Official: Benson Henderson vs Gilbert Melendez

Gilbert Melendez vs Josh Thomson III

Gilbert Melendez vs Josh Thomson III

UFC just made it official, the UFC on FOX 7 card in April will be headlined by a UFC/Strikeforce lightweight title unification bout with Benson Henderson vs Gilbert Melendez. As far as my personal rankings are concerned, Melendez is the legitimate number one contender. It’s a true super fight, as we’re finally seeing the best lightweight outside the UFC come in to fight against the reigning kingpin of the division.

Along with Eddie Alvarez, Melendez is one of the last, highly ranked fighters left standing who built his reputation against Japanese fighters. He climbed up the lightweight ladder by beating Shinya Aoki, Tatsuya Kawajiri, and Mitsuhiro Ishida. It’s also worth noting that early in his career, he fought at featherweight in Shooto, where he beat the legendary Rumina Sato and solid fighter Hiroyuki Takaya.

Some people are critical saying Melendez doesn’t deserve his high-ranking since they thought Aoki, Kawajiri, and Ishida were overrated. But I think that’s some negative revisionist history.

Shinya Aoki had an awesome resume of wins when Melendez beat him. Aoki beat George Sotiropoulos, Joachim Hansen, JZ Cavalcante, Caol Uno, Eddie Alvarez, and Vitor Ribeiro. It it is true that Aoki is one-dimensional but that one dimension is pretty brutal. He tapped Hansen on two separate occasions with a gogoplata and an armbar. He ripped Alvarez’s leg off with a heel hook. Aoki came to America on April 2010, and Gilbert Melendez dominated him for 25 minutes. That’s a quality victory for Melendez.

Tatsuya Kawajiri has fought everywhere –  Shooto, PRIDE, DREAM, and Strikeforce. Melendez first beat Kawajiri on December 2006 in PRIDE, although it was a razor close decision. Years later, Kawajiri beat Melendez’s toughest opponent, Josh Thomson, in very decisive fashion. This was around the time when people were saying that Japanese fighters couldn’t hang with American fighters. Yet Kawajiri sliced through Thomson with grappling, in a way Melendez never did. Then right after that, in April 2011, Melendez KO’d Kawajiri badly in Strikeforce. Kawajiri is a great fighter, so it’s a great win for Melendez.

Mitsuhiro Ishida is largely forgotten by most, but he has a brilliant shot, relentless ground and pound, and good submission defense. He is able to change levels quickly to get a takedown. He was in the top ten for several years as well. Ishida was part of one of my favorite “rock, paper, scissor” trilogies in MMA. What I mean by that is a three person rivalry where they all had something stylistically over their opponent. In April 2006, then PRIDE lightweight champion Takanori Gomi lost to Brazilian Top Team’s Marcus Aurelio via arm triangle choke, ending Gomi’s huge streak (Gomi would win a rematch later, but it was a close decision). Then in the next PRIDE Bushido, Mitsuhiro Ishida defeated Marcus Aurelio via decision with wrestling and ground and pound on June 2006 (making Ishida the top lightweight). Finally, on December 2006, Gomi KO’d Ishida with punches and soccer kicks to return to his throne. Rock (Aurelio), Paper (Ishida), and Scissors (Gomi). Ishida beat Melendez one year after the Gomi loss in December 2007, but Melendez came back to finish Ishida in a rematch on August 2009. I consider Ishida a solid win for Melendez, although it is a legitimate criticism to say Ishida wasn’t as good in 2009 as he was in 2006.

Artistically, what Melendez is most known for is a special kind of rivalry. The way boxing has had its legendary competitive rivalries hasn’t translated as much yet to MMA. I’m talking about trilogies or tetralogies that are revered, recent examples being: Marco Antonio Barrera vs Erik Morales, Rafael Marquez vs Israel Vasquez, and Manny Pacquiao vs Juan Manuel Marquez.

The two notable MMA exceptions, at least in my mind are: Frankie Edgar vs Gray Maynard and Gilbert Melendez vs Josh Thomson. Something about Thomson’s style and pressure have prove difficult for Melendez. Thomson might not be as well-known as his fellow AKA team mates Cain Velasquez and Jon Fitch, but Thomson is a quality fighter too. Thomson beat Melendez for the Strikeforce title in June 2008. Melendez came back to beat him on December 2009 in a “Fight of the Year Candidate”. Then they fought a razor close, competitive “Fight of the Year Candidate” on May 2012. Melendez was awarded the win, and I did think Melendez deserved the decision. However, I would have totally been cool with seeing a fourth fight between the two since some people thought Thomson won.

Whether you feel Melendez is truly the second best 155 lbs. fighter on the planet or not, you can’t deny that he is at least deserving of a title shot and that he is one of the elite fighters in the deepest weightclass in MMA.

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