Gilbert Melendez didn’t even have to tape up his hands or even fly to Chicago on Saturday to walk away as the night’s big winner. No punches thrown, no kicks landed, and now, no one in front of him. After Benson Henderson barely scraped by a one-handed Josh Thomson, and Thomson said he might retire, Melendez is the de facto No. 1 lightweight contender for champion Anthony Pettis.
No one explicitly said this after Saturday night’s UFC on FOX main event; they didn’t have to. He is simply the best option at a time when one soon will be necessary.
Henderson always was going to have a tough time working his way back to Pettis. He’s already lost to him twice, and last time inside of one round. By his own admission, it was his job to change the minds of the UFC brass. Suffice it to say, they were not blown away by his split-decision victory.
Benson Henderson kicks Josh Thomson during their lightweight fight at the FOX UFC Saturday event at the United Center.
He was at the vanguard of the UFC’s lightweight division almost a decade ago, in the summer of 2004 when he lost to Yves Edwards in a flying headkick knockout that is replayed in highlights to this day. Thomson might have had his chance to work his way back into the title picture except that after that, there was none. The UFC disbanded its lightweight division for two years, and by the time they returned, he was gone.
He would go on to earn some renown in Strikeforce, notably defeating Melendez in 2008 to become the champion, but injuries always seemed to steal his momentum. He broke an ankle. Then re-broke it. He cracked his ribs. There were others, but you get the point.
"I’m like the greatest fighter that never was," he once said in discussing how those injuries robbed him of his prime.
T.J. Grant interacts with fans during a Q&A session before the UFC 161 weigh-in at the MTS Centre.
But then it seemed he might finally have his swan song. He knocked out Nate Diaz and was given a title shot when T.J. Grant was sent to the sidelines. Finally, karma seemed on his side, but the cruel queen left him with a quickness. First he was robbed off the opportunity to cash in his title shot due to Pettis’ injury, and now he was really robbed, losing that top-contender spot for good in a split-decision that outraged many. Oh yeah, and that came after competing for four rounds with a broken hand. If that’s not a snakebit career, throw away the anti-venom, because no one else will need it.
On the flipside there is Melendez, who for all we know was sitting on his couch eating pizza, and yet managed to see himself elevate to the title challenger position. Right now, he’s in the midst of renegotiating a new deal, and his value just went up. Lucky him.
Pettis recently told FOX Sports that he hopes to be back for the UFC’s Fourth of July weekend show. That’s just more than a five-month wait for Melendez, which is lengthy but manageable.
Benson Henderson punches Gilbert Melendez in their lightweight championship bout during the UFC on FOX event at the HP Pavilion.
On its surface, a pairing between Pettis and Melendez is about an attractive a matchup as the UFC can make. Both have exciting styles, with Pettis’ use of flashy techniques and Melendez’s unwavering aggressiveness projecting into a crowd-pleaser. But more important than that is that Melendez is likely to get the shot. Let’s remember that it was less than a year ago when he fought Henderson for the belt, losing in another Henderson split-decision special. If Henderson still held the lightweight gold, Melendez might not be in the situation he is now. Sometimes, things have to break in your favor to get these huge opportunities. This is one of those times.
So Melendez is probably the night’s big winner without lifting a finger or taking a punch. It is sometimes head-scratching that our sport can work this way. That’s why we resort to meaningless little catch phrases like, "It is what it is." All that means is that we don’t know what else to say. That the declaration will have to be its own explanation.
At least Melendez’s overall credentials are beyond reproach. It’s not that he’s not deserving of what he’s about to be given; it’s just hard to accept what Thomson just lost given all that came before it. One-handed and racing time, he deserved better.