guy I know I can beat, but it's a tough situation, its going to be a tough fight," he said. "It's going to hurt, it's going to be a battle and it's a dangerous fight."
The truth, it seems, can literally hurt. Such was the case for Melendez and Sanchez, who conjoined for three incredible rounds that deserves to be neck and neck with Jon Jones stupendous title defense against Alexander Gustafsson for fight of the year in 2013.
"That's what Mexicans do," Melendez said in the Octagon after taking a unanimous decision. "We hold our ground and fight. I'd rather go down on my shield than run in circles. Diego's a warrior. I respect him so much. I slept on his couch before to train with him. It was an honor to fight a warrior like that. But if I can get through any guy as tough as him, I think I can get through anyone in the division."
Reputations are earned, and Sanchez has been in enough wars over the years to gain Melendez's respect. Likewise, Melendez branded himself as a tried and true warrior over the last decade, which is why many people, including UFC president Dana White, said this was the fight to watch in Houston.
"We only have three rounds so we need to get this fight started fast and I believe it's going to be one of the fastest three round fights UFC has seen in awhile and a good one for the fans," Sanchez said Wednesday. Five of the last eight times Sanchez stepped inside the Octagon, he helped deliver a "fight of the night" worthy contest. Make that six of nine.
"Tell me one time you've seen a bad, boring Diego Sanchez fight," White said during a media scrum on Thursday. "There's no such thing. You know how he's going to fight. Guns blazing and it's going to be fun."
The promoter had listed Sanchez's clash against Clay Guida as his favorite. It was an uproarious fight from four years ago. The promoter can claim a new favorite, because Sanchez's fight with Melendez was that mind blowing.
"Without a doubt, the greatest night of fights we've ever had," White said, still visibly amped from everything that played out in the cage over five hours in Houston, including, and not to be forgotten, Cain Velasquez's incredible raging river of an effort over Brazilian former heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos. As good as the heavyweights were, they couldn't match up to Sanchez and Melendez.
Melendez had been the better fighter in recent years, though Sanchez suggested in the lead up to Saturday that his efforts inside the UFC are worth more than his opponent’s body of work outside the Octagon.
Melendez’s record away from the top promotion in MMA is considerably more extensive than almost any lightweight on the planet. Saturday marked bout No. 2 in the UFC for "El Nino," and since he couldn’t best Benson Henderson in the eyes of the judges, a fight many people felt he deserved to win, the 31-year-old Californian entered his meeting with Sanchez feeling as if he had something to prove.
“I think it’s important to fight and win in impressive fashion,” said Melendez, who hadn't departed California to fight in nine of his previous 10 contests. That attitude, plus an always eager opponent, set up a volatile mix.
"When you talk about hardcore real Mexican fighters, it was a Mexican world war here tonight," White said. "It was unbelievable."
Melendez did best when he struck off of tie-ups and takedown attempts. He wanted to be first, and usually was thanks to superior hand speed and technique. Yet Sanchez kept coming, something out of a horror movie with a nasty gash occupying the space above his right eye. Down two rounds to none, Sanchez's corner, headed by Greg Jackson, told the Ultimate Fighter 1 winner that he needed a stoppage. So Sanchez went out to find one, and nearly did by catching Melendez with a stiff uppercut.
"You don't feel nothing when you're in here," Melendez said. Nothing but pride, that is. It's was this warrior spirit that bound both fighters, and prompted hellish training sessions four years ago between the pair. That same spirit propelled them to the final bell, which was the only thing that could get them to stop fighting one another.
"I want five rounds," Sanchez said afterwards, his speech slurred some by the difficulty of the last 15 minutes. "I want a rematch."
Of course he does.
HOUSTON -- Several fighters on the UFC 166 main card Saturday night have a lot to lose. But none has more at stake than Daniel Cormier.
Sure, a strong case can be made for main-event participants Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos -- there is the matter of the heavyweight title being up for grabs. But even the loser is expected to remain high on the contender list.
Cormier, on the other hand, has no room for error. He not only needs to beat Roy Nelson in the co-main event, but must do so in impressive fashion. Anything less and Cormier, who plans to begin competing at light heavyweight after the bout, will be forced to make major changes to his master plan.
Despite being ranked No. 3 among heavyweights by ESPN.com, Cormier is opting to leave the division because he wants to become a UFC champion. And he vows never to fight Velasquez -- a close friend and training partner.
So Cormier is heading to 205 pounds to realize his title dream. But at 34, time isn’t on his side.
An upset loss to Nelson will greatly diminish his chances of landing a title shot anytime soon. Even a lackluster performance Saturday night could do harm to his title bid.
"This is the most important fight of my career," Cormier told ESPN.com. "I know the Josh Barnett fight was important because I needed to win that [Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix] tournament. But in terms of importance, in terms of keeping my momentum, keeping things rolling in the right direction, this is the one.
"I’ve got to find a way to get through Roy Nelson in impressive fashion, so that I can take the momentum that I’ve built over the past four years and take it with me down to the lower weight division.
"If I don’t do what I’m supposed to do Saturday night, everything was for nothing. It’s back to the drawing board and revamping my plan."
MAYWEATHER’S RETURN GIVES NELSON BOOST
Nelson looks fit and trim heading into his heavyweight showdown with Cormier. But in this case, the looks are definitely deceiving.
The weight loss isn’t the result of physical changes Nelson made, but the stress he felt during camp because of concerns over the health of his trainer, Jeff Mayweather.
"I was more concerned about Jeff Mayweather and the people in my camp," Nelson said. "This has been the crappiest camp that I have ever had. It is what it is.
"When I get depressed I don’t eat. I lost Jeff about two weeks into camp; he was in the hospital. I just tried to make do with what I’ve got."
Mayweather has fully recovered from the rapid heartbeat he experienced after consuming an energy drink. And Nelson couldn’t be happier. He has regained his appetite, which could mean the return of his usual round figure.
"About two days ago [Monday] was the first time that Jeff was back, so I’m eating again," Nelson said. "Maybe I will be 280 pounds and cut weight to make 265."
MELENDEZ TO BEGIN BID FOR TITLE SHOT
No. 2-ranked lightweight and former Strikeforce titleholder Gilbert Melendez is a heavy favorite to beat highly aggressive Diego Sanchez.
"There is no pecking order in this division right now," Melendez said. "The No. 10 guy can be the champ any day of the week; the No. 1 guy can lose any day of the week."
