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Retro Robbery Review: Benson Henderson vs. Gilbert Melendez at UFC on FOX 7

UFC on FOX 7 photos
Gilbert Melendez and Benson Henderson at UFC on FOX 7 in San Jose, Calif., on April 20, 2013
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Few things infuriate MMA fans more than a fight being scored incorrectly, though the term “robbery” tends to be thrown around carelessly and is often steeped in bias. With Robbery Review, we’ll take a look back at controversial fights and determine whether the judges were rightly criticized for their decision, or if pundits need to examine their own knee-jerk reactions.

When you go the distance as often as Benson Henderson does, you’re bound to have your fair share of close decisions. During his reign as UFC lightweight champion, “Smooth” had plenty, perhaps none more controversial than his third and final title defense, which took place against two-time Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez.

The two went five rounds in the main event of UFC on FOX 7 in San Jose, Calif., on April 20, 2013, with Henderson emerging victorious. Seven years later, we look back at that decision and discuss whether Melendez should have a UFC title on his mantle in this edition of Retro Robbery Review.

What was the official result?

Benson Henderson def. Gilbert Melendez via split decision.

How did the fight go?

Melendez was determined to push the pace in this one, and what’s surprising is how long it took Henderson to match his energy levels. The defending champion was as springy and evasive as ever, but he seemed hesitant to open up in rounds one and two.

In round one, Melendez earned some top control time after a trip that came from catching a Henderson kick while throwing a right hand. He did a better job, too, of hitting Henderson when they separate, and he really let his hands loose with about one minute to go. Henderson’s signature leg kicks were effective, but Melendez’s headhunting told its own story.

On the broadcast, Joe Rogan said Henderson’s corner told the champ he lost the opening round, and he responded in the second. He picked up the pace and countered well. However, Melendez’s boxing was sharp, and he found a home for a quick looping right he repeatedly threw. He did a good job of forcing Henderson to engage, though it was difficult to tell how many of his power punches landed cleanly.

In rounds three, four, and five, the tone of the bout shifted. Henderson’s activity increased further. The last three frames saw the champ catch Melendez off-balance with leg kicks that sent him stumbling to the mat. It was a strong visual that could have influenced the judges. Outside of those moments, Melendez seemed to have more trouble getting inside without taking damage; Henderson’s weapon of choice was a sharp standing elbow that proved to be reliable. He ended round three in top position from another leg kick sweep.

Rogan chimes in again, saying that Melendez’s cornerman Jake Shields told the challenger he won the first three rounds.

The championship rounds were exceedingly close. Henderson’s infamous “point-fighting” were on full display, in direct contrast to Melendez’s close-out aggression. That said, Melendez’s occasional flurries were countered by Henderson consistently sneaking in strikes throughout the last 10 minutes of the fight. The unofficial on-screen stats showed Henderson had a big advantage in total strikes.

Melendez left nothing on the table. He looked for chances to flurry in the last two minutes, but Henderson kept denying him either by controlling the distance, or stuffing Melendez with short counters and timely clinch work. The staunchly pro-Melendez crowd in San Jose were denied the chance to truly roar as time ticked away.

They booed lustily when Henderson was announced as the winner and continued to do so even as he proposed to his girlfriend after the fight. That’s cold.

What did the judges say?

Michael Bell scored it 48-47 Henderson.

Derek Cleary scored it 48-47 Henderson.

Wade Vierra scored it 48-47 Melendez.

This was a wild one. The good news is that all three judges agreed on rounds one (10-9 Melendez) and three (10-9 Henderson). Figuring out where their heads were at with the rest of it? Cue Zach Galifianakis math gif.

Round two, Bell and Vierra gave to Henderson, while Cleary scored it for Melendez.

Round four, Bell and Cleary gave to Henderson, while Vierra scored it for Melendez.

Round five, Bell and Vierra gave to Melendez, while Cleary scored it for Henderson.

Head hurt.

Adding to that bizarre set of scores, it would later be revealed that Vierra was an instructor at a Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu affiliate. Melendez is a longtime student and representative of Gracie’s gym. Both Melendez and California State Athletic Commission Executive Officer Andy Foster later downplayed any possibility of impropriety.

