For the seventh installment of UFC on Fox, the promotion is headlining with the first major title unification bout since the merger with Strikeforce. This Saturday night, UFC lightweight champion Benson “Smooth” Henderson will be facing off against Strikeforce lightweight champ Gilbert “El Nino” Melendez for the unified and undisputed UFC lightweight title in one of the most stacked divisions in professional MMA.

Henderson, the former WEC lightweight champ who trains out of John Crouch’s The MMA Lab in Glendale, Ariz., is currently riding a six-fight winning streak since entering the UFC. All of his fights under the UFC banner have gone to decision, but only one had a controversial finish, which was his second win over Frankie Edgar in Henderson’s first title defense. His other UFC wins have all been obvious unanimous verdicts in his favor.

Longtime Strikeforce vet and on-and-off lightweight champ for over six years, Melendez is entering the Octagon for the first time. “Promotional newcomer” hardly does any justice to describe the level of fighter Melendez is. Training out of Team Skrap Pack, a Cesar Gracie offshoot, Melendez brings a tremendous stand-up and ground-striking game, consisting of a sort of wrestling-based ground-and-pound attack. This style has earned him a seven-fight winning streak, with three of those coming by knockout.

Both fighters bring quality backgrounds and lots of big-stage experience into the ring for UFC on Fox 7, live from HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif., this Saturday night.

Let’s take a deeper look at the match-up. And as a reminder, this is a side-by-side comparison of how the fighters’ skills match up against one another using similar scoring to the unified rules.

Striking: Henderson – 9, Melendez – 10

Melendez (Paul Thatcher/Fight! Magazine)

As many epic battles as the UFC champ has been in, it’s amazing that he keeps going the distance, but hasn’t knocked anyone out in four years. Henderson is a precise striker, but his punches lack power. His kicks are amazing and he has great flexibility, but, again, he has yet to get a head kick to do a ton of damage. Henderson’s arguably most dangerous attribute in the striking department is his ability to take damage. He has gotten unloaded on by Frankie Edgar and Donald Cerrone, but he maintained his composure better than most.

Melendez, on the other hand, has raw power in his hands. The Strikeforce champ has 11 knockouts in 22 wins and possesses a Mark Munoz style in translating his power-wrestling core into his hands to throw bombs. While Henderson has been able to sustain damage and persevere, Melendez has been knocking out divisional opponents for years.

Both men have speed and accuracy in striking, but Melendez has more power, which matters in a division where title fights have been plagued with decisions. Melendez definitely wins the striking department.

Ground Game: Henderson – 10, Melendez – 9

Henderson (R) attacks with a guillotine choke (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

In a pure submission-grappling game, Henderson wins all day. The UFC champ has proven to be near unstoppable on the ground. Of course, Melendez has never been submitted, whereas Henderson has one sub loss. But if anyone can tap the Strikeforce champ, it’s the UFC champ.

Somewhere in Henderson’s biological family tree, the perfect combination of genes created the actual human “Gumby.” He has been tightly choked, had his arm bent back behind his head in a kimura, and he’s been in every other bad situation, but he always comes out unscathed. Henderson’s flexibility brings a wild card to the game that even a Cesar Gracie trainee would have trouble getting ready for. His flexibility makes him a very sticky grappler who is hard to get away from. He uses the same flexibility to maneuver tight finishes.

Melendez has power and skill in BJJ, but Henderson has a ground-game x-factor that savvy grapplers have not been able to overcome.

Wrestling: Henderson – 9, Melendez – 10

Melendez (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Henderson and Melendez both have backgrounds in wrestling. The UFC champ was an NAIA All-American at Dana College in Blair, Neb., and although the Strikeforce champ was not a wrestler in college, he did wrestle in high school. Melendez is also a longtime training partner and friend of Jake Shields, who has some of the most superior wrestling in the MMA setting.

Henderson’s wrestling is primarily used for takedown defense, whereas Melendez uses his wrestling more from an offensive posture. Melendez uses his wrestling to attack his opponents. Henderson’s offense on the ground is more BJJ-oriented.

Melendez wins in the wrestling game, because he uses his wrestling skills as a hammer, not a shield.

X-Factor

It’s already been alluded to, but the most important x-factor in this fight and the hardest thing to train for is Henderson’s flexibility. It’s literally impossible to choke this guy out or break his arm. He was submitted once, but that was a long time ago and Melendez is not going to win via submission, even if that was his finishing method of choice, which it’s not. The problem for Melendez is that he will go for some form of knockout, and that’s never happened to Henderson either. Henderson’s flexibility is not just in his joints and major muscle groups, but it’s in his brain and everywhere else that matters. He takes hits over and over again, and that’s hard to just call durability. Even though Melendez might be the first to have a really good chance of taking out the champ, it’s important to remember that Anthony Pettis’ kick “heard around the world” didn’t actually knock Henderson out. That fight went to a decision, much like this one probably will.

Total: Henderson – 28, Melendez – 29

Verdict: In the striking and wrestling departments, Melendez gets the edge, but Henderson’s grappling game is far superior, even though Melendez has a great camp for BJJ. However, while Melendez might win on paper, Henderson’s x-factor is a big one. In fact, Henderson’s mental and physical flexibility is quite possibly one of the most dangerous x-factors in the game today. He has taken some of the world’s best finishers to long, drawn-out fights, standing and falling and getting back up, but he clearly wins 90 percent of these exchanges. This one will go to Melendez on paper, but most likely Henderson by decision.

Top Photo: UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

About The Author

Dan Kuhl
Interview Coordinator