With the lightweight strap on the line, 155-pound champion Gilbert Melendez will conclude a trilogy with Josh Thomson in the co-main event of Saturday night's Strikeforce: Barnett vs. Cormier show. The featured lineup starts at 10:00 p.m. ET on Showtime and includes a light-heavyweight rematch between Rafael Cavalcante and Mike Kyle along with a welterweight clash between Nah-Shon Burrell and Chris Spang.
Gilbert "El Nino" Melendez (20-2) and Josh "The Punk" Thomson (19-4) have carried the Strikeforce lightweight division on their shoulders. Melendez amplified his credibility overseas with a monumental upset of Japanese bruiser Tatsuya Kawajiri and cemented it even further with stateside performances against Mitsuhiro Ishida (effectively avenging his first loss) and submission elitist Shinya Aoki.
Thomson demonstrated his top-level status with a strong 2-3 run in the Octagon right before the UFC liquidated their lightweight division, notched a slick victory by kneebar in Pride and then held down the fort in Strikeforce with legit stoppages over Nam Phan (TKO) and Duane Ludwig (submission). Shortly after, Thomson got a crack at Melendez's championship and, in top form, unreeled 5-rounds of crisp kickboxing and staunch takedown defense to dethrone him.
More Strikeforce: Barnett vs. Cormier Dissections
The pair would trade ownership of the strap in their next encounter, after which Thomson's momentum faltered through a rash of ongoing injuries while Melendez ascended all the way up to the #3 spot in the consensus world lightweight rankings. Since their last match in 2009, Melendez has been flawless (decisions over Aoki and Jorge Masvidal; finished Kawajiri by TKO in the rematch) while Thomson has won 3 of 4 against excellent competition -- but definitely seems to have lost some of the spring in his step.
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I don't think Thomson has ever received enough credit. In his prime, he was a downright mean S.O.B. with voracious wrestling and rapid-fire kickboxing. The magic ingredient of his style was the ability to explode offensively and generate velocity on his lightning-fast combinations and powerful takedowns. Additionally, as he did in his win over Melendez, Thomson could uphold a furious pace for a full 5-round fight.
That high level of athleticism, conditioning and explosiveness has been lacking lately, and that's exactly why his past injures are a hot topic of conversation. Thomson came out like his old, boisterous self in the first round against Pat Healy, Gesias Cavalcante and K.J. Noons, but fizzled out in the 2nd and 3rd. He's still a risk-taking scrapper, fully competent in all phases of combat and exciting as hell when he's at his best.
"El Nino" looks better in every performance. He was always a pressure-puncher and overbearing wrestler, but his striking displays against Tatsuya Kawajiri and Jorge Masvidal showed a substantial improvement in boxing technique. Melendez was clipping with short and tight punches that packed a big wallop, and also took complete ownership of the pace with agile, in-and-out footwork and excellent timing.
He and Frankie Edgar are the rare type who almost seem to increase in activity as the fight progresses -- even after 20 minutes of energized combat. He appears to be more confident and dominant than ever before. In his loss to Thomson, he struggled to keep up with Thomson's intelligent phase-shifting. Thomson put leather all over him early and often, threw in beautiful level changes when they were trading in the pocket to take Gil down, mixed up his strike selection and fought tooth and nail for 25 minutes.
That's the strategy Thomson needs to replicate and I just don't think he's got it in him. Both fighters are notoriously difficult to put away -- the sole stoppage loss between the two is Yves Edwards' jumping roundhouse kick on Thomson -- so I expect a big gut- and heart-check for Thomson to avoid being overwhelmed when he slows down in later rounds.
My Prediction: Gilbert Melendez by decision.