Gilbert "El Niño" Melendez, the last Strikeforece lightweight champion, makes his way into the UFC Octagon to face divisional top dog, Ben "Smooth" Henderson, for the UFC 155 belt this Saturday at UFC on FOX 7 in San Jose, Cal.
Melendez is the only Strikeforce champion to come into the UFC with an immediate title shot, as if debuting in MMA's biggest show in the world alone wasn't enough pressure. Of course, we all know about a Nick Diaz who had his chance to unify but decided to screw his own chances by getting ripped off the card at UFC 137.
"El Niño" spent the last three years being the Strikeforce 155 kingpin, winning the interim title against Rodrigo Damm at Strikeforce Shamron vs. Diaz. Melendez was supposed to fight Josh Thomson, who had beaten Melendez in the previous fight and stripped him off the divisional title, but Thomson had to pull out of the rematch due to an injury.
Since winning the interim title and unifying the belt with a win against Thompson in the highly anticipate rematch, Melendez remained top dog until Strikeforce folded under the UFC banner.
Now, a tall order is at hand for Melendez as he faces Ben Henderson who has disposed of all his opponents since entering the big show. As I said before, as if debuting in the UFC is not enough to give you the "Octagon jitters," how about fighting for a title, and against a guy that not only has defeated everyone in his path within UFC, but also took his [Melendez's] teammate, Nate Diaz, to school at UFC on FOX 5.
But facing such tough competition as Henderson is, being his first UFC fight, and Henderson coming from schooling a fellow teammate, is not the worst of Melendez problems coming into this fight. There is a bigger issue at hand. Melendez is yet to prove himself against top 20 competition in the 155 division.
Although Melendez has figured among the top 10 fighters in his division, the truth is, none of his opponents at any given time have been top 10, 15, or even top 20 competition. Arguably, Shinya Aioki and Josh Thomson have been the biggest competition Melendez has faced, but both fighters are far down in the divisional rankings.
Does this mean that Melendez has no chances agains Henderson? Certainly, no. Melendez is a force to be reckon with and so far, the Strikeforce roster has held its own in the crossover to UFC, with a few exceptions.
But, what is the key to victory for Melendez? Hit first, and hit hard. Both Melendez and Henderson are Brazilian Jiu Jitsu brown belts, both have solid wrestling, and both have a very good striking game. It is hard to think of Melendez controlling Henderson, who is a huge lightweight, with wrestling or ground and pound. If Melendez is to succeed, Melendez has to win this fight on his fight, and away from Henderson's kicks and takedowns.
Henderson has never been stopped by KO or TKO, and the closest he's been to being knocked out was when Anthony Pettis landed the "Showtime Kick" dead on his face at the last WEC event. Again, a tall order for "El Niño." Who do you see winning this lightweight battle?
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Be sure to tune in to UFC on FOX 7: Henderson/Melendez this Saturday, april 20, 2013. Facebook prelims begin at 4pm ET, FX prelims start at 5pm ET, and the main card comes on FOX at 8pm ET.