The lightweights get the party started this July 23, 2016 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois.
One Sentence Summary:
Phil: After misspellings, achingly close fights and steroid scandals, it's looking like the last shot at relevance for one of the best lightweights ever, and it's not an easy one.
David: Gilbert Melendez tries to stay relevant and high profile against a very dangerous striker so that hopefully his next sponsor is less likely to lazily misspell his name.
Record: Gilbert Melendez 22-5 Edson Barboza 17-5
Odds: Gilbert Melendez +185 Edson Barboza -225
History / Introduction to both fighters
David: Oh Goblert. The world of prizefighting, and Reebok's grammatical ineptitude was all at your fingertips and you threw it all away over some testosterone metabolites. But we forgive you. Why? Because steroids are awesome, and you shouldn't be judged for it. Unless Malki Kawa is onto something, and estrogen blockers hiding in the punchbowl is a serious concern. Fuck I promised I wouldn't talk about steroids. Anyway, Giblot has had a ridiculous strength of schedule with a misleading 1-3 in his last four, but needless to say, it's not getting any easier. Barboza is a serious man.
Phil: The worry here is that our misspelled hero is on a decline, and that the roids were an attempt to mask it. Further to this,we'd be remiss if we didn't point out that, well... they didn't work. He got outmuscled by Alvarez and thus any benefits from PEDS (which normally, as we know, give you the ability to kill opponents with your bare hands) looked absent. Speaking of Eddie, there was a lot of talk about how he might have been spending the valuable years his prime in Bellator, but I think in retrospect it's more clear that it was Gil, the other big unsigned lightweight, who was spending his prime in Strikeforce. The peak of Melendez' abilities were those three fights with Kawajiri, Masvidal and Thomson, and it's hard to feel that his bouts since aren't a tough, smart veteran doing his best to halt a long and inevitable slide.
David: We weren't surprised by Edson's performance against Pettis thanks to Pettis' unaddressed flaws. But he's playing with house money at this point, and I'm curious to see just how far he'll go. He's an absolute joy to watch, but I'd find greater joy in imagining that he walks around with a clip of getting murdered by Jamie Varner so that he can remind myself he can do better.
Phil: Barboza is a great example of someone who had every reason to collapse, and didn't. People who are as visibly gifted as him are rarely psychologically prepared for repeated setbacks, the kind of which Edson has had in his UFC career. They tend to retreat into specificities of their style, or to flail around looking for new gyms which can immediately fix them up. Barboza's response at every time he's been pushed back has been to put his nose to the grindstone and quietly get better under Mark Henry and Ricardo Almeida; to get a bit more efficient at fighting back at pressure and using his hands, and to remain confident enough that it'll be good enough next time.
What's at stake?
David: Just the usual: fame, fortune, good health, and the USADA cloud.
Phil: This is definitely looking like last chance at elite MMA for Gil. One of the things we're seeing of late is something which resembles the establishment of a de facto senior's circuit, specifically within the miniature ecosystem of the lightweight division. Miller; Lauzon; Sanchez etc. If Gil loses, I think that's where he gets diverted.
Edson is still nibbling around the edges of title contention. He's said he'd never fight Alvarez, but the chance that Alvarez successfully makes consecutive defenses against a lineup of Khabib, Ferguson etc seems a little remote.
Where do they want it?
David: Melendez is the quintessential midrange fighter: neither comfortable as an out fighter, nor comfortable with sustained pressure inside, he finds a happy medium that plays to his strengths. At his best, he's a boxing sparkplug of distance management. He doesn't have a real go-to punch. The key for Gilbert is his approach to combination boxing, which he likes to use as a way into different phases. At his worst, he's a desperation wrestle-boxer. It doesn't happen often though, which is what makes Melendez special.
