A few weeks ago as I saw Gilbert Melendez engaged in a much tougher fight than anyone expected (Ok, the 2 or 3 people that picked Thompson will now post their thoughts), I began to think, Is complacency for some of these great Champions unavoidable, and what is the role of the media and fans in generating this complacency.
Heading into his fight with Frankie Edgar at UFC112, BJ Penn was on top of the Lightweight world. In his last 5 LW fights he had stopped Jens Pulver, Joe Stevenson, Sean Sherk, Kenny Florian, and Diego Sanchez. In the middle of that was a loss to GSP at Welterweight, but that only lead to a dedicated BJ Penn turning to Marv Marinovich and showing up to the Florian, and Sanchez fights in the best shape of his career.
Frankie Edgar at the time was a legit top 10 fighter, but he was also most well known for being the undersized fighter who was dominated by Gray Maynard in a fight that was painful to watch for many fans. Edgar was coming off a stoppage win over Matt Veach... yeah, Matt Veach. Granted, Veach was a late replacement for Kurt Pelligrino, but that is not exactly the guy who is a springboard to greatness. Many fans felt that Gray Maynard, who was still undefeated at the time deserved the title shot well ahead of Edgar.
Reading the predictions for this fight, not only did the entire BloodyElbow staff pick BJ Penn (no surprise, I did too), but only one member of the team even though Edgar would make it to a decision. To quote Mike Fagan "Edgar has no path to victory. He better pray Penn's ACL explodes." The rest were not this brutal, but the consensus opinion was that Edgar was good, but BJ was great.
On fight night the first thing I saw when BJ stepped into the cage was that BJ was not in as good as shape as he had been for the Florian, and Sanchez fights. The muscles that had appeared while he was working with Marv Marinovich were no longer showing, and BJ was back to his pre-GSP II appearance. No reason to panic, this is still the great BJ Penn. Then the fight started, and to me it looked like BJ was lacking fire for the entire fight. I know there is a ton of controversy surrounding the decision, I've had the debate with some of my friends, and was actually surprised when I logged on and saw how many people thought that BJ won. I scored it for Edgar... I'm not here to debate a 2+ year old fight, I'm here to point out that this fight did not go the way anyone expected. BJ had changed up his training, and I think he had heard the voices of all the media, fans and drew his own conclusion on how big of a challenge Frank Edgar was. This fight was suppose to be a mis-match. All BJ had to do was show up and win, and then Edgar showed up and fought like he had nothing to lose executing a brilliant game plan to frustrate the champion.
Where Gilbert Melendez fits in after the jump -
A re-match was ordered, and surely BJ would not be caught by surprise this time. But the complacency remained, vocal media and fans insisted that BJ was robbed the first fight. Once again, not a single member of the BE staff picked Edgar to win. "I would not want to be in a cage wit an angry B.J. Penn" - Chris Nelson. Jonathan Snowden was the only one who picked up on B.J. still coasting on his greatness "Penn say he may not have trained harder for the rematch, but rested harder." The result was a Champion in Frank Edgar with nothing to lose, and he was even more confident and aggressive this time out. Penn looked like a man who could not believe what was happening, an could not find the fire to channel his greatness.
Now I have spent a lot of time talking about BJ Penn/Frank Edgar, and this brings me to the recent Gilbert Melendez/Josh Thompson controversy. Gilbert was clearly the top Lightweight in Strikeforce heading into the fight. Dana White famously said last September that getting Gilbert Melendez to UFC was one of his top priorities... before he became a pawn in the Showtime TV negotiations, and was stranded in Strikeforce with a division that was cleaned out of worthy competition, or so it seemed. The general consensus was that Melendez was somewhere between 2 and 5 ranked in the world.
If you watched the first two fights between Melendez, and Thompson then you would think that there is no way that Melendez could get complacent in a third fight, but that would be to ignore the career track of both fighters since their second fight.
Gilbert Melendez had risen to the top of the division and hadn't even been pushed by very good competition such as Shinya Aoki, Tatsuya Kawajiri, and Jorge Masvidal... all of who were suppose to test Melendez in different ways but ended up getting steamrolled. Thompson's path since the second Melendez fight included a loss to Kawajiri, he did not even fight in 2011 due to injuries, and then won an uninspiring decision over K.J. Noons this March. The perception out there was that Melendez was on the way up, and Thompson was on the way down, the BE Staff predications show that this was the prevailing wisdom.
So here is Gilbert Melendez, a guy many out there wanted to see fighting for the UFC title, and he is facing a former foe, widely regarded as being on the downside of his career, and unworthy of being in the cage with him. Is it any real surprise that Melendez had a let down. Is it any real surprise that Thompson fought like he had absolutely nothing to lose. I don't think so.
The media, social media, and message boards are great things. They help fans interact and share our opinions on everything. Do I think that BJ Penn, and Gilbert Melendez sit around and read Bloody Elbow, and other sites... not really, maybe sometime, but I doubt they are religious followers of the opinions espoused here. But I do imagine that more than a few people in their camps do, and that when they log onto twitter they can see the general perception. These men are living and breathing the sport on a daily basis, they easily can come to the same conclusion that many writers, fans, and promoters share. Sometimes this feeling is that they do not have a challenge in front of them, and then they prove that they are human. That extra rep to end the day on a good note might not be there, the morning run might stop a couple hundred meters short, or be a few seconds slower, and another interview might be granted in lieu of valuable training time.
BJ Penn never recovered his fire, and swagger at Lightweight, now the big question is will Gilbert Melendez in his next challenge. The only fighters on the roster that makes sense right now is the Pat Healy v Mizuto Hirota winner, neither is a name that inspires fear. There are only two Non-UFC fighters out there that will light the appropriate fire under Melendez in my opnion. One is Michael Chandler, and that fight is not going to happen due to contracts and politics. The other is Eddie Alvarez, and while Eddie owes Bellator one more fight, he is certain to be a restricted free agent by the end of the year. A one off fight in Strikeforce against Melendez on his way to UFC is a win-win for everyone. Alvarez has politicked for the fight for a long time, and I can't think of many fans who would not enjoy this competitive and likely action filled fight.
The point of this piece is not to show the BE staff as being off base in their predictions, and I hope nobody takes it that way. The point is show that even great champions are human, and when enough voices tell them that their opponent is not worthy it is easy for the "edge" that makes them great to slip away... hopefully for just one fight.
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