The UFC gets to showcase its exciting lightweight division once again as Benson Henderson defends his belt against the Strikeforce titleholder, Gilbert Melendez. Though familiar in style, it's a unique matchup that is bound to deliver the kind of fast paced action the division, and particularly these fighters have embodied over the years.
Benson Henderson (18-2) vs. Gilbert Melendez (21-2) Lightweight
Henderson was supposed to be just another warm body to round out the UFC's talent pool at 155. With the WEC dissolved, not many fans or observers expected much other than his exciting brand of wrestle-boxing. He's 6-0 in the UFC, and other than his rematch with Frankie Edgar at UFC 150, he hasn't left much doubt in victory.
His punishing style earned him a dominating win over Nate Diaz. Will that same style be enough to get him by Melendez?
Melendez enters the UFC in a way not all that dissimilar from Benson; he's only lost twice, and he enters the UFC with the usual skepticism that surrounds a talented import. 'Was he just a big fish in a large pond?' the critics are asking.
Gilbert fought the majority of his early career in Japan. Despite little publicity, he's had one of the most deceptively successful careers of any fighter in the sport, earning dominating victories over the only two fighters to beat him (three if you count the questionable decision over Tatsuya Kawajiri).
What both men can do: Henderson's asset is his drive. And I don't mean that figuratively. His forward movement, powered by his popeye forearms for legs, enable effortless looking doubles and singles. It's not enough just to be strong, and Henderson does a good job of imposing his size in top control where he's particularly good at positioning himself for various forms of violent ground and pound.
On the feet, he has some of the heavier leg kicks in the business; a trait that could be the difference given Gilbert's heavy stance. For Melendez, the key will be how soon and how consistently he's able to establish his jab, and ultimately, his right hand.
Melendez isn't a power double kind of wrestler, but he is good in the clinch, and in the scramble. And his quickness can substitute for power, as he demonstrated against Thomson, who he was able to scoop up on several occasions.
What both men can't do: This is where it gets interesting. Both men have some glaring flaws (by incredible titleholder standards). Henderson has trouble in the middle of the cage, where he looks inert at times with his boxing. That pseudo-jab he throws for example is just plain ugly. Melendez can capitalize on this with his superior boxing if he can avoid the leg kicks. Henderson often gets caught in fights because he backs straight up, and with his hands down. Even Shane Roller rocked him early.
Gil isn't a power puncher, but sheer volume is still an asset in this bout. This will ultimately be the story of the fight on the feet: Melendez' right hand versus Henderson's left leg. Both men have shown susceptibility to both types of strikes in previous bouts.
I actually felt like Gil looked good against Jorge Masvidal. Masvidal isn't a great lightweight, but he's a dangerous one, and it was a bad matchup stylewise for Melendez, and he won comfortably despite it. His performance against Thomson in their final outing inspires less confidence however. If he comes out flat footed, and looking hesitant to exchange expect Gil's leg to look like raw lamb by morning.
The reason to give Henderson the edge here is the ground. Chances are, they'll end up in the clinch. When they do, Henderson will be able to muscle Gil to the ground. It's important to remember the size difference in this fight. Melendez isn't the prototypical lightweight; he began his career at 143 lbs. and hasn't changed much since. I don't know how much weight he cuts, but I'd imagine it's considerably less than Henderson.
Henderson continues to improve his grappling, and that's why I like him in this fight. Though subtle, he does fantastic work simply putting himself in a good position to land a punch from top control where he seems to generate more power on the ground than he does on the feet.
Expect a nip/tuck battle early on the feet, only to see Henderson take over the later rounds on the ground.
Prediction: Benson Henderson by Decision.