Single sentence summary:
Phil: Strikeforce champ takes on Bellator champ as they put their legacies on the line
David: Two guys with a history of prolonged contract disputes try to vent frustrations with punch in the face contest
Gilbert "El Nino" Melendez
History lesson / introduction to the fighters
Phil: Two men with long and well-established histories. Both are already throwbacks in some ways- we won't get well-travelled champions like this in the UFC again. A long time ago Gil Melendez bested Olaf Alfonso to become the first ever WEC champion, snatched the Strikeforce belt from Clay Guida, took fights in PRIDE, Dream and Shooto. He's coming off a tough second-round submission loss to then-champ Anthony Pettis.
David: This is what I'm talking about. You literally just spelled the word "traveled" with two l's. How many times do I have to tell you?! We NEED to hire an editor damnit!
Phil: Until then, we'll have to be extra weary of any further grammatical errors, right? Anyway, Eddie Alvarez is Melendez's shadow. A similar reputation as a well-rounded, guns-blazing action fighter, and a similar meandering path through Japanese and American promotions, culminating in holding the belt of a major US org. However, a glutinous swamp of litigation kept him sidelined for literally years, and he's only had a single fight with the UFC. Like Melendez, he's coming off a loss to one of the three WEC standouts, dropping a decision to Donald Cerrone.
David: This is the worst part about this fight; both men were stripped of a potentially grander narrative in their careers. It's hard to play "what if", but I think they had the styles at the time to be truly elite. Alvarez bursting onto the scene against the then dangerous Andre Dida is still a DREAM highlight. On an unrelated note, don't hate me for this, but if anyone is interested in reading about a Dallas Stars-centric NHL draft, my second home is over here, where I get to recycle my pop culture references in the context of hockey.
What are the stakes?
Phil: These two spent so long fighting under the shadow of the UFC, unable to ever convince anyone that they were truly the best in the world. Now they've both made it to the UFC, and they've both stumbled. It's going to be very, very difficult for the loser to re-establish himself. Both are on the wrong side of 30, with very infrequent schedules. This is maybe an underappreciated factor in how much of a struggle it is for them to transform themselves into UFC mainstays: with only four UFC fights between them, they're powerfully reliant on their past identities.
David: Alavarez and Melendez will be less dramatic versions of Kid Yamamoto: a fighter with a lot of hype outside the UFC, who couldn't hack it in part because his career was already in decline. To their credit, Rafael dos Anjos is champ, and the best contenders are all guys from the WEC. The Lightweight division is fairly wide open, which is kind of atypical. Whoever picks up a win could find themselves in a good position to get one more before the big golden enchilada.
Where do they want it?
Phil: Melendez is likely going to be the aggressor, because that's who he is. El Nino is at his best as a pocket boxer, wading inside behind crisp multi-punch combinations. Essentially, he's going to try to back Alvarez up to the fence where he can break Alvarez's posture, bite down on the mouthpiece and go to work. While Alvarez is the faster outside boxer, Melendez can follow his punches with takedown attempts, or grab for the collar tie and throw knees in the clinch. Gil is a little footslow, but he's surprisingly difficult to hit cleanly with punches. Most of his struggles in the past have come off being worn down by rangy kicking games before he can get inside to work his magic.
David: Melendez was always best at controlled chaos; his combinations aren't always the most technical, but there's always been a technical endgame. Oddly enough, one of the best examples was his most recent against Anthony Pettis. Wading in with strikes just long enough to avoid deadly counters to shift into a takedown. It's a hard sequence for any fighter to counter and is one of the reasons why Gil has only lost to two men he didn't later beat (I'd argue just one).
Phil: Alvarez is a clever boxer. Despite being the outside fighter in the matchup, Alvarez fights from the wider, squarer stance which is normally the pressure fighter's approach (Rumble, Tyson, Foreman et al). However, Alvarez has reverse engineered it in order to play offensive tricks with angles and positioning, stepping into the unconventional soft right hand and mixing it together with a headkick, throwing exotic strikes like bolo punches and looping body shots around the opponent's line of sight and guard. Trying to reconcile his brawler's heart with this intricate boxing has often gotten him in trouble in the past- he still has a reputation for being easy to hit and drop, although I feel as though it's a tendency that he's cleaned up on of late.
David: Everything you said. I've always been fascinated by fighters who seem at war with themselves. Alvarez has that rock 'em sock 'em switch on a boxer's circuit board. However, I don't know that he could have ever really made as a strict counterpuncher, but I do think a karate base would have served him well. He gets a little too cute with that right hand though. He sometimes like to lead with it, then double on it like he's Floyd Mayweather. It often works too, but his instinct to pressure forward is what causes him to get clipped time and time again.
Insight from past fights?
Phil: Melendez has not had a great deal of success chasing down outfighters in the UFC. He eventually got worn down by the fifth round of his bout with Ben Henderson. The Pettis fight was particularly concerning, because it was Gil doing almost everything right, but just looking as though his body couldn't quite keep up with what he wanted it to do.
David: Every now and then both guys turn their bouts into the church carnage from Kingsman. In that particular scene, Alvarez is the last man standing. He's got better raw power than Gil, who can crack, but usually cracks in combination. You could kind of say the same about Eddie, but Eddie has TKO'ed a few more opponents.
Phil: These guys have been fighting for a long time, and they've been in some absolute wars, some of the all-time classics of the lightweight division. One or both could come out looking drastically diminished.
David: Both guys have shown glimmers of decline. The great thing is that they're not slower men as a result, but I still can't shake the image of Gil getting pasted with a Diego Sanchez uppercut. Granted, Diego's rabies-like growl should have alerted him to stay away, but still. Both men would benefit from being more conservative than usual. Their styles lend themselves to activity, and pressure, so even a technical bout would yield a lot of action. But I suspect all of this talk of "Mexican style" will ignite both men to fight the "Mexican way" in Mexico in front of thousands of Mexicans. The winner can then have a corona and a burrito because he really never had a choice.
Phil: Normally I would pick Melendez: given Eddie's propensity for getting dropped, and Gil's ability to pick up takedowns, he seems like the logical pick to grab at least two of three rounds. However, I can't shake the feeling that Gil is on the downslope, that his prime occurred somewhere around the Kawajiri and Masvidal fights. He's getting dropped more than he used to, and Alvarez is getting dropped less. This fight should be amazing, but Eddie Alvarez by unanimous decision.
David: I think the real caveat here is that while both men may not be as durable as they used to be, they're still agile. And Eddie's agility has always been the more impressive of the two, which is what I think will be the deciding factor; his ability to stick, move, and pressure for the eventual, and very entertaining win. Eddie Alvarez by Decision.