Melendez, however, makes it clear that he has no intention of falling victim to Sanchez. He not only expects to have his hand raised afterward, but plans to use this bout as a springboard to start his title-shot campaign.
"It definitely comes down to my performance and what the fans want to see," Melendez said. "If I do well I will definitely be campaigning for that shot."
DODSON NO LONGER GIVING SECOND CHANCES
Flyweight contender John Dodson can still see those punches that either dropped or wobbled Demetrious Johnson during their title bout in January. The images are perfectly clear.
How could they not be? Dodson spent a lot of time during the early rounds of that fight admiring his work. Rather than put the finishing touches on his potential masterpiece, Dodson opted to watch the champion recover.
That proved to be a huge mistake. Johnson would rebound, eventually take control of the fight and retain his title. What took place during that fight remains firm in Dodson’s mind.
He was in position several times to lift the belt from Johnson, but failed to capitalize. Dodson blames no one but himself and says he has learned his lesson. Never again will the man in the cage with him -- starting with Saturday night’s opponent, Darrell Montague -- be let off the hook.
"I have to make sure that I go out there and not watch my handiwork," Dodson told ESPN.com. "I watched me hit him, I watched him fall and then I watched my chance to win the title slip through my fingers. I can no longer allow that to happen."
Thursday afternoon in Singapore, ahead of One Fighting Championship's latest card, enigmatic Shinya Aoki stepped on a scale weighing 144 pounds.
This marked the first time the lanky 30-year-old Japanese star attempted to make the featherweight limit -- a new start to a memorable career that's fallen just short of exceptional, he explained this week through an interpreter.
"I've had a long career so it feels like I'm starting over again at featherweight," Aoki said.
"Chatri Sityodtong, a backer of One FC, the founder of Singapore’s Evolve MMA gym and Aoki's head coach, had a big hand in the skinny fighter's decision to shed 10 pounds. Despite much evidence to the contrary, Sityodtong believed the 5-11 Aoki to be too small for lightweight.
I've had a long career so it feels like I'm starting over again at featherweight." -- Shinya Aoki
Aoki said the move was also something he wanted, that it's been on his mind to do.
"There's no real reason" for doing it right now, the former Dream and Shooto champion said. "It was just the time."
It's not as if the 10-year pro has suddenly struggled, which is something that often precipitates fighters seeking a new lease on life in a different weight class. Aoki (30-6) steps into 145 having won 10 of his last 12 fights at 155, only falling to powerful Americans Eddie Alvarez in a Bellator contest in 2012, and Gilbert Melendez for the Strikeforce title two years earlier.
Cody Stevens hopes to become the third American in a row to beat Aoki. But odds are he'll be the 10th to lose to the slick grappler.
A hard-working featherweight from Mansfield, Ohio, Stevens, 31, got the call to fight Aoki three weeks after besting veteran Dustin Neace by decision in late August. Aoki is the kind of opponent Stevens (11-5-1) has wished for since committing himself to MMA in 2008. He gave up his $50,000 a year job at a drilling company, with its 60 to 70-hour work weeks, to pursue the sport full time.
"Great sacrifice, great reward," Stevens said by phone from Thailand, where he trains with Roger Huerta and Brian Ebersole. "I have a fiancee and 8-year-old daughter back in the states, but I've invested 20 years of my life, including wrestling and mixed martial arts, so I always want to make the most out of opportunities and make the most out of my life. I don't want to have any regrets."
He's experienced enough life to own regrets, including a felony after his fourth DUI. But MMA has gone a long way in helping Stevens better himself, and that helps explain why he’s intent on making the most of this opportunity.
"What better way to challenge yourself than fighting a legend of the sport in Shinya Aoki?" he said. "I can out-mixed martial artist him. If it hits the ground I'm not going to freak out. I'm going to make it a scramble and let some things go."
Stevens said he fought tall featherweights before, so Aoki's length won't bother him. Neither will competing in a part of the world that knows and cares for “The Baka Survivor.”
"When you go fight someone in their hometown, you have to put them away, or it's got to be really convincing," Stevens said. "That's just how it goes."
Aoki, typically confident and aloof, claimed to know little of Stevens. He hasn't prepared a game plan, he said, and didn't claim to hold any expectations of what it will be like to fight in the same weight class as Jose Aldo. As for pros and cons of the move, Aoki said he'll "figure that out after I fight there. I don't know yet."
Sityodtong told Sherdog.com that he envisions Aoki as the featherweight Jon Jones at 145, with advantages in reach, height and size. If any of that filtered into Aoki's thinking, he didn't let on, though he said the division is where he’ll concentrate his efforts.
Two days before weighing in for the co-main event contest, Aoki expressed that the cutting process wasn't going to be an issue. He’d step on the scale and make it. And he did.
“No big deal,” he said.
Stevens, who weighed 145, sees the circumstances a bit differently.
“It got me a fight with Aoki at featherweight," he said. "It worked out good."
Henderson doesn't get "too tape happy" to begin with. He'll watch a fight once to find a feel for his opponent and be done with it. So in advance of the lightweights' Aug. 31 rematch in Milwaukee, Henderson may not even revisit the close decision and the Showtime kick. The truth is, he needs no refresher course on his only loss during 18 fights over the past six years. Lessons there to be learned, have been.
"I was able to man up and move on with my life," Henderson told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "It wasn't anything I was obsessing over. Now that we do get the chance to square off again and once I get my hands on him it's going to be a fun night for me. Let's put it that way."
The current UFC lightweight champion, seeking his fifth straight defense, is clear about where he could have done better the first time around. Outside of a few "stale moments" he classified his performance during one of the most dramatic title fights in Zuffa history as just "OK." Henderson and Crouch felt the effort in the cage that night was lackadaisical. In response, the trainer didn't ask his charge to get "mean," per se, but he wanted Henderson to be "more aggressive and try to have our way in the fight." Henderson, 27 at the time, stewed for a bit. He was quiet. Reflective. But also motivated.
"It would have been the same against anybody," said Crouch, who coaches out of The Lab in Glendale, Ariz. "He likes to compete. He hates to lose. He took it very hard."
Henderson's next appearance was his UFC debut. "As soon as we started in the UFC you could see the difference," Crouch said. "When he fought [Mark] Bocek, fought [Jim] Miller, fought [Clay] Guida, we were much more aggressive." Those wins set Henderson up for a title challenge against Frankie Edgar. All Henderson has done since is win, which considering his current status is the only thing he needs to do. Taking on Pettis is the next step. That's how Henderson and Crouch see it. Nothing more. Nothing less.