Phil: Gil is all about the mid-to-close range boxing game. While he's aggressive and has an excellent understanding of distance and the boundaries of the cage, I think there's a slight intermittency to his approach which takes him away from being a true pressure fighter. He works best in medium-length bursts of violence; during these he can counter or stalk, but afterwards he needs a brief moment to clear his head. So, he was able to successfully pressure Pettis and counterpunch against Sanchez, but couldn't quite stick to either gameplan. His jab showed real improvements in the Alvarez fight, and is increasingly the core of his game, backed up by a thunderous cross and uppercut, and he's happy brawling in the phonebooth and working the body. He's excellent from top position, but has struggled to implement it for long in recent years.
David: Barboza is so close to being a truly elite fighter. I realize that's what we always say about fighters with flaws that hold them back, but it's been awhile since we've had the pleasure of watching a fighter who looks so dominant in one dimension that opponents are often forced to deal with. Yes, his kicks are amazing, but the biggest relief to his future is the developing of his boxing. Against Pettis he started throwing a punch he never committed to beforehand: a left hook. Watching a lot of his previous fights, the punch simply didn't exist. I big part of what allowed him to attack with impunity against Pettis is that Showtime simply had to respect that punch when he tried to close the distance. If he can continue adding to his arsenal, he's not just a dangerous specialist in the division. He's a special danger to the division.
Phil: Edson Barboza wants to kick people from a distance. Edson Barboza's opponents absolutely do not want to let him kick them from a distance, because there probably isn't a single fighter in the division who could hang out there. I don't think anyone else kicks as hard and as fast as him. His head, leg and wheel kicks are all pretty vicious, but the crown jewel has to be the switch kick to the body which he throws faster than most fighters can throw a snap kick.
Having such a defined strength means that he's spent a lot of time with his opponents attacking him where he's weak, specifically in boxing range... which means he's gotten rather good there. He's snipped down his prior wild combinations into a concise jab and hook, but can brawl a bit if he needs to. His overall defensive habits have improved out of sight. His footwork has become more efficient, he moves his head more and doesn't close his eyes or flinch when strikes are coming at him, nor does he over-react on takedown feints.
Insight from Past Fights
Phil: Melendez had some success implementing the necessary pressure gameplan against Anthony Pettis, but he wasn't able to make it stick. While the eventual finish came due to Pettis' sub game (something which Barboza lacks), it was punches and kicks from Pettis which panicked Melendez into going for the final takedown. As Barboza proved when he fought Pettis, he has better hands, footwork and composure under fire than the former champ.
David: Go back to any of Melendez' fights in Pride. His boxing has improved (especially his accuracy, which has translated into more pop), but he's basically a fixed Clay Guida. As in, he doesn't have the raw strength to compress his opponent once he takes it to the ground. Fighters like Barboza will always be trouble for him. Doesn't mean it'll be easy. Melendez will be using that Varner fight as a template, which no one since has actually attempted to replicate since. But it does mean both guys will have their flaws laid bare.
Phil: Edson's chin? It was made to look worse than it was by the aforementioned bad defensive habits, but it's never going to be great.
David: Edson's chin is an issue, but not an egregious one. He's been hurt in fights besides the Varner bout, but that's still just one TKO loss on his record. And even then, Varner had to knock him out four times over. Edson may not be durable, but he's tough, and I think his toughness will be all that's needed against Melendez.
David: Melendez will need cracker jack timing. Total concentration. You ready, Gilbert? If Melendez can perfectly time his takedowns, and lengthen his boxing for a better perimeter attack, maybe he can get ‘r done, as Marsha Blackburn would say. But he doesn't have the speed to swarm the way he did successfully against Pettis, who isn't half as adept at avoiding takedowns, and pressure tactics as Barboza. Edson Barboza by Decision.
Phil: Barboza has had a lot of practice fighting back against the exact gameplan that Gilbert needs to implement in this fight. Without a lightning quick step-in, long reach, devastating power or endless volume, Melendez has almost always had problems with strong kickers, whether it's Henderson, Pettis, or Thomson. In addition, in terms of speed and counterpunching acumen, Barboza seems better equipped than any of them to deal with him. Edson Barboza by unanimous decision.