The Match Up
17-2 Overall/4-1 in the UFC
22-3 overall/1-1 in the UFC
History / Introduction
David: Both guys exist in a hyperspace of wavering expectations. I felt like Melendez would destined to be a solid fighter without the truly elite talent to make it to the top after losing to Henderson, no matter how controversial. And I soured on Pettis after his loss to Guida, no matter how controversial (people always go back and forth on that one, but I really felt like that bout was a textbook example of what victory looks like when the guy on the bottom is active enough to call what he's doing "cage control").
And yet they're utterly elite. I believe we have yet to see what Pettis has to offer. I felt like we knew Pettis would be elite when he beat Shane Roller. In that fight, he showed improved takedown defense, and an offensive acumen that would make him dangerous against anyone. For Gil, he's been the quiet man in the revolution sweepstakes. He's avenged two of his 3 losses, and only ever really got dominated by Ishida, who he steamrolled later. If it wasn't for the questionable Benson decision, I have a feeling the odds would be reversed.
Phil: Both have defied the conventional logic that says that your losses define your ceiling. After the Ishida and Thomson defeats, Melendez tightened up his wild dervish style into far more efficient and focused pressure. Tony Showtime's evolution from flashy striker into... well, really, really good flashy striker has been documented.
The uncertainty which has been part and parcel of both men was at least partially enabled by the fact that neither made their name in the UFC. Both were champions of "second-string" organizations, who suffered quick defeats when they made their way to the big show. But here they are, fighting for what is arguably the UFC's most difficult belt to take and hold. Only one of them can take it home, however.
Did TUF do its job of using nearly a year focused mostly on other fighters, half of whom will fight in the UFC once at most, to hype up this fight?
David: This is the thing about TUF, and why they need to get retired fighters and/or MMA fan celebrities (Team Shaq vs. Team Vanilla Ice?) to do this thing instead of taking away division time by putting the champions on ice. Plus we don't even see them all that much. So not only are they invisible in the cage, but they're invisible away from it. On top of that, they didn't do anything interesting. It was funny how they painted Pettis as some kind of empty headed jock for a second on that UFC jeopardy, Melendez...the introverted bookworm...but still not all that interesting.
Phil: Even more than the nu-metal, TUF remains the poster-child for how parts of the UFC's viewpoint are still buried in the early ‘2000s. People still seem pretty excited to see Pettis fight, but the long layoff has done Melendez no favours at all. We've talked before about how quickly the lightweight division moves, and Gil's best wins have aged badly in this relatively short time. He had a competitive fight with Henderson? Thomson did even better than he did, and Dos Anjos knocked Bendo out. Thomson himself lost to Bobby Green, who then lost to Edson Barboza... Diego Sanchez wasn't even a good win at the time, and he looks no better in retrospect.
It's just very difficult to imagine the aging vehicle of TUF really lending these guys any fan interest that they don't have anyway. In the modern era of hyper-dense UFC consumption, people have no time for the reality show. Building stars nowadays appears to be done via the Conor McGregor route of talking a lot, or the Donald Cerrone route of fighting a lot.
Perhaps this is all unnecessarily cynical though, and viewed through the jaded eyes of the hardcore fan. When I talk to the mythical "casuals" they seem pretty excited, but it's not because of TUF. It's because of the awesome fight between Sanchez and Melendez where Diego punched every cubic foot of air in the octagon before eventually finding one which had some Gilbert in it.
It's Pettis' Showtime Kick vs. Gil's Undercard Boxing. Wait...that makes this matchup sound lopsided doesn't it?
David: I gotta be honest. I still feel like Pettis needs to prove just a little bit more. His last three wins have been quick and sudden, which is great. However, quick and sudden is not synonymous with dominating, and convincing. I'm sure I'll get some hate for that, but it's not about being revisionist, or downplaying Pettis' impressive wins. It's about evaluating the mechanics of victory. After all, his two fights prior were against guys who stuck to a gameplan, and Pettis didn't look pretty in either.
Meanwhile, Gil is as consistent a fighter as there is in MMA. Melendez' style harkens back to my favorite boxers to watch growing up: like Marco Antonio Barrera, who switched between being a boxer first, puncher second. His flurries were informed by his technique, his violent outbursts by his fundamentals. Melendez does something similar (and no I'm not saying Melendez is as good a boxer you one or two twerps). Perhaps this will be the MMA equivalent of Barrera vs. Hamed?