What did the numbers say?

(Statistics per UFC Stats)

The official numbers differ greatly from what was shown on the broadcast, but still favor the champion by a considerable margin.

Henderson had a double digit advantage over Melendez in both significant (68-43) and total (92-56) strikes. However, if it seemed like Melendez was the busier fighter, it’s because he was. He attempted 191 significant strikes to Henderson’s 166.

According to the numbers, Melendez’s headhunting wasn’t as effective as it looked at first glance, with Henderson holding a 20-16 advantage in that category. Henderson won the body strike battle by an identical margin and had a huge advantage in leg kicks, 28-11.

Statistically, Henderson won the significant strike category every round, pulling away in the last three (15-7, 15-8, and 14-8).

Melendez was credited with the a takedown in round one, while Henderson went 0-4 in that department.

What did the media say?

(Data derived from MMA Decisions)

Of the 13 outlets tallied by MMA Decisions, it was as close as you’d expect with seven scoring the fight for Henderson and six for Melendez.

As far as scoring extremes go, (now the official UFC stats site) went with a 50-48 score for Henderson, while Bloody Elbow saw it 49-46 for Melendez.

What did the people say?

And here the controversy lies.

As the saying goes, the customer is always right, and in this case a majority of fans thought Melendez did enough to dethrone Henderson. The leading fan score on MMA Decisions is 48-47 Melendez (45.6 percent) with 49-46 Melendez coming in third (6.6 percent). That’s 52.2 percent who saw it for Melendez.

In second, 48-47 Henderson drew a respectable 28.2 percent of the vote, with an additional 4.4 percent scoring it 49-46 for the champ. Still, a little less than one-third of the voters thought that Henderson deserved to walk out with the title that night.

How did I score it?

Full disclosure, I distinctly recall thinking Melendez won and went into my review with that in mind. That’s why I was so surprised to see how much Melendez struggled to mount any consistent effective offense.

The aggression was there, as were the occasional flurries. But with the benefit of a more clinical viewing, I could see that Henderson often gave as good as he got (and the numbers back that up, apparently). Still, the first round was a clear Melendez one in my eyes, and I also gave him the slight edge in the second.

Henderson found another gear in rounds three and four, and I couldn’t help but think how bad it looked for Melendez every time he was put on his butt by one of Henderson’s sweeping leg kicks, even if the damage was more superficial than anything else. That sort of thing matters to the judges, and it skewed my view of things as well. I thought Henderson did enough to even the score going into round five.

The last round is a toss-up. Still, Melendez’s attempts to draw Henderson into a firefight were enough to convince me that my initial assessment of the contest was a fair one. I scored it for Melendez and gave him the fight 48-47.

One big factor here is how much you score the leg kicks. Yes, Henderson did a fantastic job of attacking Melendez’s legs, but this felt different than Lyoto Machida vs. Shogun Rua 1 (previously reviewed, in case you missed it), where it was clear that Rua’s kicks had a debilitating effect on Machida. You never got the sense that Melendez was slowing down here, even as his knees, calves, and thighs darkened. Add in Melendez’s crowd-pleasing, home run swing punches, and my gut tells me that Melendez should have won.

Was it a robbery?

This may be the best example of Henderson’s occasionally-derided “point-fighting” style, an approach that has led to a lot of success and a lot of close calls in his career. At no point in this fight was Melendez in any danger of being finished, and yet there was also something so impressive about Henderson calming the attack of “El Nino.”

Henderson’s tactics really aren’t for everyone, which may explain the uproar over this decision and several others that went Henderson’s way. But making an airtight case for Melendez is difficult, especially when you look at the striking numbers—all of which favored Henderson—and how the contest was so open to interpretation that the judges were of three distinct minds about the call. Around these parts, nothing less than an airtight case is necessary for us to break out the ROBBERY stamp.

The final verdict

Not a robbery.


Was Benson Henderson’s win over Gilbert Melendez a robbery?

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