UFC FOX Saturday returns with a stacked card from San Jose’s HP Pavilion, headlined by two champions in the prime of their careers as UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson puts his gold on the line against the last reigning Strikeforce juggernaut Gilbert Melendez.
In the co-feature, Frank Mir will look to bring Daniel Cormier’s momentum to a screeching halt as he faces the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix champion in a compelling showdown.
Fittingly emanating from the former home of the now-defunct California-based Strikeforce organization, Saturday’s event features numerous Strikeforce standouts making their transitions to the UFC.
Some will fold under the pressure, while others should seize the moment.
Here’s what we can expect on Saturday night:
Main Card (FOX):
Benson Henderson (18-2) vs. Gilbert Melendez (21-2) – UFC Lightweight Title
The UFC lightweight king Henderson returns to FOX for the third time on Saturday as he seeks his third triumphant title defense against the red-hot Strikeforce champion and recent UFC signee Melendez.
A native of Colorado, Henderson, 29, won consecutive decisions over Frankie Edgar last year before capping off 2012 with a unanimous decision over Nate Diaz in December. The trifecta of wins earned him the accolade of being named 2012 Fighter of the Year.
The well-rounded southpaw has been tearing through his opposition in recent years, including victories over Anthony Njokuani, Donald Cerrone, Jamie Varner, Mark Bocek, Jim Miller and Clay Guida. Henderson has the longest active lightweight winning streak, having won all six of his last UFC fights.
A former NAIA All-America wrestler, Henderson is a taekwondo black belt and Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, blending the diverse styles brilliantly inside the Octagon. Henderson utilizes leg kicks effectively, while stifling most opponents on the ground with a stellar base and positional game. Henderson has the second highest takedown accuracy in lightweight history at 65.6 percent.
Competing in his native California for the 15th time in his career, Melendez, 31, is riding a seven-fight winning streak, including victories over Josh Thomson, Jorge Masvidal, Tatsuya Kawajiri and Shinya Aoki.
The BJJ brown belt is a proud representative of Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, training alongside the Diaz brothers and former Strikeforce champion Jake Shields.
Melendez is a highly effective wrestler with dynamic striking and finishing power. His takedown defense rate of 76.7 percent is the fifth best in Strikeforce history.
The Mexican-American has experience competing for the Pride Fighting Championships in Japan, as well as claiming the inaugural WEC lightweight title in just his fourth professional fight back in May 2004.
The most prolific striker in Strikeforce history, Melendez’s 749 significant strikes landed is a promotional record. With the most wins and most fight time in Strikeforce history, Melendez is no stranger to five-round title fights.
In what should be a high-level display of mixed martial arts, Henderson’s superior wrestling, raw strength in the clinch and relentless pressure in the standup exchanges should pay off as he outworks the last reigning Strikeforce titleholder down the stretch, earning a hard-fought unanimous decision after 25 frantic minutes.
Verdict: Henderson via decision
Frank Mir (16-6) vs. Daniel Cormier (11-0)
In a heavyweight contest initially planned for November 2012 under the Strikeforce banner, the former UFC heavyweight champion Mir welcomes the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix champion Cormier to the Octagon.
A UFC staple since 2001, Mir, 33, has always been one of the top heavyweight contenders on the roster with the most wins, most finishes, fastest submission and second-highest submission accuracy in UFC heavyweight history, a testament to his wizardry on the mat.
In career wins over Tim Sylvia, Brock Lesnar, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Cheick Kongo, Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic and Roy Nelson, Mir has demonstrated sublime submission prowess, along with an evolved kickboxing game. Mir also possesses valuable wrestling experience, winning a Nevada state championship in 1998.
Mir set a record in his first fight with Nogueira, dropping him three times to tie the record for most knockdowns in a heavyweight fight. The rematch was arguably even more impressive as he became the first man to submit the legendary Brazilian icon.
Since relocating to Jackson’s MMA in New Mexico, the BJJ and Kenpo karate black belt has taken his training to the next level, working alongside UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones. The southpaw is currently on the rebound trail, having lost his last fight against then-UFC heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos at UFC 146 last May.
Cormier, 34, has taken the mixed martial arts world by storm since joining Strikeforce in August 2010. As a replacement for Alistair Overeem in the heavyweight grand prix, Cormier starched upcoming UFC title challenger Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva in September 2011 before a five-round decision victory over former UFC champion Josh Barnett to win the tournament.
Most recently, the undefeated sensation recorded a second-round TKO over unheralded Dutchman Dion Staring on the final Strikeforce card in January.
Cormier holds records for the most wins, most knockouts and most significant strikes landed in Strikeforce heavyweight history. The freestyle wrestling standout has outlanded every Strikeforce opponent.
Cormier is a former U.S. Olympic wrestling team captain and NCAA Division I wrestling standout. Although wrestling is evidently his strongest base, Cormier has developed dangerous hands under the tutelage of San Jose’s American Kickboxing Academy, where he trains with current UFC torchbearer Cain Velasquez.