"When you've got the belt, every single person in this division wants to beat me up," Henderson said. "That's how it goes. It doesn't matter to me who my next defense is against. It's cool."
"It's the same thing for us," Crouch said. "It's going to be our fourth belt defense. We're gonna keep the belt for a while. It's just what we do."
If there's ever a good moment to fight Pettis, weeks removed from a knee injury that knocked him out of an Aug. 3 challenge of Jose Aldo, it would seem to be now. The 26-year-old challenger got the call after TJ Grant was concussed while training for his title shot. Pettis was in line for his own opportunity after the WEC win, but injuries derailed those plans and kept him out of action more than he’d like the past couple of years. In the meantime, the current champion strung together consistent performances against top-shelf competitors, including a squeaker in April over Gilbert Melendez.
"Benson has developed a whole bunch” since losing to Pettis, Crouch said. “You kind of overstate that with your own guy. I think he's better, but it's just part of the process."
Henderson has been pushed, prodded, and proven to be sharp. The challenger, spectacular yet sporadic.
The switch from Grant to Pettis is a "curveball," Henderson said, but nothing he hasn't dealt with in the past. And with five and a half weeks remaining until fight night, there's plenty of time for Henderson to properly prepare. The fact is Henderson had already cut down on the length of training camps because, Crouch said, "he works too hard and beats his body up.” Since they were just about to get in the gym to prepare for Grant, "timing is just fine," the trainer said.
Henderson sees the scenario in front of him as typical, which means there's no such thing as a perfect situation in MMA. At a minimum, Pettis is a guy with a chance, and that's all any fighter requires to pull off something special. This is how the lightweight champion processed Chris Weidman’s stunning victory over Anderson Silva: “The reason why we fight is that any given day the best can lose.”
Pettis, of course, is no long shot. Oddsmakers have pegged the challenger, who’s fighting in his hometown, as the slight favorite.
"It doesn't matter to me where it's at, who's it against, what hometown," Henderson said. "Bump all that noise. It doesn't matter to me. I'm going to beat him up. At the end of the night I'm going to get my hand raised."
One question I get just about every week on the Friday chat was some variation of this: Which UFC champion will fall first?
For the past year, it’s been easy to imagine that none of the current champions would ever lose again, given the state of the matchmaking. Not with Ronda Rousey fighting Liz Carmouche, and Georges St-Pierre fighting Nick Diaz, and Jon Jones fighting Chael Sonnen, and Anderson Silva fighting Stephan Bonnar with no belt in the balance, and Dominick Cruz not fighting at all.
With landslide favorites in these matchups, the answer was always Junior dos Santos. Heavyweights have never been good at holding on to the belt. Then it became Cain Velasquez, when he beat Dos Santos. That is, until Velasquez was resaddled with Antonio Silva, whose odds the second time were longer than his gangly reach. When that happened, the question of who would fall first came back around to its usual futility.
The real question was: Who would get Matt Serra’d first?
For the past year, it wasn’t that the UFC champions were being catered to and protected, so much as the matchmaking lacked imagination. Or the matchmaking had too much imagination, because it required the open-mindedness of our disposable income. There was not enough genuine threat, due to circumstances (injuries), limitations (shallow heavyweight division) and cash-out gimmickry (Sonnen). Aside from a few exceptions -- Gilbert Melendez versus Benson Henderson, say, or any Demetrious Johnson fight -- for a long time we had main events that looked and felt more like potboilers.
Just activity for the sake of activity, with low-flame drama.
Yet here we are in mid-2013, and a champion has fallen. Anderson Silva, the longest-tenured, most unthinkable of the titleholders with his 16-0 record in the UFC, lost to Chris Weidman spectacularly at UFC 162. There’d be no such thing as “eras” if they went on forever. Now the Silva era hinges on the rematch in December. How are those for stakes?
If that wasn't novel enough, after a long dry spell of pretenders getting shots on whims and shaking limbs, suddenly it looks as if Silva could be just the first domino to fall. Most of the title fights slated to take place in the second half of 2013 pits a challenger who looks and feels like an actual threat to the throne. Suddenly we can imagine a world where Johny Hendricks is posing for magazine articles with the belt slung over his shoulder, know what I mean?
Think about this: By the end of 2013, we might have recast our pantheon of UFC champions. Hendricks is a legitimate threat to St-Pierre. So is the barely talked about John Moraga over flyweight champion Johnson. Dos Santos could reclaim his title against Velasquez, just the same as Silva could reclaim his belt against Weidman. These fights are booked and happening (pending health).
Rousey will be the odds-on favorite to beat Miesha Tate, just as Jose Aldo will loom large over Chan Sung Jung -- but Anthony Pettis beat Benson Henderson once, what’s to say he can’t to it again at the end of August? Especially in his hometown of Milwaukee?
Romanticists might point to Alexander Gustafsson as a viable challenge to Jon Jones, but that one is more wait and see. Yet Gustafsson feels like Ares in there against Jones after fostering our collective beliefs for so long over Sonnen’s chances.
By the end of 2013, our pound-for-pound lists may become a weekly Etch-a-Sketch. This is how it was drawn up in the Ultimate Fighting Championship -- to stake the best fighters in the world against the people who the matchmakers think could beat them. That’s how this thing works best. Champions, after all, are made to be vulnerable.
And it’s refreshing to look over a slate of upcoming fights and genuinely have no idea how things are going to go. It’s better, when asked a question like "which UFC champion will fall first," to counter with: "A better question is -- which one will still be champion this time next year?"
The UFC lightweight division is the deep end of the pool. It’s nondebatable.
According to the new ESPN.com rankings, a well-rounded talent like Jim Miller no longer cracks the Top 10. Same for Nate Diaz -- and he fought for the title six months ago. Athletic knockout artist Melvin Guillard is facing potential unemployment.
With as loaded as the division is, it’s pretty unbelievable Benson Henderson has already tied BJ Penn's record for all-time wins in a UFC lightweight title fight. Breaking that record in his next fight against TJ Grant is far from a given.
In 2011, I wrote a similar column to this, laying out the qualities it would take to beat Frankie Edgar. I ultimately said Henderson was the guy. I feel about 75 percent correct today. Edgar won that rematch, but you know. Spilled milk.
