Benson Henderson was once in Gilbert Melendez's shoes, a title-holding lightweight outside of the big show, working to convince the unimpressed that he belonged alongside or maybe even atop the division's top names. That is a fight that is ultimately futile. As a general rule, critics cannot be convinced with statistics and theoretical arguments. This is, after all, mostly a show-me sport. Results matter. To say you are better than me, you must prove it.
Henderson finally gained the chance to do that when Zuffa decided to fold the WEC and add its athletes into the UFC mix, but it was not without some difficulty. The result of his championship win over Frankie Edgar was disputed, and so was his first title defense. But after he got Edgar out of the way, he seemed far more relaxed in his next fight, a transcendent performance in which he out-gunned Nate Diaz in significant strikes by a 124-30 margin.
With the UFC championship firmly in his grasp, Henderson has set his sights both near and far. He has already voiced interest in a superfight with welterweight king Georges St-Pierre, targeted Anderson Silva's record of most title defenses, and voiced a desire to earn the mostly mythical designation of the world's No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter. While Henderson is known to be a humble man in person, he apparently has little room for modesty when it comes to stated ambitions.
If there is anyone with the pent-up zeal to match, it may well be Melendez, a 31-year-old two-time Strikeforce lightweight champion who has for years been considered one of the best fighters to compete outside of the UFC.
In Feb. 2011, Melendez had a chance to chart his future. He chose to stay with Strikeforce, which he considered his home. At the time, Strikeforce was building momentum, with Fedor Emelianenko in the fold, a CBS deal, and a just-announced, loaded heavyweight tournament sparking massive interest. However, unbeknownst to Melendez, Strikeforce management was already in deep talks with Zuffa to sell the promotion.
The ensuing sale would change the course of Melendez's career. Almost overnight, Strikeforce was viewed as a lame-duck and lost its mojo. Meanwhile, he soon became a pawn in an ongoing battle between Zuffa and Strikeforce's broadcast partner Showtime as to who would promote his next fight. For a time, it seemed Zuffa would pull him into the UFC fold, but instead, he was forced to stay in Strikeforce until the bitter end. As a result, he has fought only three times since the transaction, and against not a single top 10 opponent.
From that dark period, he emerges.
Statistically speaking, Henderson (18-2) has the edge in several key categories of the fight. He lands strikes at a higher rate (45 percent to 33 percent), has better takedown accuracy (51-44), absorbs fewer strikes and averages more takedowns. He also has less mileage on his body and has been far more active, with twice as many fights as Melendez since the start of 2011.
Melendez (21-2) is also coming off injuries that knocked him out of two fights in Sept. 2012 and Jan. 2013, respectively. When he steps in the cage at Saturday night's UFC on FOX 7 main event, it will be his first bout in 11 months. Whether there are any lingering effects of the injury and if the layoff will affect him are the undeniable X-factors of the fight.
When Melendez is healthy, he fights at a strong pace, has decent boxing technique and flashes big power, with 11 career knockouts, and knockdowns in three of his last six fights. A former collegiate wrestler, Melendez is capable of using his wrestling for takedowns or to keep the fight standing if he sees an edge there. His versatility in that regard is one of his most important attributes.
Henderson's versatility is on the same level, if not a step above. While his power does not match that of Melendez (he has only two knockouts), his rapidly improving striking game has about caught up to his wrestling background. Henderson's offense isn't overly reliant on any one thing. He manages distance well, liberally uses kicks to weaken his opponents' base, and shows excellent top control and guard-passing abilities upon taking it to the mat.
Of all of this that they bring to the table, I see Henderson's low kicks as potentially the fight's key strike. It is a significant weapon for him, but as a southpaw against an orthodox fighter, it is also a source of danger that when mistimed, can send him square into the force of a Melendez right hand. It is especially hazardous against Melendez, because he rarely checks kicks, usually favoring the ability to stay in his striking stance to uncoil a counter. Since Melendez isn't a particularly long fighter and Henderson generally maintains his defensive balance, the dynamic slightly favors the UFC champion.
There are other phases of the fight that will bear watching. The clinch favors Henderson's knees, elbows and strength while the ground game also edges the champ's way, given how he's dominated jiu-jitsu black belts like Jim Miller and Melendez's teammate Nate Diaz. Melendez, a brown belt, has never been nearly the ground threat that his Team Cesar Gracie mates are renowned for, with only one career submission on his ledger, which came from not a choke or joint lock, but due to strikes.
In a way, that might be a good thing for Melendez, because he won't spend time hunting for a submission against Henderson that's not likely to come. Instead, he'll try to get back to his feet, where he probably has his best chance at winning.
The final realm of battle may come from the scramble, those 50/50 positions that often swing momentum. Again, I see this position for Henderson, who would be a black belt in it if such a designation existed.
All of this makes it sound as if I'm expecting some route for Henderson. I am not. Some of these advantages are fairly small. In addition, Melendez's power edge is sizable. Remember that in addition to his memorable knockdown at the feet of Anthony Pettis, Henderson has also been dropped by Edgar and Glay Guida, opponents not known for their one-punch power. He has also at times been content to firefight with opponents in situations where it didn't benefit him. Melendez would probably welcome such sequences, and may even attempt to force them through aggression.
Henderson's fight IQ seems as though it is still on the rise. With Melendez sidelined for so long, it's difficult to project how exactly he will be changed, and whether it will be for better or worse. In that instance, I take the known commodity, Henderson via unanimous decision.