Mir has a tendency of folding under pressure in big fights, while the Louisiana native Cormier continues to showcase new tricks in the cage. Cormier will look to use his wrestling to keep the fight standing, seeking a home for his looping power shots. Mir would like nothing more than to turn this fight into a grappling match, and he could attempt pulling guard to make it happen. But Cormier’s defensive awareness and heavy strikes should present many problems for the former champion. In fact, Cormier’s opponents have combined for just one serious submission attempt.
Cormier will maintain constant pressure and land vicious combinations, eventually buckling Mir and finishing him off with a barrage of punches.
Verdict: Cormier via TKO, Round 2
Nate Diaz (16-8) vs. Josh Thomson (19-5)
A compelling lightweight scrap pits the former UFC title challenger Diaz against the former Strikeforce champion Thomson.
Diaz, 28, will be looking to return to the win column after dropping a unanimous decision to lightweight champion Benson Henderson this past December.
The Stockton, Calif.-born BJJ black belt is a longtime student of Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu with notable UFC victories over the likes of Jim Miller, Donald Cerrone, Takanori Gomi and Melvin Guillard.
The rangy southpaw has struggled with consistency against superior wrestlers throughout his UFC run, but his vast striking output stifles most opposition. Diaz set a record for the most significant strikes landed in a single fight when he defeated Cerrone at UFC 141. A consistent crowd pleaser, Diaz has the second most fight bonuses in UFC history at 10 and he’s also attempted the fifth most submissions in promotional history.
With a style similar to that of his brother Nick, Diaz overwhelms opponents with constant pressure and punches by the dozen.
Thomson, 34, hasn’t competed since losing a split decision in his trilogy clash with Gilbert Melendez in May 2012. Thomson’s initial UFC run ended in August 2004 after a highlight reel knockout loss against Yves Edwards.
As a poster boy for Strikeforce, Thomson captured the vacant championship and amassed notable wins over the likes of Melendez, Duane Ludwig, Nam Phan, Pat Healy, Gesias Cavalcante and K.J. Noons.
A BJJ black belt anchored at American Kickboxing Academy, the hometown favorite will threaten Diaz with a strong wrestling pedigree. In addition to being a versatile striker, Thomson is a savvy grappler himself. Thomson holds the record for third most takedowns and fifth best striking defense in Strikeforce history, avoiding 69.5 percent of his opponents’ significant strike attempts.
Despite submitting nearly half of his opponents and owning the record for the most submission attempts in Strikeforce history, Thomson’s grappling should be no match for Diaz, who should also be effective in the standup exchanges.
Thomson will need to implement leg kicks effectively, a strategy employed by both Henderson and Cerrone. They are unlikely to deter Diaz from coming forward, but they will certainly slow him down as the fight progresses.
Diaz will use his 76-inch reach to keep Thomson at the tail-end of his punches, while preparing to sprawl when he shoots in. If Diaz can successfully implement his usual offensive onslaught, he should be favored after three rounds.
Verdict: Diaz via Decision
Matt Brown (16-11) vs. Jordan Mein (27-8)
In the opening main card contest, the underrated grinder Brown attempts to improve his winning streak to five straight against the highly touted young prodigy Mein.
Brown, 32, turned in one of the best 2012 Octagon campaigns with four victories, including back-to-back knockouts of Luis Ramos and Mike Swick.
The judo brown belt and BJJ purple belt always brings the fight to his opponents, coming forward with reckless abandon. Historically, Brown has been susceptible to submissions, but he continues to improve on his weaknesses.
With the most knockouts in welterweight history, Brown clearly possesses fight-ending power, and he’s one of the division’s most durable fighters. His uncanny ability to absorb punishment should serve him well against the dynamic youngster Mein.
With the highest significant striking accuracy and fourth most submission attempts in welterweight history, Brown has proven time and time again that he’s dangerous anywhere.
Mein, 23, made a triumphant UFC debut this past March, overcoming an early submission threat to finish Dan Miller with punches in the first round.
The Canadian prospect made a name for himself competing on regional shows and later for Strikeforce, earning key wins over Joe Riggs, Josh Burkman, Marius Zaromskis, Evangelista "Cyborg" Santos and Tyler Stinson.
Mein’s primary weakness is the wrestling game, as he’s dropped decisions to Jason High and Tyron Woodley, but his kickboxing and grappling are legitimate threats to anyone in the division.
Athleticism and conditioning should be major factors for Mein as we’ve seen Brown tire during gruelling fights. Mein will need to fight intelligently, utilizing defense and counters to batter the aggressive veteran. He should also target the body consistently.
An unpredictable offensive approach should pay off for Mein as he outpoints Brown over the course of three rounds to prevail on judges’ scorecards.