Question now is, who beats Henderson -- if anyone? Here are the lightweight contenders and pretenders, revisited.
The best of the rest: Mark Bocek, Guillard, Joe Lauzon, Miller, Ross Pearson.
These guys deserve to be in the conversation, but stars would really have to align for them to go all the way. Miller is terrific, but the evidence is there: When he runs into big, athletic lightweights he can’t push around, he struggles. I’d love to see him take his style to the featherweight division, which could use a mean, durable, bearded former lightweight willing to wear a farmer’s tan around. But Miller has long resisted the idea. We know Guillard is good for a handful of knockouts and an equal number of face palms Pearson could still develop, but he’s been beaten at his own game twice in his past five fights. Never a good sign.
That somebody that you used to know: Nate Diaz
Someone should probably stage an intervention for Diaz. Going back to his title fight against Henderson in December (not that long ago!), Diaz has tanked in back-to-back fights, talked about a return to welterweight (makes sense, given his vulnerability to bigger, stronger opponents) and been suspended for using a gay slur in a tweet (which he then said he wasn’t sorry about). How confident are you right now the Diazes aren’t at least thinking about a future WAR MMA card headlined by Nate? Not very, right?
The fantasy keeper league: Edson Barboza, Rafael Dos Anjos, Rustam Khabilov, Jorge Masvidal, Khabib Nurmagomedov
Every one of these guys is under 30 years old. Say you set up a fantasy keeper MMA league, where wins are worth one point and title wins are worth three. What order are you drafting these guys in? Tough call.
Barboza, Khabilov and Nurmagomedov are the Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson of the UFC lightweights. Of the three, there’s something I really like about Khabilov. Even without the first-round finishes, you can just tell this guy does everything well and he’s on opponents from start to finish. Barboza has made that weird jump from slightly overrated to underrated, thanks to a TKO loss to Jamie Varner. It seemed like everybody wanted to talk about this guy, despite the fact he barely, barely squeaked by Anthony Njokuani and Ross Pearson. Now, I don’t think we’re talking about him enough. It’s tough to pick a future champion in this very young group, but I like Khabilov’s chances the best, then probably Barboza.
The head case: Donald Cerrone
It’s possible nobody beats Cerrone when it comes to looking awesome in a win and then fairly terrible in a loss. Cerrone referenced a sports psychologist after his latest win over KJ Noons -- if you’re unaware, that’s been going on for a while now. When he’s on, he’s similar to other Greg Jackson fighters Jon Jones and Cub Swanson. He mixes it up, he reacts, he doesn’t think. Other times, it’s like he’s trying to solve for “x” out there and he seizes up.
At this point, I admit I’m skeptical of Cerrone ever holding the belt. He doesn’t fight particularly well in the big moments and quite frankly, he’s never been that guy who expresses a burning desire to be a champion anyway. Worth mentioning though, I thought he beat Henderson at WEC 43 in 2009. As far as controversial Henderson decisions go, that’s right up there.
The threats: Grant, Pat Healy, Gray Maynard, Gilbert Melendez, Josh Thomson
These guys are somewhat close to a title shot (with the exemption of Maynard, but I’m not willing to count him out). Thomson is going to make a lot of noise. He’s not afraid to ask for things right now because at 34, his window at a title is smaller than it used to be. Melendez will be around. He’s well-rounded, consistent, mentally tough and we know he can go five rounds, let alone three. I like Grant a lot. He’s got the power to hurt Henderson and change the fight. As good as Healy is, and I like the welterweight-to-lightweight move right now, he’s not quite as good as Grant, so if Grant falls to Henderson, it’d be tough to pick Healy over him. Interesting that these are some of the bigger guys at 155. Did small ball pack up and leave with Edgar?
The future champ: Anthony Pettis
What just happened? Pettis had been waiting around for a title shot forever. For various reasons, mostly Edgar rematches, it never happened.
So in a move to speed up his title hopes, he called Dana White and asked to drop to 145. He fights Jose Aldo on Aug. 3. It’s possible (not official) Henderson will defend the lightweight title against Grant 14 days later in Boston on Aug. 17. So basically, Pettis agreed to drop to a weight class he’s never fought in to earn a title shot just two weeks sooner, and the UFC signed off on it. Seems like we all could have handled that better.
Anyway, win or lose, I don’t think Pettis is long for 145 pounds. He has always seen 155 as his division and he’s confident he has Henderson’s number. I’ve always believed Henderson’s claim he got caught up in the moment of the last WEC fight ever and strayed from his game plan against Pettis. I think that’s real. I just don’t think it matters. Even if Henderson goes into a rematch with a strategy more reliant on his size and pressure, Pettis beats him. Bold prediction time: Pettis is your UFC lightweight champion at some point in the next 12-18 months.
For what it’s worth, my personal scorecard now has Benson Henderson 1-3 in UFC title fights.
And what it’s worth, of course, is a hill of beans. In the real world, Henderson on Saturday moved to 4-0 in UFC championship bouts, tying BJ Penn’s record of three consecutive lightweight title defenses as he edged Gilbert Melendez via split decision in the main event of UFC on Fox 7.
Like a lot of people, I had Melendez taking it 48-47, thinking he stormed out to an early lead in the first two rounds, lost his momentum in the third and fourth and then rebounded to craft an ever-so-slight advantage in the final stanza. It turned out we were wrong, and the judges allowed Henderson to retain his belt on a wildly eclectic assortment of scorecards.
The crowd booed. Henderson asked his girlfriend to marry him. She said yes. They booed some more, and somewhere in there another fight between the two best lightweights in the world failed to produce a decisive victor.
The decision was not an outrage. The action here was too good and too competitive for anyone besides Melendez to be heartbroken about the outcome. The UFC’s official statistics backed up Henderson’s win and rather than continuing to doom the lightweight title to a series of equally impenetrable rematches, company brass moved quickly to say the champ’s next fight will be against the winner of the Gray Maynard-TJ Grant bout at UFC 160.
That’s fine. No argument. It may not be fair to Melendez, but after years and years of questionable decisions in MMA, we’ve been conditioned to let the close ones go. Really, we have no choice, because the alternative would do nothing but keep us up at night.
Make no mistake, however -- there is a disquieting trend developing in the UFC lightweight division, wherein it’s getting increasingly difficult to tell the winners from the losers. In a sport that places such a premium on tangible consequences and decisive results, that’s sort of a problem.
