Gilbert Melendez (21-3) vs. Diego Sanchez (24-5) Lightweight
When we last left our heroes...Can I just at the outset, explain how big of a Sanchez fan I am? I don't care that it's possible he was hatched from a Quetzalcoatl egg. Like a Cohen film, he's the gift that keeps on giving.
His quixotic intensity make him one of the most unique and bizarre personalities in the sport, minus the lame political self-righteousness baggage that accompanies so many other "personalities" in the sport. More caricature than character, I don't see how anyone could fail to like the guy.
With my cage crush out the way, Sanchez is at a pseudo-crossroads. He's constantly bouncing back and forth between LW and WW, and I don't think this benefits him. He's solid in both divisions to his credit. While he's coming off a win over Takanori Gomi in a very competitive fight that some thought Gomi won, he hasn't seen any action since this past March. He fights with his heart and mind on his sleeve, which probably explains his randomness.
Opposite Sanchez, is the much more groomed, and stable Gilbert Melendez. He's been a fixture in the division since his Shooto days (a little misleading since he fought below 155), and into his brief Pride run.
There's not much that needs to be said about Gilbert. He's avenged two of his losses and many felt like his record is still relatively untainted with the Henderson fight potentially going his way. And he's done it with a gift for being well rounded in ways that actually mean something beyond a broadcast commentary soundbite.
What's obvious about this match from the outset is that Melendez is the favorite, and it's one hundred percent justified. Melendez is Breaking Bad to Diego's Lost.
What both men can do: Thankfully this is pretty straightforward so it makes my job easier. Melendez does everything well. However, more than doing them well, he understands the art of the transition. His boxing is still the best part of his game. He sticks to the jab, and follows with the right, and makes it all look effortless despite looking so predictable. A left hook was virtually absent in his standup but that's changed over the years.
His grappling is also top notch. While he's often restricted to being a solid wrestler, he shows submission prowess. That probably sounds a bit dumb since he's got one whole career submission win, so let me explain. What I mean is that positioning is more important in grappling than knowing what rubberguard is and using it arbitrarily just to make people think you know how to grapple.
You don't just randomly put yourself in a great position to wail on fighters like Tatsuya Kawajiri, and Mitsuhiro Ishida without knowing what the hell you're doing positionally. To say nothing about having never been submitted, along with training with the Diaz brothers.
Diego is a much different LW beast. He's always been a very solid grappler either from the bottom or on top. While we'll get to his flaws in a second, he is mostly well rounded. He gets admonished by critics for his standup but his hyper-aggressive left-right combo from the southpaw stance, and piercing left kick should not be underestimated. Penn had nothing but good things to say about Diego's standup, which doesn't mean anything really (especially considering how Penn would end up taking Jason Voorhees' blade to Diego's head), but I'm just saying: Penn felt the need to respect his striking. Melendez should too.
What both men can't do: The problem with Sanchez is that he's not very dynamic on the feet. Even when he's mixing it up, he's fairly productive. As counterintuitive as that sounds. In addition, while he's a solid grappler, his wrestling leaves a lot to be desired. He doesn't have a strong double leg, nor does he have the instincts to switch levels when he needs to.
Melendez really only falters when he encounters a specialist, but even that's theoretical. I feel like Gilbert would have a tough time with someone like Pettis or Aldo (who I can see moving up in weight at some point), but as far as wrestle-boxers go, he's the cream of the crop.
The narrative going into the last round will be pretty straightforward; Melendez picks Diego apart on the feet with Sanchez trying unsuccessfully to get the fight to the ground. At best this will look like Sanchez vs. Guida with Diego playing the Clay Guida role.
X-Factor: I don't know. Will Gilbert suddenly contract the Diaz brothers bug and join his high school reunion instead? I feel like the real X-Factor is what happens in the scrambles. This used to be Diego's bread and butter. If you watch his Nick Diaz and Jon Fitch fights, he does a way better job of creating opportunities for submissions. Nowadays he just uses these scrambles to get back to his feet. I think a Sanchez with that mentality makes this much closer than people suspect. Unfortunately I think we've lost that Sanchez forever.
Prediction: Gilbert Melendez by Decision.