Another UFC event, another Cesar Gracie team member fights a UFC champion. This Saturday Gilbert Melendez will be vying to prove once again that second-tier promotions can produce top-tier talent by challenging champ Benson Henderson for the lightweight strap.
Gilbert Melendez is a dangerous man, and has been one of my favorite fighters for some time now. Not only does he bring excitement to the cage in every fight, but he's undeniably the most clean-cut, well-spoken member of the controversial Cesar Gracie fight camp. I'll start by saying that I think he's severely undervalued coming into this bout. Though the betting lines could be based on the holes in his game, I think they're based on the same bias that had Brock Lesnar beating Alistair Overeem in the latter man's own UFC debut. Regardless, there are holes in the game of Gilbert Melendez.
We'll be taking a look at the gaps in his striking, both defensively and offensively, and later today we'll give Ben Henderson the same treatment. Let's dive in.
Read more: The Striking of Ben Henderson
Weakness to Leg Kicks
It sometimes seems you can't talk about a single fighter from Cesar Gracie's camp without mentioning this glaring weakness, but a reluctance to check or avoid leg kicks (or an affinity for eating them, perhaps) has long been a Stockton staple. Gilbert Melendez is no exception to that rule, and that does not bode well against as skilled a kicker as Ben Henderson.
Analysts and fans are very fond of blaming this problem on the narrowness of a fighter's stance, and the orientation of their lead leg. Though these factors can play a role, I'm not completely on the boat with that explanation, considering that plenty of very accomplished kickboxers (the peerless Giorgio Petrosyan, for example) stand without squared hips and with turned-away lead feet, and yet have no difficulty in checking kicks. Rather, I believe that the Gracie camp simply does not put any emphasis on the defense of leg kicks, basing their stand up training almost entirely on boxing. Furthermore, the come-forward style of Melendez and the Diaz brothers is not conducive to the defense of leg kicks, as I mentioned in my Nick Diaz article. Training and style, rather than stance, are the root of this weakness.
Still, the narrowness of Gilbert's stance does mean that, when a well-placed leg kick finds its mark, he often goes reeling to the canvas.
Here, a series of low kicks buckle the knee of Gilbert Melendez. The bottom two frames, both of the same kick from different angles, show Melendez being knocked clean off his feet by Jorge Masvidal, who is not an exceptionally powerful kicker. Ben Henderson kicks much harder than this, and his cleverly-utilized leg kicks sent Gilbert's teammate Nate Diaz to the canvas more than once.
Being a Cesar Gracie fighter, Gilbert relies much more on his punches than his kicks. In fact, compared to his hands, his kicks are downright mediocre. But he has shown excellent boxing by MMA standards, and packs more power than Ben Henderson, four of his nine Strikeforce title bouts having been won by knockout. Still, for all his boxing prowess Gilbert Melendez has not knocked out many skilled strikers on the feet and since he clearly does not possess the power of Dan Henderson or Junior Dos Santos, we must conclude that this is because of his limited punching arsenal.
I know I talk about stances and weight distribution a lot, but let's take a look at Gilbert's stance. It changes an awful lot, especially considering how much Melendez has improved as a fighter since his first bout with Josh Thomson, but in his last two bouts he seemed to have settled on the stance you see here:
Melendez is balanced fairly well between his feet, but his weight tends towards the front foot. Just based on cursory observation of his movements and this still, I'd say that he keeps about 60% of his weight on his lead foot. I talked about weight distribution's effects on punches and punch combinations in my GSP breakdown, but suffice it to say that this weight distribution works well for power jabs, and Melendez has an excellent jab that he uses very well; but when the weight comes forward on the jab, there is substantially less power in the follow-up right hand, which should come from the rear foot and hip. And although he is not as straight-legged as Masvidal in the image above, Gilbert's knees are surprisingly straight for a wrestler. I discussed the strange habit of wrestlers to stand up straight when they start to box in my King Mo article, and the same seems to be true with Melendez these days. A lowered stance would offer him far greater leverage for his punches and takedowns alike.
Despite this, Melendez does all right with his right hand--certainly better than GSP does with his. It is his second best punch, after the jab, and it's the power shot he relies on more than any other. Even without a proper reset to the rear foot, forward momentum alone can make for a punishing straight right.
The front foot-heavy stance really hurts Melendez, however, when it comes to his left hook. A left hook is a very valuable weapon for a fighter who prefers to box. Often as powerful (or more powerful) than the right hand, the left hook has the advantage of being much closer to the opponent's head than any rear-handed punch. It is obvious that having a power-shot available to either hand is a great advantage. But a good left hook requires that one pull the weight back onto the rear foot during the punch. Because of his weight distribution, Gilbert's weight is always coming forward, moving in one direction.
Above, each frame shows a left hook thrown by Gilbert Melendez in his last bout with Josh Thomson. In each one, you can clearly see his weight on his front foot. These lefts slap rather than crack: even those that landed didn't phase Thomson at all.
Years ago, Gilbert Melendez had no left hook, so this is certainly an improvement to some extent. But Gilbert's weight only moves in one direction, even in his more technical bouts. As a result, a clever striker has nothing to fear from Gilbert's left hand, despite his snappy jab. As long as he circles the right way, Ben Henderson might very well keep Gilbert from utilizing his dangerous right hand, and with no hook he will have no way to force the champion back into the path of his favored hand.
As I mentioned above, Gilbert Melendez is being counted out of a fight that he has a very solid chance of winning. I wouldn't call him a favorite to beat Bendo, but I certainly don't see a reason for him to be coming in at +270. There are a lot of positives to his game.
In the stills of Masvidal's kicks, take a look at the time stamps. All of those meaningful kicks were thrown in the first round. Just one round later, Masvidal had stopped committing himself to hard leg kicks. Why? Well, unlike Nate and Nick, Gilbert is excellent at countering kicks. Though some might sneak through, he's quite adept at catching low and mid kicks and punishing the thrower with either a hard right hand, or a seemingly effortless takedown. He was able to stifle the kicking game of Masvidal in just one round using these simple tactics. Unfortunately for Gil, Bendo kicks much harder than Masvidal, but Frankie Edgar already showed that it is quite possible to catch the legs of Ben Henderson. And without Frankie's severe reach, height, and power disadvantage, Gilbert could very well take advantage of some of the kicks Henderson is sure to throw his way.
Furthermore, despite the upright stance he displayed in his last two outings, Gilbert showed a much stronger, lowered stance just before his bout with Masvidal when he rematched Tatsuya Kawajiri, and he absolutely crushed the Crusher with powerful right hands, and the best left hooks he's ever thrown. If the bell rings and Melendez comes to the center of the cage with his base lowered and knees bent, expect to see Ben Henderson's chin put to the test.
There are weaknesses to be exploited here, but Gilbert Melendez is a top lightweight for a very good reason. Promising improvements in his boxing, excellent wrestling, and devastating ground and pound all say that Gilbert Melendez just might be worth a small underdog bet.
Read more: The Striking of Ben Henderson