Saturday’s back-and-forth struggle was just the latest in a spate of 155-pound championship fights that have been exciting, technically exquisite and ultimately impossible to score. Dating to 2010, six of the past eight lightweight title bouts have gone to decision, many of them nail-biters. Three of those produced split verdicts and three times we saw rematches effectively put the rest of the division in limbo while we cleared up messes at the top.
Lightweight has long been regarded as MMA’s most competitive and treacherous division,and this series of ratchet-tight title fights only underscores the point. The parity is a testament to the weight class’ depth, but it also makes answering simple questions like who’s the best? and who should be champion? and even Who won? trickier than it ought to be.
At first we blamed the uncertainty on Frankie Edgar, whose diminutive stature and pesky style seemed scientifically engineered to produce close fights.
Now though, Henderson looks well on his way to establishing a similar rhythm. All seven of his UFC outings have gone the distance, as compared to just two decisions in six earlier bouts in the WEC. Officially, he’s won all seven Octagon appearances, but his pair against Edgar and now this one with Melendez all easily could’ve gone the other way.
That alone makes trying to figure out who is the best lightweight in the world a daunting task.
Henderson’s latest victory obviously means he keeps his belt and likely retains his ESPN.com Power Rankings place as No. 1 in the division and No. 5 pound-for-pound. At 19-2 overall, having matched Penn for most successful title defenses and owning wins over Edgar, Melendez and a host of 155-pound notables, any reasonable debate about who is the greatest lightweight in UFC history now also must include him.
Unless, like me, you scored both Edgar fights and the Melendez bout for the other guy. If that’s the case, then -- yes, like me -- you’ve got a real quandary on your hands.
None of this is to say anything particularly negative about Henderson, mind you. His size, speed, strength and skills still have him looking every bit like the prototype for the next generation of successful UFC lightweights. He’s a great fighter who already has defied the expectations we lowered after watching him drop his WEC title to Anthony Pettis in December 2010 in a fight that came down to yet another very close judges’ decision.
But after this weekend, am I prepared to say Henderson is better than Melendez? I am not.
Am I prepared to say he’s better than Edgar? I am not.
Am I prepared to say he’s better than Pettis or Maynard or Michael Chandler or Eddie Alvarez? No, I am not.
Truthfully, I am not prepared to say much at all about who is tops in the lightweight division right now. I won’t be until someone, anyone, does something other than eke out a controversial decision.
With everything set for Saturday's UFC on FOX 7 main event, promotion president Dana White tapped each guy's shoulder to signal they were free to go their separate ways for the next 24 hours.
But that doesn't mean it necessarily had been smooth sailing up until that point.
Melendez had no difficulty upholding his end of the deal, checking in at 154 pounds. For Henderson, however, there was a brief moment of suspense.
Before stepping on the scale, the defending champion began removing all of his clothing. Henderson instructed UFC officials to hold up a towel, shielding him from the peering eyes of excited fans.
Such action is indicative of a fighter unsure he would make the mandatory championship-bout weight limit. By removing every stitch of clothing before stepping on the scale, Henderson knew he was cutting it very close.
Fortunately, a completely unclothed Henderson tipped the scale at exactly 155 pounds, making the bout official. No harm, no foul.
Henderson has removed all of his clothing before stepping on the scale in the past. But this time he lacked his usual look of confidence, which offered a glimpse into Henderson’s fighting future as it's getting tougher for him to make the weight on a regular basis.
Never one to shy away from the issue, Henderson openly addressed it recently with ESPN.com when the topic of a superfight against UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre arose. As his body continues to grow and get stronger, Henderson is under the impression that size won't be an issue if a bout with St-Pierre is made.
"I'm getting older," Henderson said. "I'm 29 now, almost 30. At my age it's getting hard for me to make the weight class at 155. So, I wouldn't mind having a break and having one fight at 170 -- having a St-Pierre fight."
While he expressed interest in the fight, Henderson made it clear he has no intention of abandoning the lightweight division. His long-term goal remains the same: to be recognized as the greatest mixed martial artist ever.
But by mentioning a fight with St-Pierre at 170 pounds, it's a way for Henderson to convey he is starting to feel the effects of cutting weight and wants to avoid diminishing his high performance level in the Octagon.
"I want to maintain my integrity," Henderson said. "I don't want to be one of those guys who cut 20 pounds of water weight and I step in the cage and look sloppy or look fat and don't perform well. I want to make sure that I am fully prepared. It's not just about making weight. It's about maintaining that strict diet, that strict lifestyle. And it gets harder and harder as guys get older -- you fill out more. And I'm getting older.
“I had the metabolism of a 19-year-old when I was 25. But now that I'm 29, my metabolism is like that of a 25-year-old. I'm still ahead of the curve, but I am slowing down. I have to work that much harder, but I can still make 155 for the rest of my career. I can do it. I'm not against doing it."
Henderson isn't making an unprecedented request. UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva has competed several times at 205 pounds, which allows him to remain sharp while giving his lean body a respite from cutting a significant amount of weight.
Silva hasn't competed at 205 often -- just three times during his nearly seven years with UFC. And Henderson isn't requesting anything more than an occasional 170-pound event.
"Like the way Anderson Silva does it -- have a fight at 205 every once in a while and always make 185, his weight class," Henderson said. "I'd be okay with that -- staying at 155, making weight at 155 for the rest of my career. But every once in a while, having a super fight at 170 -- St-Pierre and I squaring off. I'd be cool with that."
SAN FRANCISCO -- Gilbert Melendez’s long, winding ride to the UFC concludes Saturday, not so far from where it began.
The 31-year-old Californian, a Strikeforce lightweight champion and longtime resident of top-10 lists, enters the Octagon for the first time against Benson Henderson -- making him a rare rookie title challenger inside an arena that played host to some of his greatest moments as a professional mixed martial artist. All of this will be taking place an hour’s drive from where Melendez was introduced to the sport, on a whim, while wrestling at San Francisco State.
"It doesn't hurt that the Octagon is going to be in the HP Pavilion, where I've been plenty of times,” Melendez said. “So in some ways it's unfamiliar but in some ways it's so familiar.”
This could very well describe Melendez’s presence in MMA since 2002.
