At the highest level, mixed martial arts matches are often won in the margins. Slipping punches. Evading takedowns. Footwork. Conditioning. It's the little things that make the difference between victory and defeat, and sometimes they are difficult to discern, even for the most educated viewer.
At Saturday night's UFC on FOX 7, the lightweight championship matchup between Benson Henderson and challenger Gilbert Melendez was one of those kinds of fights. Each athlete primed and ready, aggressive and technical, countering and reacting.
That made scoring rounds a nightmare. Melendez got in the champ's face early, establishing his threat. Henderson used a kick-heavy offense trying to slow him down. It was action and adjustment, and the razor thin rounds flew by.
In the end, the judges saw could not come to a unanimous choice, but selected Henderson as the split-decision winner.
Judges Derek Cleary and Michael Bell scored it for Henderson 48-47, while Wade Vierra disagreed, calling it 48-47 for Melendez. The crowd, rooting for hometown fighter Melendez, disagreed vehemently.
But even within those scorecards, the judges saw things differently.
While all the judges unanimously saw the first round for Melendez 10-9, the rest of the fight was all over the map. Cleary scored round two for Melendez, but then rounds 3 thru 5 went to Henderson. Vierra saw rounds 2 and 3 for Henderson, but round 4 and 5 for Melendez. Bell saw rounds 2 thru 4 for Henderson, and round 5 for Melendez.
FightMetric statistics counted significant strikes in Henderson's favor by a total of 92-56. Henderson landed more strikes in four of five rounds, although in two rounds, the difference was six strikes or less. Melendez scored the fight's only takedown.
Part of the difficulty in scoring the match was that neither man was able to put the other in any significant danger, or even in any bad spots. Even Melendez's one successful takedown saw Henderson back on his feet in seconds.
Melendez (21-3) did have the bridge of his nose bloodied somewhere around the fourth round, but it was superficial and never put the bout in jeopardy of being stopped.
While Melendez came out aggressively from the opening, he slowed ever so slightly near the middle of the fight, and the loss of energy might have cost him. That allowed Henderson (19-2) to return to his kick-heavy offense and land more regularly. Early in the fight, Melendez was catching those kicks and threatening with takedowns.
Melendez had his moments with flurries in which he was hunting with his big right hand, but Henderson handled everything he could muster.
Henderson did get one unanimous decision during the night. After the bout and inside the cage, he proposed to his girlfriend Maria, who quickly accepted.