Cesar Gracie standout Gilbert Melendez exploded off the starting line with ten straight victories. For a green fighter, the competition he devoured was quite admirable: Stephen Palling, Olaf Alonso, Hiroyuki Takaya, Rumina Sato and Clay Guida, the latter earning him the Strikeforce lightweight strap. His initial dominance vaulted him overseas to the lustrous Pride ring where he was quickly aligned with perennial Japanese legend Tatsuya Kawajiri. The decision victory over "Crusher" would officially put Melendez on the map.
Flawless after thirteen appearances, "El Nino" suffered his first defeat to explosive wrestler Mitsuhiro Ishida in the Yarennoka New Year's Eve show of 2007. Back in the states, he defended his Strikeforce title successfully before Josh Thomson would assume the mantle by handing Melendez his second loss. The defeat would be his last. Melendez transformed into a bloodthirsty carnivore with an afro, trampling Rodrigo Damm and then avenging both of his previous losses to Ishida and Thomson to retake the Strikeforce lightweight throne. Continuing his ascension, Gil notched career-defining wins with a dramatic upset of Shinya Aoki and a merciless thrashing of Kawajiri in a rematch.
Much of the buzz that's surrounded Melendez is that he's either destined for the UFC or should be, and he deserves every bit of that gushing praise. However, while his increasing recognition could pave a lucrative future, high standards accompany his elevated status and, frankly, he's also got a lot to lose. The Melendez situation exemplifies the dilemma that top-ranked, non-UFC fighters are faced with: if he doesn't win convincingly, he'll be branded as over-rated and undeserving; if he wins, he'll merely accomplish what everyone is expecting. Intensifying this high-risk, low-reward scenario is the dangerous complexity of his opponent.
American Top Team's Jorge Masvidal has been brilliant at times and disappointing in others. He first attracted attention when he blitzed current UFC lightweight Joe Lauzon by TKO in his seventh fight. Defeats were incurred immediately before and after. "Gamebred" then carved an eight-fight path that included more reputable lightweights, many on the larger stages of BodogFight and Strikeforce, such as Keith Wisniewski, Steve Berger, Ryan Healy (all decisions) and the wily Yves Edwards (head-kick KO).
When Masvidal signed with Japan's Sengoku promotion, he seemed destined to rise above the crowd and collide with former Pride champion and apex lightweight Takanori Gomi. In his debut performance, he was knocked flat by Rodrigo Damm. Masvidal recuperated well with two more wins, then set up shop in the states with a Bellator contract. Fans salivated over a match up with elite lightweight Eddie Alvarez but, this time just two fights in, Masvidal was victimized by Toby Imada's highlight-reel-worthy inverted triangle. Two wins afterward, what seemed like a tune-up against Luis Palomino resulted in another notch in the L-column.
Developing a reputation for squandering ideal opportunities, Masvidal would regain favor by capitalizing on what should have been a no-win situation. Facing one of the most feared strikers a weight class up in Shark Fights, Masvidal fearlessly traded leather with Paul Daley and enforced a shockingly competent wrestling game. The unanimous decision awarded to Daley was received bitterly and Masvidal's stock rose for the gutsy showing. Now, consecutive wins under the Strikeforce banner -- a decision over Billy Evangelista and a vicious unhinging of K.J. Noons -- have propelled him to a title shot.
Match up analysis in the full entry.
What makes this match up uniquely appealing is that, despite a handful of losses between the two, neither Melendez nor Masvidal have any glaring weaknesses to exploit. They are both strong across the board and have been phenomenal in fortifying their arsenals and enhancing their strengths.
The variables dictating the engagement will rely heavily on having the intelligence to draw from their many weapons with split-second reactions in the heat of battle. Rather than constructing a strategy attuned to one or two clear goals, the combatants will feel out the dynamics of movement and range while jousting strikes, gauge the availability of takedowns (and takedown defense), measure how they fare when tying up in the clinch and then fine-tune their adjustments accordingly.
The one spot where Melendez should have the edge is if he can put Masvidal on his back, but he'll be challenged by fluid footwork and boxing, being a few inches shorter in height and reach, solid scrambling and a resilient clinch structure.
The stand up of Melendez has easily been his largest improvement. After stellar wrestler and kickboxer Josh Thomson outpointed him on the feet, Melendez has rounded out his arsenal, polished his technique and united it all with some serious punching power. With his wrestling still firmly intact, his quickness and intelligence propels myriad attacks that alternate from aggressive striking combinations and adroit takedowns. His defense has been sound and his beard adequately deflects the few blows that do slip through.
While Melendez has evolved to become thoroughly diverse, Masvidal's transcended with his cunning kickboxing. Seeming more composed, complete and comfortable than ever before, the street-wise scrapper went toe-to-toe with "Semtex", who is one of the welterweight division's most prestigious Muay Thai machines. Showing an astounding control of distance, Masvidal sliced jabs, hooks and crosses through Daley's defense at tight range, then skated out to the fringe to frustrate him further with elaborate circles and angles.
The big shocker was how effective his takedowns were. He entranced Daley with artful boxing and then pounced with deep double-legs when Daley planted his feet while committing to strikes. This was more of a case of timing, set up and the fight I.Q. of a complete fighter than pure wrestling mechanics. This established Masvidal's offense wrestling, but it's his defensive wrestling and sprawl that will be tested tonight.
Having fallen to strikes in the past, an obvious outlet for Melendez is targeting the chin with big power. In intimate quarters, Gil packs a wallop with short-range punches, which is why Masvidal will likely maintain a cushion of space with his footwork and plug away with crisp punches to keep Melendez at bay.
How well Melendez can shrink the distance on the feet will be the most pivotal factor. From outside, Masvidal is an accurate sniper and excels in tailoring his output to his opponent's patterns. Melendez will have to decide if he's going to encroach by dropping levels for a takedown from outside or cutting angles on his way in to lock horns in the clinch, where he's an effective brawler who can still work takedowns from there.
I'm thinking, on the outside, Masvidal will wreak havoc. He was excellent in using his reach and cage motion against a much bigger, longer and better striker in Daley, so I expect Melendez to struggle with finding his range. While Gil is the more accomplished takedown artist, he's yet to finish a fight by submission and Masvidal has clocked a lot of time with the BJJ and grappling experts at ATT to enhance his ground wit.
I have to admit that, ever since this fight was announced, I've been leaning toward Masvidal. He's much better than his record portrays, he's a good-sized, agile lightweight who's learned to maximize his height and reach advantage and I think he's considerably more technical and diverse on the feet.
I understand why Melendez is favored so highly and would be far from bewildered if he won. Regardless, I'm going with my gut on this one and predicting Gamebred for the upset.
My Prediction: Jorge Masvidal by decision