How many fights can be the “greatest in history”? Fans and media repeatedly have repeatedly labeled recent exciting fights as “the greatest in history,” but that label is starting to become cliche. It’s either that or we really are witnessing an unprecedented run of the greatest fights in the history of the sport only months apart these days.

This last Saturday, we had Gilbert Melendez vs. Diego Sanchez at UFC 166. Before that, it was Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 165. Before we had those greatest fights in history, we had the likes of Brian Stann vs. Wanderlei Silva at UFC on Fuel TV 8. I’m leaving out several other great fights from the year, which would give us something like 10 fights that hover around “best ever” status.

It’s a direct result of having several UFC events every few months. More events, more fights, more fighters, more chances for thrilling meetings. Yet, the common theme for the fights that we often herald with the greatest praise, at least on a mass scale, are those in which the participants choose to plant their feet and throw bombs at each other. These are fights in which winning doesn’t seem to matter as much as putting on an exciting show that makes everybody happy.

At the end of the day, it can all feel a bit irresponsible on the fan’s part, for being so quick to give a fight lofty praise and forgetting what they believed was so extraordinary when the next great thing comes along, and on the part of the fighter, for putting their career momentum and health on the line in order to please the crowd.

For someone like Gilbert Melendez, losing for the sake of a great fight—and to someone like Sanchez, a fighter not even ranked in the UFC’s top 10—is not the least bit desirable at this stage in his career. He’s already back on track to a title shot after a close decision loss to former UFC champion Benson Henderson, who subsequently dropped the belt to Anthony Pettis. Standing and trading in the off chance that he won’t be the one falling unconscious is one way to get fans excited for his run towards another shot at the belt, but it’s not a smart way to ensure that he’ll make it back to contention.

For the sake of great entertainment, Melendez chose to engage in risky exchanges. To his credit, however, he didn’t do so as recklessly as his opponent. In the midst of those flurries, Melendez was able to land multiple right hands to an ever-susceptible Sanchez face. He wasn’t blindly throwing punches as his opponent seemingly did. Sanchez was wide open to right hands that frequently found their mark. Just look at the pictures of the right side of Sanchez’s head at the fight’s conclusion. You’ll see the giant cut along his brow, which serves as a monument of persistent scarring earned from his other famous wars of attrition. It is sufficient evidence of the damage he endured because he wasn’t doing too well of a job defending against it. We can say that Melendez engaged in a firefight, but he used what worked for him instead of just brawling it out with little regard for defensive or skilled fighting.

Still, we saw Melendez’s willingness to brawl backfire on him in the third round when he was dropped by an uppercut. That’s when we saw Melendez revert back to his wrestling base in order to buy himself some time and clear his head, thus stifling Sanchez’s only opportunity to end the fight. It was a smart tactical move to stay in the fight. If Sanchez, who was on his way to losing a unanimous decision by that point, was able to earn the stoppage win, it would have made for one hell of an ending. But would it have been worth it on Melendez’s part just for the sake of a crowd-pleasing fight?

That question didn’t have to be answered, because Melendez proved why he has remained at the top of lightweight consideration for so long by earning the win. We can call Melendez the better fighter, and it’d be even more accurate to say so because of his ability to steadily maintain success, save for a disputed split decision loss to then-champion Henderson, over the many years of his career.

It wasn’t long ago, before joining the UFC in 2013, that Melendez was a long-reigning champion in his own right for Strikeforce. You can see those many years of being involved in nothing but title fights as part of his aura when he got his hand raised on Saturday. It was there in the way that he lifted and flexed his arms when his name was called in victory, the same way he would after a successful title defense. It’s as if Melendez had to accept the reality that UFC President Dana White wasn’t standing behind him to place a title on his hips. Being a world champion is something that Melendez is accustomed to and something that he’s doesn’t want to be away from for very long. It’s etched into his muscle memory, his very being.

It’s not likely that losing momentum towards another title shot is something that he’s going to gamble away for a crowd-pleasing slugfest in the center of a cage. It’s nice that we were treated to such a great fight and that Melendez got to have his moment in the sun, but he dodged a bullet in round three. His return to wrestling against Sanchez in round three to maintain a safe position answers how serious he is about sealing a victory compared to recklessly putting it all out there. Granted, he didn’t do that for the entire fight, only once he was hurt, but look at his reign of success before entering the UFC and you’ll see that strategically maintaining top wrestling position played an integral part in his past successes.