Compiling one of the most impressive outside-the-UFC résumés of any fighter in the sport, Melendez (21-2) fought at 143 pounds in Japan at a time when that meant something. Moving up to 155, “El Nino” dominated a strong contingent of contenders in Japan and the U.S. There isn’t a man he fought whom he didn’t defeat. Yet on the verge of his UFC debut -- a scenario he heavily though begrudgingly campaigned for in recent years -- Melendez is of the opinion that his numerous accomplishments don’t matter.
"This is the UFC. I'm 0-0 here,” Melendez said. “This is my coming-out party. Am I a certified fighter or not? Am I a joke or not? I could have a bad day and people would still think I'm a joke. I could lose and they'll think I'm a joke. But I have to win.
“I've stepped into rings. I've stepped in places where you can stomp on peoples’ faces and knee them in the head [on the floor]. I've been to other countries and other states with different rules. This is a different size cage, different rules, different organization, different title. So, yeah, I'm definitely walking in as a challenger."
The opportunity comes at the right time. Melendez readily admits he reached a plateau in Strikeforce, a promotion that couldn’t provide him with the kind of challenges he wanted, especially after Zuffa took control of the company in 2011.
"The politics behind Strikeforce, Showtime and UFC played with his head quite a bit,” said Gilbert Melendez Sr., a strong presence since the beginning of his son’s career.
Melendez got away with simply showing up in shape because it was his sense he was better than everyone he fought. “It hindered me not because of the talent of the people I fought, but the motivation,” he said. So his desire to improve waned as he struggled mentally with not being where he wanted to be. Among other reactions, frustration set in.
“You're Strikeforce champ, you can't be like, 'Hey, I don't want to be here anymore,' " said Jake Shields, who introduced Melendez to MMA and was similarly a Strikeforce champion before fleeing for the UFC when his contract was up. “He was getting paid, so he was happy in that sense but you could just see he didn't have any motivation. His training camps were suffering. I could see it.”
Rather than improving as a fighter, save taking the time to heal a nagging back injury, Melendez spent his days focused on his personal life, which included a fiancée, Keri Anne Taylor, and a baby girl. Melendez also opened an expansive gym in San Francisco’s warehouse district, not far from AT&T Park, where a full training camp was spent preparing for gifted UFC champion “Smooth” Henderson (18-2).
"He's on beast mode. He's ready to go,” said Nate Diaz, Melendez’s teammate and younger brother-in-arms. “I don't think there's anyone better than Gilbert in the lightweight division. This is his time.”
Diaz was the last member of Melendez’s crew to get a crack at a UFC belt, falling to Henderson on points in December.
"The thing with Gilbert is he really steps his game up for competition,” Diaz said. “When he's set to win, he wins. He does even better in fights than he does in training most of the time, and right now he's unstoppable in training. I think Henderson has his hands full."
All told, the Cesar Gracie jiu-jitsu team is 0-5 in UFC title contests -- a fact Melendez is keenly aware of but not consumed by. Their experience was built from the ground up, a distinctly Bay Area crew that molded itself into one of MMA’s most respected teams. All of that is undeniable and powerful should Melendez choose to call upon on it, though he knows on fight night, it’ll be just him and Henderson alone in the Octagon.
"Benson's a mixed martial artist,” Melendez said. “A lot of guys are Muay Thai guys that fight MMA. Or wrestlers that fight MMA. He uses all his tools. He's a good striker, good grappler, great submissions -- but he shines when he puts it all together. I'm also that guy, though. I'm not just a striker. I'm not just a wrestler. I'm not just a grappler. I'm an MMA fighter. I think we match up pretty evenly when it comes to that. He has some pretty good kicks but I think my hands are a lot better. Wrestling and grappling will be interesting.
“I've been thinking about this a long time. You want the respect. You want to brand yourself. You want to be be ranked. You want all that, but it's easy to put it aside. It doesn't matter: I got the opportunity.”
The Gracie family settled near Los Angeles in the 1980s, and therefore so did Brazilian jiu-jitsu. After several years, the UFC arose out of an idea centered on marketing and selling what the Gracie family embraced as a value system. This was so successful that competitors flocked to the West Coast with some looking for grappling expertise and others just seeking a fight, of which there were plenty.
Soon the Golden State, particularly its southern half, was regarded as the "Mecca for MMA," especially as events and fighters and camps were covered by a burgeoning press that proliferated on the Internet as the sport struggled to gain traction in more traditional settings.
California approved the first set of codified MMA rules 13 years ago this month. Many of the UFC's early top draws -- from Royce Gracie, Ken Shamrock and Tank Abbott to Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell -- made their homes there. Anyone who knew anything about MMA is aware of the cultural impact of TapouT, a Southern California-formed company. Most of the MMA fights that took place on Native American lands from 1993 to 2003 were sandwiched between Fresno and the U.S.-Mexico border.
Over the past decade, however, in the wake of regulation and the sport's movement away from underground events, there's been a shift to the North in terms of where the best fighters and camps are located in California.
In 2013, California's world-class training facilities feature some of MMA's best fighters, including seven Northern Californian residents set to enter the Octagon on Saturday in San Jose. And while Southern California continues to hum along, producing a massive amount of talent as it goes, the appearance of vibrant fight teams in the mold of Shamrock's San Diego-based Lion's Den, or Ortiz's crew in Huntington Beach, is more likely a northern phenomenon.
Three major groups have come to represent NorCal MMA: Cesar Gracie jiu-jitsu, American Kickboxing Academy and Urijah Faber's Ultimate Fitness. Their impact on Saturday's card is undeniable. At the same time, SoCal teams have seemingly fallen apart. Shamrock is almost all but forgotten. Ortiz's crew splintered many times over. There are pockets of consistency, including the Inland Empire which features Millennia jiu-jitsu and Dan Henderson's Team Quest affiliate in Temecula. But it's hard to argue against the reality that the North has taken over the South for the state's MMA supremacy, particularly when it comes to raising homegrown talent.
During Saturday's main event on Fox, Gilbert Melendez will attempt to bring home UFC gold to a group of guys who have been together for well over 10 years (a fourth title try in the Octagon for the Cesar Gracie crew in 24 months). The co-feature: AKA's unbeaten rising star Daniel Cormier against former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir. The next chapter in a competitive but mostly friendly rivalry between AKA and Cesar Gracie, camps situated about an hour drive apart, pits Josh Thomson and Nate Diaz. On the undercard, the Faber-influenced trio of Chad Mendes, Joseph Benavidez, and T.J. Dillashaw will get in some work.
