UFC on FOX 7 preview: Former Strikeforce fighters get their time to shine


ufc-on-fox-7-poster.jpgAlthough Strikeforce fighters began migrating en masse to the UFC three months ago, when the promotion was shuttered after more than a year on life support, the idea of fight roster vs. fight roster still holds symbolic sway over UFC on FOX 7.

Three of the event’s four main-card card fighters will make their octagon debut at the event after decorated stints in the Strikeforce hexagon, and they’ll do it in Strikeforce’s former hometown and arena.

UFC on FOX 7 takes place Saturday at HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif., where Strikeforce held more than a dozen events, including a then-record turnout for their first major MMA show at the arena.

Most notably, the shuttered promotion’s long-running lightweight champion, Gilbert Melendez (21-2 MMA, 0-0 UFC), gets his long-awaited chance to prove he’s the best in the world when he meets UFC lightweight champ Benson Henderson (18-2 MMA, 6-0 UFC) in the network-televised main event.

In the co-main event, Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix champion Daniel Cormier meets ex-UFC champ Frank Mir in a bout rescheduled from this past November. And in a featured contest, former Strikeforce lightweight champ Josh Thomson meets recent UFC title challenger Nate Diaz.

Talent rosters no longer are separated by competing interests, though Saturday’s event still offers what is perhaps the best measure of their respective abilities by pitting the best of the two opposing divisions against each other.

Despite fighting outside the UFC for the bulk of his career, Melendez has occupied a spot on best-of lists for longer than Henderson has been champion. But he’d never been able to stake claim as the No. 1 lightweight in the world under the Strikeforce banner. His better-known and better-promoted UFC counterparts sucked up all the air at the top, which relegated him to the role of many standout fighters competing in rival promotions: an also-ran.

Melendez’s body of work, which includes his current seven-fight win streak, and champion status give him the necessary credentials for an immediate title shot, though he is still a significant underdog leading into the fight. Henderson is a 3-to-1 favorite in most betting lines.

A standout wrestler from his days at San Francisco State University, Melendez has built into his game sharp boxing and kickboxing skills through years of practice in muay Thai. But his signature strength in the cage is his ground and pound, which has helped him best such fighters as Clay Guida, Shinya Aoki and Tatsuya Kawajiri.

The key question leading into the matchup is whether Melendez will be able to match Henderson’s wrestling ability when the two inevitably lock up in the center of the cage. Henderson, a wrestler at Dana College, has been able to muscle the bulk of his foes to the mat, where he also excels at ground and pound. Melendez hadn’t faced as many top-tier wrestlers during his tenure in Strikeforce, so his ability to stay on his feet or nab a takedown could play a huge part in his success or failure.

On his feet, Henderson leans heavily on his kicks to score points and keep opponents at distance. Melendez fights better when he’s in close, so he is expected to work to get inside to land big shots. Much has been made about Henderson’s size leading into the fight, but the two are virtually identical in height and reach. The UFC champ, however, tends to use his size more strategically in fights.

Statistically, Henderson carries advantages in striking accuracy (45 percent to Melendez’s 33 percent) and takedowns landed (3.2 per fight to Melendez’s 1.9), though on paper, Melendez has slight leads in takedown accuracy (71 percent to 67 percent) and striking defense (66 percent to 63 percent).

Those figures, however, don’t necessarily reflect what might be an advantage in punching power for Melendez, who has stopped the bulk of his foes with his fists, and the submission savvy of Henderson, who’s won most fights by tapping out his opponents.

Melendez, then, could be need a big punch early to swing things in his favor. Henderson just needs to grind it out.

Other main-card fights:

Daniel Cormier (11-0 MMA, 0-0 UFC) vs. Frank Mir (16-6 MMA, 14-6 UFC): This heavyweight matchup originally was scheduled to headline an ill-fated Strikeforce event set for this past November. Mir, however, was forced to withdraw with a knee injury, and Cormier went on to earn an unspectacular win over Dion Staring in Strikeforce’s final show. Not much has changed about the matchup in terms of what both men bring to the table. Mir’s striking is superseded by his ability to catch and submit opponents on the ground while Cormier brings heavy hands and a stellar wrestling game to any fight. Much has been made of Mir’s move to Greg Jackson’s MMA mecca in Albuquerque, N.M. And certainly, a highly motivated Mir is more of a danger to Cormier, whose previous tangle with a submission expert, Josh Barnett, didn’t present a complete picture of his skill in getting out of holds since Barnett broke his hand in the first round of their fight and couldn’t grip. As with most Mir fights, the danger will peak in the first round of the fight, when both men aren’t soaked with sweat. Cormier is likely to keep distance and work to pick apart Mir from distance since the former UFC champ has consistently proven himself a slow starter on his feet. And with small gloves, that’s proven devastating against big punchers. Cormier is just that, so if he’s able to stay out of danger early, he should take the fight handily.

Nate Diaz (16-8 MMA, 11-6 UFC) vs. Josh Thomson (19-5 MMA, 2-1 UFC) : Onetime lightweight title challenger Diaz returns after a failed bid for Henderson’s belt, and he comes into a fight with Thomson with eyes already on the welterweight division, where he’s previously competed. Both divisions have well-established glass ceilings for him, but Diaz would be wise not to underestimate Thomson, who’s a UFC vet, former Strikeforce champ, and consistently underrated fighter. Thomson handily beat current contender Melendez in 2008, and many believe he beat Melendez again when they fought a third time this past May. Thomson is faster and more unpredictable than Diaz, who tends to lumber forward with punches like his older brother, UFC contender Nick Diaz. Thomson has never been tapped out in an MMA fight, and his wrestling skills are just the kind of thing that could stymie Diaz. But in any case, Diaz always has the chance to take home the victory. If Thomson obliges him in a standup boxing match, or gets careless on the mat, he could be in for disappointment. And there’s no telling how the experience of being back in the octagon will affect Thomson. But the close betting lines in this fight are an accurate reflection of a closely matched fight.

Matt Brown (16-11 MMA, 6-5 UFC) vs. Jordan Mein (27-8 MMA, 1-0 UFC): Welterweight Brown, who originally was scheduled to meet Dan Hardy before the Brit’s Wolff–Parkinson–White syndrome put him on ice, is just the kind of tough vet to halt Mein’s rise. That is, if Mein weren’t a faster or more explosive version of him, which he demonstrated against Dan Miller. Then, Mein showed off his defensive grappling chops, but it’s likely he’ll put his offensive ones to use against Brown, whose heavy hands are offset by poor submission defense.

The full UFC on FOX 7 card includes:

MAIN CARD (FOX, 8 p.m. ET)

  • Champ Benson Henderson vs. Gilbert Melendez – for lightweight title
  • Daniel Cormier vs. Frank Mir
  • Nate Diaz vs. Josh Thomson
  • Matt Brown vs. Jordan Mein

PRELIMINARY CARD (FX, 5 p.m. ET)

PRELIMINARY CARD (Facebook, 4 p.m. ET)

For more on UFC on FOX 7, stay tuned to the UFC Rumors section of the site.

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