Gilbert Melendez [21-2] - Benson Henderson [18-2]
What a tough career Gilbert Melendez has had. Widely considered one of the best lightweights in the world, Melendez will be facing off against Benson Henderson this Saturday on UFC on Fox 7. But the man who has amassed a streak of seven victories since 2008 and resides in many people’s pound for pound lists still feels he has a lot to prove. And why wouldn’t he? Seven wins is a fantastic accomplishment, but when they all took place within the confines of the now defunct Strikeforce — an organization many considered the minor leagues of the sport, it’s hard not to develop a chip on your shoulder.
Therefore, Saturday will be Melendez’s UFC debut. While it may be fun to frame the matchup as UFC vs. Strikeforce, or the fact that Henderson was many people’s Fighter of the Year last year, instead Saturday is about one thing: How good is Gilbert Melendez now that he is finally fighting in the upper echelons of his chosen craft?
One thing fans should expect is a fight that goes the distance. For starters, all three of Henderson’s title bouts have gone the distance. If there is one thing that Henderson is synonymous with other than conditioning, it’s waiting for the judge’s decision. As for Melendez, four of his last five appearances were also full five round affairs. One thing that’s certain is that Melendez was able to study Henderson up close when he fought his Cesar Gracie stable mate Nate Diaz, and who was overwhelmed by Henderson thoroughly.
Melendez, who sometimes relies on heavy strike output and flurries, much like Diaz, will need to find a way to get into a rhythm. It was something that Diaz was unable to do but could be a key to the fight. The alternative is to wrestle. But whereas Melendez’s wrestling skills would be an attribute in any other fight, he’s facing a man known in MMA as being impossible to submit an unquestionably daunting prospect.
Fans should expect an engrossing chess match ending in a possible stalemate. It might be up to the judges to decide yet again.
Daniel Cormier [11-0] - Frank Mir [16-6]
In yet another Strikeforce vs. UFC matchup, heavyweights Cormier and Mir will take each other on in a fight that was originally supposed to take place under the now non-existent Strikeforce banner. Instead Cormier gets to test his undefeated skills against the old, savvy and veteran Mir.
Cormier, who is a stable mate of Cain Velasquez, the reigning UFC champion, is unlikely to face his teammate. So fans should enjoy Cormier while he makes the briefest of visits to the biggest of divisions. Mir has a granite chin and will need it against Cormier’s cannonball fists. And while Mir is capable of withstanding punishment, he’ll undoubtedly look to bring the fight to mat, given his limitations in being able to stand and trade with the biggest of boys. One only has to look at his knockout loss to Junior dos Santos to see that adding an upright game to his arsenal would do wonders for Mir.
As for Cormier, sure, he’s a great wrestler, but why go to the mat when you can tempt your opponent into standing and trading. Cormier is nearly impossible to take down, which will prove to be the greatest obstacle for Mir, and he’ll likely proceed to throw bombs in Mir’s direction. Fans should expect fireworks with Cormier being the one to light the ignition.
Nate Diaz [16-8] - Josh Thomson [19-5]
If there is anyone who should have a game plan on how to beat Thomson, it’s Diaz. Diaz’s good friend and stable mate Gilbert Melendez fought Thomson three times and defeated him twice, most recently in his last outing as a Strikeforce fighter. Thomson is a great fighter, a veteran, but a blueprint must surely have been given to Diaz by his friend and fellow Cesar Gracie on how to get past his opponent on Saturday.
Diaz is known as a volume puncher, and against Thomson it will be the key to victory. For Thomson meanwhile, the hope is to break up Diaz’s striking much in the same way Benson Henderson was able to do so in his rout of Diaz.
Diaz will look to engage Thomson in a firefight, knowing his strategy of taking blows to inflict blows often pays off. As for Thomson, a fight on the ground works well to his strengths and will cause Diaz definite problems if he succeeds. Both guys have tanks that can carry them for good few rounds, meaning that a fight of any possible outcome is possible.
Igor Guryashkin is a freelance journalist whose extensive work on combat sports has been featured in ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. He splits his time between New York and Louisville. Follow him on Twitter @IGuryashkinESPN.