It's astounding to realize that, along with the effervescent talent of the Strikeforce 155ers, we also get to witness the dynamic duo of Japanese lightweights in Tatsuya Kawajiri and Shinya Aoki on the same card under the Zuffa umbrella. Yes, I realize that future contract complications might prevent some Strikeforce and DREAM fighters from becoming one big happy family at the UFC barbecue, which is exactly why we should sit back and savor moments like this.
At Pride Shockwave in 2006, Cesar Gracie product Gilbert Melendez (18-2) vaulted into the spotlight by upsetting overseas standout Tatsuya Kawajiri (27-6-2) in an all-out dogfight. The decision for Melendez was unanimous to the judges, but not to all fans, as some found controversy in the outcome of veteran versus newcomer.
Everyone can at least agree that it was a light-speed, back-and-forth, barn burning brawl, and there's no reason why the rematch -- scheduled as the appetizer to the "Strikeforce: Diaz vs. Daley" main course -- shouldn't be just as entertaining. Both have worked diligently to distinguish themselves with the rare honor of being top-ranked lightweights outside of the UFC, and the only prediction I feel confident in is that sparks will fly in this one.
The Rules: The gist of Kawajiri's career took place in Shooto, Pride, and DREAM, where he freely bombarded knees to sprawling opponents in any position. Not only is this a crucial weapon in his arsenal that's become ingrained into his instincts through years of fighting, but transitioning to divergent guidelines can be mentally taxing, especially in the heat of battle.
Ring vs. Cage: I don't even want to touch the pros and cons of this debate, but I believe the ninety-degree angle corners and smaller square footage of the ring facilitated Kawajiri's clinch and grappling, and the open space in the cage will favor Melendez's newly enhanced elusive style much more.
The Balance: These two competitors are so similar and well-rounded in all aspects that even where one has a slight advantage, the other seems to hold an equalizing property.
Sparing the Blah, Blah: Rather than place unnecessary worth in the following speculation, my best suggestion is to go back and watch their first encounter, understand that these two are extremely evenly matched, soak in the broad range of martial arts technique they integrate so fluently, and hope we're treated to the same display.
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Free Movement / Striking Phase
Both fighters stunned each other multiple times in the first, mostly just by digging into the trenches and blazing the cannons, but both are fleet afoot with spry and active motion when reeling combinations.
"El Nino" puts his slight height and reach advantage to good use with a long, stiff jab and straighter punches. He's painstakingly scrupulous in selection, and maybe a tad more accurate. A laser-sighted one-two while stepping straight back found the mark aplenty, but the predictable retreat also enabled Kawajiri to pin him against the ropes and work his clinch.
"Crusher" throws more hooks, mostly the left, and might have a bit more power. He can also get carried away in the moment and be a little reckless. You'll find only one loss via TKO in his storied career, which was delivered by iron-fisted juggernaut Eddie Alvarez.
Both can mix it up with flying knees and wild uppercuts, but usually stick to carefully timed two, three, and four-punch combos while staying wary of either shooting or defending the takedown.
Since in the grand scheme of things I see this entire fight as fairly equal, I'm going to speculate in microscopic proportions when putting Melendez ahead here. He's grown supremely confident with his footwork and striking, especially against grappling-based opponents, and his recent momentum and overall familiarity with the rules and surroundings slant the pendulum his way in the stand-up.
Advantage: Melendez (slight)
The height of Melendez seems to counteract Kawajiri's burly strength in the clinch, as both found success in their first collision with takedowns, takedown defense, subduing while attacking with knees or punches, and stifling the other to break free and strike.
This is a virtual roll of the dice. Both have exemplary balance and technique, with no weaknesses; just subtle differences.
Kawajiri is more offensive-minded and inclined to drop for a double or hit a trip, looking to enforce his volatile top-game. Melendez has uncanny clinch defense and usually buries an underhook and counter-strikes or circles back out to free range.
The clinch serves as a bridge between standing and grappling, and in this fight, whoever walks that bridge more often and more effectively will likely decide the outcome. If Kawajiri can rush and initiate a tie-up, Gil's striking output decreases, and Kawajiri's chance of a takedown increases -- and vice-versa. I'm on the fence and close to elevating Kawajiri a bit higher after he had his way with Josh Thomson in the clinch, but ...
For a Japanese fighter, Kawajiri has always stood out from the crowd for excelling with the traits that most associate with American MMA. He's a tenacious, dexterous and gorilla-like grappler with fantastic freestyle wrestling and a mortifying top-game.
His ground-and-pound and guard passing abilities are meshed beautifully and might be the best in the lightweight division, though I realize that's a risky statement for anyone devoid of a stint in the Octagon.
On the same token, we haven't seen a ton of Gilbert Melendez's guard game. His rise was propelled by keeping a spiny exterior made up of stiff punches to negate grapplers and force them to stand. Using Thomson as a measuring stick again, who is both a stout wrestler and slick kickboxer, Melendez validated his amplified striking in their rematch.
I'm estimating that Kawajiri has also continued to sharpen his ground game, and therefore giving him the same minuscule edge here that Gilbert has standing.
Forgive me for the uninspiring analysis. This match-up could be summarized simply with the statement that they're pretty damn equal in all areas and it's the minor applications of the technique in those areas that no one can foresee which will dictate the victor.
To reinforce my point about equalization, on paper, I would give Tatsuya Kawajiri a marginal edge overall. But action starts standing, which is Gilbert Melendez' forte, and Kawajiri has to force the setting to impose his strengths. Neutralizing his opponent's strength is exactly where Melendez has been the most impressive.
Now, factor in the minute details of the foreign rules and surroundings for Kawajiri along with Melendez's consistent cage control through movement, and I think we have a dead-even fight with a small case for Melendez pushing through.
My prediction: Melendez by decision