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Strikeforce Title Fight Breakdown: Gilbert Melendez vs. Shinya Aoki

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- With Shinya Aoki's international reputation and a perennial ranking as one of the top three lightweights in the world, it comes as a surprise that oddsmakers installed Gilbert Melendez as the favorite in the Strikeforce: Nashville lightweight championship match.

In a closer look though, it does make some sense.

For Aoki, it will be his first time fighting in the U.S., his first time competing in a cage, and adding perhaps more pressure than both of those two factors, Aoki in some ways has the weight of a nation on his shoulders.

Since the end of PRIDE, mixed martial arts in Japan has dropped in stature, and as SI's Josh Gross writes in a fascinating piece, Aoki is in some ways the last hope of injecting new life into the sport.

How will this affect him in the cage? That, of course, is impossible to predict, but there's little question he's very aware of the importance of this fight for his nation's MMA scene, and that can't rest easy on his mind.

As far as his skill-set goes, it is no secret that he will do whatever is necessary to get the fight to the ground, where he is one of the sport's most imaginative submission specialists, with 14 of his 23 wins coming by way of tapout. He has no issues pulling guard and putting himself into seemingly dangerous scenarios just to have the opportunity to fight on the ground.

Melendez, though, probably comes from the perfect camp from which to train for a challenge like Aoki. The Cesar Gracie fight team is full of submission wizards, from Nick and Nate Diaz to Jake Shields, Melendez has a group of big guys around him who can push him and prepare him for at least some of Aoki's unorthodox attacks, and that should pay dividends should the fight go to the ground. Melendez, who wrestled collegiately, is also competent enough in the wrestling department to ward off some of Aoki's takedown tries.

One thing Melendez will have to guard against is his own over-aggression. He is known as "El Nino" for a reason; he enjoys keeping a fast pace and loves to attack. While a mistake against some fighters will simply result in bad positioning, a mistake against Aoki could lead to a quick finish. So Melendez will need to rein in his own instincts at times and fight at a more controlled pace rather than the blinding fury for which he's known.

If he can do this, he should find success. Aoki is a bit awkward in the standup, and Melendez certainly has the advantage when the fight is upright. If he keeps spacing and distance, it's his fight to lose. Of course, many other fighters have felt that way against Aoki, but soon found themselves on the ground, being forced to submit.

I think that Melendez has just the right combination of the proper training camp and style to give Aoki fits. It will all come down to his discipline. But Melendez realizes the opportunity in his hands. He has taken personally the fact he is not ranked closer to the top of the world's best lightweights, and he knows a win over Aoki will shoot him upward. He trains with a camp that can prepare him for most eventualities, he has the wrestling skills to stop the takedown, and the striking abilities to score points. He's fighting for himself; Aoki is fighting to save a sport.

In some ways, it is the perfect storm for El Nino. Melendez by fourth-round TKO.