Major Southern California promotions aren't happening like they used to -- a product of saturation, fan complacency and promotional indifference -- so events that mattered in terms of finding talent, say those put on by King of the Cage in the early 2000s, haven't been relevant in years. Meanwhile, NorCal gyms cultivated direct pipelines into Stikeforce or UFC.
The competitive shift from SoCal or NorCal can be traced to several factors, none more noteworthy than the emergence of Strikeforce as a platform for Bay Area fighters.
Big California fight camps once synonymous with Orange County or the Inland Empire haven't been for some time. This seems tied to opportunity more than anything else, yet NorCal fighters like to suggest it has as much to do with their grittiness and determination as it does with promotional platforms. SoCal fighters would disagree, but this is how the guys up North view what's happening in the state.
And results suggest they're on the correct side of things.
ESPN Stats & Information
UFC on Fox 7 will air on free network television from the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif., Saturday night. In the main event, UFC Lightweight Champion Benson Henderson will defend his title against the debuting #1 contender Gilbert Melendez, who was the final Strikeforce lightweight champion. In the co-main events, Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix winner Daniel Cormier will face former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir and Nate Diaz faces another UFC debutant in former Strikeforce lightweight champion Josh Thomson. Here are the numbers you need to know for Saturday’s fights:
6: UFC decisions to start his career for Henderson, second among active UFC fighters behind flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson. Henderson is the only fighter to start his UFC career with at least five consecutive decisions won.
Most UFC Decisions to Start Career, Active Fighters
Demetrious Johnson 7
Benson Henderson 6*
Diego Nunes 6
Nam Phan 6
*Won all decisions
10: Consecutive title fights for Melendez, who held the Strikeforce title from April 2009 to January 2013 when the organization was dissolved into the UFC. Melendez won four fights by decision and three by KO/TKO. His notable wins include rival Josh Thomson (twice) and DREAM lightweight champion Shinya Aoki.
11: Wins by KO or TKO for Melendez, four under the Strikeforce banner. Henderson has been knocked down three times in his UFC/WEC career, most notably the jumping kick off the cage from Anthony Pettis at WEC 53.
9: This will be the ninth time Melendez will fight inside the HP Pavilion, the proverbial stomping grounds of Strikeforce. He is 7-1 in previous fights at the “Shark Tank,” losing the Strikeforce lightweight championship to Thomson in 2008.
21: Takedowns for Henderson in six UFC fights (3.5 per fight). Melendez has a 71 percent takedown defense but allowed a combined 13 takedowns in his two career losses (seven to Mitsuhiro Ishida, six to Thomson).
3.6: Strikes landed per minute by Melendez. During his seven-fight win streak, Melendez has outstruck his opponents 482-272 (plus-210) in significant strikes. Henderson absorbs 1.5 significant strikes per minute and only 30 in his last win over Melendez teammate Nate Diaz.
8: Mir has an eight-inch reach advantage over Cormier (79 inches to 71). That’s nothing new to Cormier, as he’s beaten Antonio Silva (82), Devin Cole (79.5) and Josh Barnett (78).
6: All six of Mir’s career losses have come by way of KO or TKO. The former UFC heavyweight champion has never lost back-to-back fights in his career. Seven of Cormier’s 11 career wins have come via strikes (five KO/TKO, two submissions due to strikes).
8: Submission wins by Mir inside the UFC Octagon, tied for second most all time. Cormier has faced only one submission attempt in his Strikeforce career (Barnett).
Most UFC Wins by Submission
Royce Gracie 11
Frank Mir 8
Nate Diaz 8
Kenny Florian 8
3: This is Mir’s first camp with Jackson’s MMA in Albuquerque, N.M. If he wins, Mir would be the third UFC heavyweight from Jackson’s to win in this calendar year, joining Shawn Jordan (UFC on Fox 6) and Travis Browne (TUF 17 finale).
5: Of his eight submission wins inside the UFC Octagon, five have earned Nate Diaz a UFC submission of the night bonus (second all time). Thomson has never been submitted in 25 professional fights and also has nine submission victories of his own (four in Strikeforce).
Most Submission of the Night Bonuses
Joe Lauzon 6
Nate Diaz 5
Terry Etim 4
208: Diaz landed 30 significant strikes in his title fight against Benson Henderson, 208 fewer than his victory over Donald Cerrone in two fewer rounds. Thomson will be tough to hit as well; he absorbs 1.8 strikes per minute, but did absorb 3.0 per minute in his last loss to Melendez.
That process started six years ago, when Henderson trained for the first time in mixed martial arts. It was at that moment that he took the initial step toward achieving his ultimate goal: of one day being recognized as the greatest mixed martial artist ever.
In every training session, Henderson visualized himself competing and winning fights. Sometimes he’d put a face on his imaginary foe. On a few occasions, the foe would be Melendez.
And in every one of those imaginary battles, Henderson would walk away victorious.
Although Henderson was just a wannabe mixed martial artist at the time, he never doubted that, with extra hard work, his goal could be achieved. Then he turned pro and racked up a few wins, and the visions of defeating future opponents, including Melendez -- a guy who was already manhandling some of the sport’s top fighters -- became more pronounced.
So when Henderson steps inside the Octagon to defend his UFC lightweight title Saturday night in San Jose, Calif., against Melendez -- the former Strikeforce lightweight champion -- he's sure to recall the many hours spent getting ready for this moment and those visions of having his hand raised afterward. He can take solace in knowing that his years of preparation for this battle serve as the great equalizer. Those years of training for this bout will play a part in lessening Melendez’s distinct experience edge.
Melendez began his professional career in 2002, four years before Henderson participated in his first MMA training session.
“I was in college watching him fight in Japan,” 29-year-old Henderson told ESPN.com. “I wasn’t even fighting then. He has so much more experience than me. I have so much more room to grow.
I was in college watching him fight in Japan. I wasn't even fighting then. He has so much more experience than me. I have so much more room to grow.” -- Benson Henderson, on Gilbert Melendez's experience as a mixed martial artist
“When you look at my career, I’ve only been fighting for [a little more than] six years. Gilbert Melendez has 20,000 hours of boxing practice. I have maybe 10,000 hours of boxing practice. I’m OK now. But I’m nowhere near as good as I will be three years from now, four years from now, five years from now.”
Stylewise, there isn’t much that separates Henderson and Melendez. They are similar in many ways. Each possesses a strong wrestling foundation. Both are aggressive fighters who pack power in their hands and legs.