Phil: Good analogy for Gil! However, I'll be extremely sad if Pettis takes the same kind of nosedive from relevance as the Prince did.
David: Of course...this is where you really see the difference between MMA and boxing. Melendez is less likely to be rewarded for his commitment to basics. MMA is inherently chaotic. We like to use phrases like "bar room brawling" to signify a lack of technique, or absence of skill, and yet even fights involving the most skilled fighters become victims of the messy, unrefined principle of fight or flight. I like Melendez' blue collar yet crisp combinations to take over, but an Only the Strong outburst from Pettis can turn it all around.
This is where Gil will have to absolutely take it to the ground. I don't feel he's safe there even though I know he's a talented grappler. But I just doubt his ability to rack up damage and points in top control because Pettis has such an active guard. Any ground exchange will convince Gilbert to rely on his boxing, which he trusts in.
Phil: I agree that top control is an essential piece of the puzzle for Melendez. While Pettis has shown improved takedown defense, he hasn't really shown the second element of elite defensive grappling: the ability to scramble to his feet. Guida was able to keep him down and shoulder bump him for entire rounds. This was what wrestlers like Dan Henderson and Chael Sonnen were occasionally able to do to Anderson Silva in his title reign, by capitalizing on a similar weakness. Get top position at all costs, then stay busy enough to not get stood up, and put that round in the bank.
Pettis has an aggressive submission game from his guard, but I don't think that's a safe or consistent way to win fights in the modern UFC. I just don't, no matter who you are. Hell, Mark Hunt was able to keep top position on Fabricio Werdum for several minutes.
While Pettis was able to catch Henderson, Benson is a notably wild top control fighter, who has made a career out of throwing himself into tight submissions and then somehow getting out again. Melendez is more controlled in top position and was able to hang out in Shinya Aoki's guard with no ill effects. "Tobikan Judan" is (regardless of what you think about JMMA) one of the very best submission grapplers the sport has ever seen.
Can Gil get those takedowns though? I think that both men's fights with Henderson were illustrative, because the protean Henderson played the opponent's role in both cases. Against Gil he was the matador, moving away from Melendez's constant pressure and looking to land kicks and wear him down. This is probably what Pettis will do: whilst he is better as an aggressive fighter, he owns the mid-to-long range in this fight, and Melendez's bubble of efficacy is in the pocket. A big part of the contest will be Melendez's struggle to close in.
Melendez was able to catch the attacking leg and take Henderson down early, but this tactic deteriorated over the course of the fight. "Smooth" was able to put a lot of volume on Melendez, including knocking him down with leg kicks.
Conversely, when Henderson fought Pettis he recognized that he had to avoid giving "Showtime" any room at all. He stayed uncharacteristically aggressive for the opening minutes. The second he gave Pettis any breathing room, Pettis opened up with a blizzard of body kicks.
So what to take from this? To me, it's that while Benson is not as specialized as either Pettis or "El Nino", he was able to be successful fighting like Pettis against Melendez, but was not able to be successful fighting like Melendez against Pettis.
David: Hard to say. Time off could turn into something. Especially for Pettis who hasn't gone past the first round since 2011. Even if you don't believe in soundbite speak like "octagon jitters/adrenaline dump/not fighting enough" that's pretty dramatic.
Phil: Zane Simon has said that he thinks that there is a possibility that Melendez is fading, ever-so-slightly, and I think that he may be right. Gil has been fighting for a long time, with a physically wearing style which has often tended to put him through 5 round wars. While much of the focus has (understandably) been on Pettis's layoff, it should be mentioned it has also been almost 14 months since Melendez stepped foot into the cage.
David: Gilbert is 32. Nothing would surprise me about seeing him win. But I just feel like Pettis is still getting better, and that's just a flat out scary thought. I don't expect Gilbert to fight dumb, but I didn't like what I saw against Diego Sanchez, who yes cartwheeled his way into a knockdown because Melendez thought it would be cool to play to those "Mexican warrior lionheart heartiest" commentary stereotypes. Anthony Pettis by TKO, round 4.
Phil: Gil is unquestionably one of the greatest lightweights of all time, which makes me sad that I'd be so surprised if he actually won this fight. Fundamentally, I think he can win, but he needs to pitch a shut-out against the more offensively gifted fighter. Anthony Pettis by TKO, round 3