Jeremy Lambert: This weekend is not about UFC vs. Strikeforce. It’s about the two fighters in the main event battling to see who the best lightweight in the world is. It’s about a highly touted prospect looking to secure a title shot against a former champion, hoping for one last run at glory. And it’s about two lightweights, who just came up short in their recent bids to become champion, fighting back up the ladder.
Ben Henderson, Gilbert Melendez, Frank Mir, Daniel Cormier, Nate Diaz, and Josh Thomson are six of the best fighters in the world. It doesn’t matter where they were fighting a year ago, it matters where they’re fighting now. And right now, this weekend, these six men will be fighting in front of millions with a chance to raise their stock to an extra level.
All three fights promise a certain level of excitement, with both lightweight bouts having a chance to make a few “fight of the year” lists and the heavyweight bout could end in brutal fashion. All six fighters have something to prove, not because of where they were six months ago, but because of where they are now.
Samer Kadi: Despite multiple successful showings on FOX, the UFC has yet to have that defining “breakthrough” show. After initially struggling to find a winning formula, both the UFC and FOX seem to have settled on the kind of cards they want to be putting on. For the third event in a row, the network will be home to a championship bout in one of the UFC’s lighter weight-classes. The move is not without its logic, as sub 170 lbs. divisions have struggled to draw on PPV – with the exception of BJ Penn’s title reign at 155 – which unfortunately enough, meant that some of the most exciting talents in the world are just not receiving the exposure they truly deserve. Thankfully, providing them with such a huge platform ensures otherwise.
Recent ratings have been encouraging, and Demetrious Johnson’s title defense against John Dodson pulled some surprisingly strong numbers, but the UFC is still waiting for its “Griffin vs. Bonnar” moment on FOX. The fight wouldn’t have to be as wild or have the same impact (the UFC is far more established at this point, and thus wouldn’t need it as badly), but it needs to be the sort of contest that forces people to take notice.
Ben Henderson could well be one of MMA’s most consistently reliable performers. At worst, an “enjoyable” fight is all but guaranteed when “Smooth” is involved, and depending on the opponent, the level of enjoyment would vary. With the right dancing partner, Henderson produces classics. His first bout with Donald Cerrone could well be the greatest in WEC history, and it is the sort of action on which the now best lightweight in the world built his reputation. Nate Diaz lacked the wrestling to keep up with the smooth one, and the bout was therefore too one-sided to be a classic. However, in Gilbert Melendez, Henderson will be squaring off with someone who will make it far more competitive, and consequently, far more entertaining. Unfortunately for “Bendo,” this also means he’s facing a significantly greater threat to his title — perhaps his biggest to date.
Jeremy Lambert:It’s nearly impossible to come up with the last Ben Henderson fight that was below average. Even in dominating performances against Mark Bocek, Jim Miller, and Nate Diaz; Henderson’s relentless pace and activity, along with his opponents’ durability, keep fights entertaining from opening to closing bell. The case should be no different on Saturday when he faces Gilbert Melendez, another fighter known for producing exciting fights and one that should be able to challenge Henderson on the same level that Frankie Edgar did on two separate occasions last year.
Melendez brings a well-rounded style to the cage, and while he may not have the speed and movement that Edgar brought to the table against Henderson, he brings more power and strength with him. Like Henderson, “El Nino” also pushes a strong pace. While he’s been criticized for his recent performances, let’s not forget the circumstances. The final Strikeforce lightweight champion coasted in his final bouts in the company as he had nothing to gain from them and everything to lose. Don’t expect to see the same Melendez on Saturday, where he has plenty to gain, most notably the UFC lightweight strap.
Henderson vs. Melendez could end up being everything the UFC has wanted from their FOX main events. A back-and-forth fight between two established fighters with everything on the line that showcases all facets of the sport. And unlike the last two title fights on FOX, this bout won’t have to follow the destruction of a well-liked MMA legend possibly competing in the octagon for the last time.
Samer Kadi:Beyond the stylistic appeal of the match-up, what makes Henderson vs. Melendez so special is simple: it is a contest pairing the undisputed top 2 lightweights in the world to determine who is the best in the division – a scenario that the 155 lbs. weight class seems to be able to produce on a far more consistent basis than any other division. There is huge value in crowning the division’s kingpin in front of such a wide audience, and the UFC should be commended for giving the lightweights this platform once again.
As is the case for most of their FOX outings, the UFC wisely opted for a relatively stacked main card. The co-main event, pitting Frank Mir against Daniel Cormier, is a highly interesting heavyweight match-up, which could grant the winner – provided it’s Cormier – a title shot. However, the real question is, for what title? Given that Cain Velasquez is all but guaranteed to reenact last year’s decimation of Antonio Silva when they square off again, a win for Cormier means he will be facing the possibility of challenging his friend and training partner for the title – an unlikely proposition that both parties were quick to shoot down – or dropping down in weight to take on light heavyweight Jon Jones after his inevitable victory over Chael Sonnen.
There is little point in debating the logic behind the latter scenario, as unwarranted title shots have been somewhat of a norm lately, but there is consolation in the fact that Cormier would be a genuinely interesting opponent for “Bones.” Unfortunately, significant weight cutting has previously taken its toll on Cormier, who missed out on a potential Olympic gold medal due to kidney issues. If the AKA standout can drop down in weight-classes and be healthy, he would be a welcomed breath of fresh air in a division that is quickly growing stale.
Jeremy Lambert:There aren’t that many great heavyweights in MMA, but Daniel Cormier is one of the few. His strong wrestling background, excellent cardio, and improved striking put him on the same level as Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos. So it’s actually a shame that a victory would earn him a title shot in a different division, but such are the circumstances.
Frank Mir is the perfect foil for Cormier. He talks a big game, is well known, and still has cache as a former champion. And when Mir goes down, he goes down dramatically. Following his impressive run through the Strikeforce Grand Prix, Cormier’s final impression in the organization was less than stellar. Mir all but ensures a great UFC debut for Cormier, pending he ends up on the right side of the decision. With his propensity for ripping off limbs the second he grabs a hold of one, Mir is a huge threat on the ground. But his lack of wrestling and papier-mâché chin, make the former Cowboy a prohibited favorite to not only put the former UFC champion away, but put him unconscious.
If the main event doesn’t steal the show, safe money is on Nate Diaz and Josh Thomson taking that honor. Diaz challenged for the UFC lightweight strap in December, and even though he came up short, his volume striking, active ground game, and durability make him a tough out for anyone in the sport. Like Diaz, Thomson was on the wrong end of a decision in his most recent bout for the Strikeforce title, but many feel that he should’ve won that fight, and when he’s not sidelined with an injury, Thomson is as game as they come in the division.
Samer Kadi:Thomson’s bout with Diaz may not have short term title implications due to each of the participant’s recent losses to Melendez and Henderson respectively, but it will absolutely keep the winner near the top in an ever volatile division. Thomson’s history of injuries have somewhat derailed his career, but he remains a worthy addition to a division in which many are dropping down in weight. If Ben Henderson is as reliable as they come when it comes to performing, then Nate Diaz isn’t too far behind, making this card arguably the most exciting FOX offering to date, and one with huge potential.
The UFC may not have had that homerun show on FOX yet, but if the top 3 fights come close to living up to their potential, expect a lot of praise Sunday morning.