There is, however, the perception that their careers are heading in different directions. Henderson admits he is still in the learning stages. He is far from his fighting peak.
“I’m just getting started,” Henderson said recently.
It could be argued that Melendez, 31, is in his prime. He’s pretty damn good, but has had his share of very violent battles. His fight with Henderson is expected to be the latest in a long line of brutal encounters.
They are sure to leave one another battered and bruised because neither is a backward-step type of guy. In a matchup like this, between two very aggressive, hard-nosed combatants, something has to give.
When the smoke clears Saturday night, one fighter will have paid a hefty price. This is the kind of bout fans are likely to remember for many years -- the type Henderson craves.
It fits right into his master plan of one day being recognized as the greatest mixed martial artist ever. But if Henderson is to accomplish this goal, he must defeat the likes of Melendez. There can be no setback; claiming to have an off night won’t cut it.
Come up short Saturday night to Melendez and the possibility of one day being classified the greatest ever gets greatly diminished.
With so much at stake, Henderson isn’t looking past Melendez. The road to greatness, where there are no shortcuts, doesn’t allow him that luxury. It’s always going to be: defeat this great opponent, then the next and the next.
Melendez represents the current hurdle, albeit one that has been visible for many years. This isn’t just another title fight for Henderson, however -- none is, at this point; it’s the latest block that’s necessary to build his legacy of greatness.
“There is a much bigger picture,” Henderson said. “Too often people forget about the bigger picture and focus on the little things. And they forget about the bigger picture, the master plan.”
Henderson never removes his eyes from the big picture. His destiny is at stake each time he steps in the cage, and Saturday night is no different. He vows not to stumble; he’s had more than enough time to get ready for this showdown.
“Life is like a roller coaster, you’ll have ups and downs,” said Henderson, the former WEC champion who works diligently to never again taste defeat in a title fight. “Every time I step into the Octagon, I want to be fully prepared as a champion emotionally, spiritually, physically.
“I’m fighting Gilbert Melendez on Saturday night. I’ve been preparing six years for this.”
In 2013, the year of the “superfight” and new-fashioned division jumping in the UFC, anything is possible.
How possible? A simple, timely text can shake up an entire division for the better part of a year. Ask Ricardo Lamas, who should have been the next featherweight for Jose Aldo if Anthony Pettis, ten pounds and 1,000 decibels his superior, wasn’t the quickest Blackberry draw in the Midwest.
When Dana White got the buzz that night, it played out like this: Merit, shmerit. This game deals in duckets.
Now Pettis-Aldo is slated to take place in far-off August. Jon Jones versus Anderson Silva has been speculated about for New York (or Brazil [or Dallas]) in November (or December), even though Silva is fighting Chris Weidman in July, and Jones has a fight with Chael Sonnen in April. Apparently Sonnen can be looked right past to the “superfight” everybody wants. In fact, Jones/Silva is the only true superfight right now that is super enough to make rational people superstitious. Nobody wants to jinx it, except a couple of pesky wrestlers who stand in their way.
Imagine that: Diaz-Ellenberger is the potential title fight nobody is talking about.
Then there’s UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson, who is talking about bouncing up to welterweight to face Georges St-Pierre, even though he has a fight with reigning Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez this spring, and GSP fights Nick Diaz next weekend.
That idea has since been shot down by White but, what, is Melendez a hologram? It used to be that media and fans were always thinking two steps ahead. Now the fighters are, too? This is fantastic. (I have to admit -- it’s fun to align in such foolish behavior!).
At least the scenarios get simpler from here, so let's look ahead. On March 16, at UFC 158, the welterweights will come into focus. It’s really black and white. The three top fights on the card are 170-pounders. St-Pierre, who we are assured has a dark chamber in his psyche that nobody (especially that inconsiderate Nick Diaz!) can possibly fathom, headlines the event.
All revolves around him beating Diaz. If he defeats Diaz he could fight anyone from Johny Hendricks to Carlos Condit to Jake Ellenberger to Silva, this summer, this fall, or this winter. The line snakes around the block. Hendricks more than deserves the shot, particularly if he beats Condit that same night. He has been deserving for what feels like years. If Hendricks and St-Pierre both win, that fight seems obvious.
In 2011, maybe. In 2013, not so fast.
That’s because people like Silva and Henderson happen to exist. Though Silva is now booked to fight Weidman at UFC 162, he can't help but still hover over St-Pierre in 2013. Now with a new contract, it's possible he courts that St-Pierre fight sooner rather than later. St-Pierre would have to be coaxed into agreeing, of course, which is never a given.
In other words, even if all goes to plan and both GSP and Hendricks win, Hendricks could find himself on the outside looking in. Yet again. If that were the case, maybe Hendricks could fight Rory MacDonald next, who was scrapped from the card when he got injured. He was supposed to face Condit.
And speaking of Condit, he could emerge as a dark horse in the St-Pierre sweepstakes. If he takes care of No. 1 contender Hendricks, he has some ammo. After all, the first fight had that fleeting moment when Condit came unnervingly close. And if Diaz pulls the upset over St-Pierre and somehow makes it out of Montreal in one piece, same thing -- Diaz-Condit II is viable (unless the fight results in a scorecard nightmare and St-Pierre/Diaz II has to be played back immediately). If Condit wins and somebody texts Dana White to jump the line to GSP, you’ve still got the Condit-MacDonald vendetta to sort out. No scenario is without a silver lining.
There are other factors. Ellenberger is on the card fighting Nate Marquardt, who two years after trying to debut at 170 pounds in the UFC finally gets his chance. One of them -- namely Ellenberger -- could factor into this title discussion, too. Much like an 8-7 NFL team heading into the final regular season game in a tight Wild Card race -- Ellenberger is mathematically alive, but needs help. He needs an emphatic showing and some smiling fortune, such as Johny Hendricks losing. The UFC might jump him to the top to avoid rolling back Condit-GSP II too soon in that case (even though Ellenberger lost to Condit narrowly in 2009). Unless Diaz wins, that is, and Condit faces a long medical suspension in victory.
Imagine that: Diaz-Ellenberger is the potential title fight nobody is talking about.
What’s at stake come March 16 in this makeshift welterweight grand prix? Feels like plenty. But in 2013, “what’s at stake” has turned into a versatile question. There is no obvious answer. And if you ask White beforehand, you’re likely to get his go-to response for most things yon: We’ll see what happens.