Benson Henderson (18-2, 6-0 UFC) vs. Gilbert Melendez (21-2, 0-0 UFC)
Henderson will defend the UFC Lightweight Championship for the third time in the night’s main event. He successfully defended the title against Nate Diaz at UFC On FOX 5 in December in his backyard of Seattle; now he heads to the challenger’s backyard to defend against Melendez. Melendez was the last Strikeforce Lightweight Champion, fighting in San Jose for the ninth time with a 7-1 record going into the fight.
Fight Breakdown- This could go down as one of the great fights of 2013 when all is said and done as both men are accustomed to putting on great fights when they step into the cage. Henderson has improved with every appearance inside the Octagon, and he is coming off of his most complete performance in defeating Nate Diaz in December. Melendez is fighting for the first time in the UFC and he has been regarded as the best lightweight in the world to never fight in the UFC. Melendez survived a tough fight against Josh Thomson in May, a fight that could have gone either way, but Melendez admitted it was hard for him to get excited about fighting Thomson for the third time. He has been battling a knee injury since the fight, one that has forced him out of a fight against Pat Healy on two separate occasions.
Melendez likes to push the pace of a fight and outwork his opponent on the feet. He has a solid jab that he uses well to work in his attempts for a takedown, and he is full-on with pressure throughout the fight as he excels at landing multi-punch combinations inside the pocket. Henderson has improved his striking, and while Melendez is the better puncher of the two, Henderson can mix it up with leg kicks and knees that will keep Melendez’ punch volume at a light level. Henderson consistently lands kicks and knees to the body and legs of his foes, using them to wear opponents down for the later rounds. Melendez will need to work his footwork at a high level and change levels with his striking to keep Henderson from landing kicks. An extended striking battle pushes the fight slightly in the favor of Melendez.
Wrestling and submission attempts could play the biggest factor in this battle. Melendez is better at taking down opponents than his partner, Diaz, is, but Henderson has incredible athleticism and upper-body strength. Henderson is very tough to get down to the mat, and he has a very tight guillotine choke that can make opponents tap out quickly. Henderson is also impossible to submit, so Melendez should look for quick takedowns and to create scrambles, hoping to land some strikes as they get back to their feet. The impossibility to submit Henderson allows Henderson to take more chances on the ground, and he will be looking to open up his ground-and-pound and look for submission attempts of his own. Henderson is also very strong in the clinch as he uses his strength to get the advantage of his opponents, and he lands knees to the body well and he really pressures his opponent to wear down their cardio.
Conditioning should not be a problem for either man. Henderson has gone 25 minutes in three straight fights, and five times overall while Melendez has gone 25 minutes in four of his last five fights, and six times overall in his career. Melendez will need to control the fight by outpacing Henderson with his striking and by creating scrambles. His recent knee injury may hinder his wrestling and conditioning more than it has in the past, but a chance to win UFC gold should will him through it. Henderson needs to use his strength and attacks to the body and legs to outpace Melendez, and he will need to control the wrestling to take the fight. Henderson is a three-to-one favorite in this fight, but it is more evenly matched than the odds show. We are likely going to see a battle of attrition as the fight will probably go the full 25 minutes, and the fighter who can control the pace will take home the gold.
Why It Matters- Henderson is looking to cement his legacy in the UFC’s lightweight division and continue his climb up the pound-for-pound rankings. Henderson has briefly flirted with the idea of challenging Georges St. Pierre at some point down the road, but he still has a list of challengers at 155 pounds should he get by Melendez. Another impressive showing on the big stage of FOX could send Henderson even further into superstardom.
Melendez is out to prove why he is the best lightweight to never compete inside the Octagon. He has beaten up on some competition that may not have been at the same level of his upcoming UFC counterparts, as Shinya Aoki and Tatsuya Kawajiri haven’t lived up to expectations fight in the United States, though his wins over Josh Thomson show he can beat some of the toughest in the world. Melendez has always been knocked around as being a top-three lightweight- he wants to prove he is the best lightweight in the world.