His gamble to duke it out with Sanchez paid off here, but it is not a scenario we’re likely to see repeated down the road.

Look at the aftermath written on the face of his opponent Sanchez. It seemed like he couldn’t even form coherent speech for the post-fight interview. Whether it was due to the massive swelling to his head and mouth, blood loss or, alarmingly, from the damage his brain sustained over the course of the 15-minute affair, it was apparent that he took a severe beating.

It was a stark reminder of the price that is paid for these kind of battles. I so often read about a fighter having years taken off of their career or the possibility of them losing mental capabilities later down the line for taking too much damage in fights like this one. I imagined that Sanchez’s mumbled speech was the beginning of that scary road.

The cut on his brow. The scar tissue accrued in many other battles that UFC fans have witnessed. I don’t doubt that we’re going to see these things continue to make appearances throughout the rest of his career as physical reminders of the style he brings to the cage. He’s given us plenty of memorable fights in the Octagon, but how many more can he take—or should we feel good about seeing—when the damage is becoming more and more apparent? The glory he gained last Saturday should be something that is praised as special, not as something to be readily replicated often for entertainment. It’s something that is going to take a toll on him later in life. And that’s not something that I need to see happen to him many more times. My satisfaction isn’t worth it.

Yet, Sanchez did have the wits about him to call for a rematch, even though it’s not really warranted. There’s a reason why there were judges in attendance to render a decision in the first place, and a unanimous one at that. Another meeting between the two could be booked on the grounds that the fight was one of the most electrifying in recent memory, but it really seems like something that Sanchez would want more than anybody else. He’s a fighter that currently exists outside of the top 10 and is likely going to watch the best in the division from that distance and from further out as time goes by. To compete in action-packed fights that please the fans is about the best he can hope for in terms of future career highs.

This makes me think that Sanchez’s career now runs parallel to that of Wanderlei Silva. The former Pride champion and one-time terror of the sport of MMA is in his twilight years and desires to put on exciting shows for the glory and the guts before his time in MMA is up for good. That’s why we see him taunting his opponents to hit him during his fights. We see him soaking up the roar of the crowd as they rise to their feet for a bevy of punches and the eventual knockdown. Getting a title or even winning or losing fights doesn’t really matter as much to him, it seems, as being able to thrill a crowd. Even at this point in his career, he’s not past filming his own staged call-outs, as he did with Chael Sonnen as his target at a recent expo. That’s the kind of future that Sanchez is heading towards, for better or worse.

Conversely, we have Silva’s last opponent, Brian Stann, as a great balance to these fighters that revel in leaving it all in the cage. Stann chose to retire from the sport following his loss to Silva in March of this year. Theirs was another “Fight of the Year” (or fight of historic proportions, depending on who you ask) contender that had audiences jumping to their feet as the two combatants swung mercilessly at each other. But, to Stann, that kind of mindless violence wasn’t something that he believed deserved much stock when it came to his career.

Stann’s reasoning was simple. If he can’t keep up with the best in the world, then what’s the point of continuing the cycle of building back up to contendership if he repeatedly keeps faltering? He believed that his health wasn’t worth the risk if he’s not going to be the best against his competition. So he saved his body from physical and mental grief later down the line and decided to hang it up.

But in doing so, Stann also closed the door on possibly being a part of any more fights that will be extolled as the greatest fight in history…for that year…or month…or week. For better or worse.

I wonder if that’s what we as fans want more than anything, for fighters to fight like wounded animals with the kind of ferocity that is damaging to their health. Is that what makes the best fights in history? Of course, there are many more considerations to that question, such as a display of skill, a fight’s meaningfulness, competitiveness, entertainment level and so on. But it just seems like we’ve been calling fights the “greatest ever” with reckless abandon this year, and it’s usually the most violent fights that claim the honor. Saturday’s UFC 166 should remind us all of how petty those notions can be when it comes at the cost of a fighter’s health and career.

Photo: Gilbert Melendez (L) battles Diego Sanchez (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

About The Author

David Massey
Staff Writer

David Massey studied Humanities and Art History at the University of Central Oklahoma. He first found interest in MMA from the first TUF show and has been hooked ever since. He began posting on mmajunkie then submitting Sunday Junkie entries and that began his interest in writing about MMA. Through twitter David found other MMA enthusiasts and began contributing articles to marqueemma.com. He looks forward to growing as a writer and being a part of the sport he loves.