Benson Henderson landed four times as many leg strikes as Gilbert Melendez. | Ezra Shaw/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images
Gilbert Melendez tried but ultimately failed to separate Benson Henderson from the Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight crown, his fate determined by two men seated outside the Octagon. Such is the cruel existence of today’s professional mixed martial artist.
Henderson retained his 155-pound title with a narrow split decision over the former Strikeforce champion in the UFC on Fox 7 main event on Saturday at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif. All three judges struck 48-47 scorecards: Derek Cleary and Michael Bell for Henderson, Wade Vierra for Melendez. Cleary gave Henderson rounds three, four and five, while Bell gave him rounds two, three and four; Vierra gave Melendez rounds one, four and five.
Neither man established himself as the dominant figure in the fight. Melendez was the aggressor for much of the 25-minute encounter, but he paid for it with heavy damage to his lead leg -- the result of Henderson’s steady stream of powerful and well-placed kicks.
According to FightMetric figures, Henderson landed more significant strikes in all five rounds and also held the advantage in total strikes in every frame but the second, as the 29-year-old MMA Lab representative exacted his toll with standing elbows and kicks to the upper and lower regions of Melendez’s legs. Moreover, Henderson connected with four times as many leg strikes (44) as Melendez and also outscored him with shots to the body by a 23 to 20 margin.
Though initial plans seemed to be pointing Henderson towards a super fight with the winner of the forthcoming Anthony Pettis-Jose Aldo showdown, it appears as if his next title defense will come against the victor of the UFC 160 clash between Gray Maynard and T.J. Grant on May 25.
Maynard has twice fought for the lightweight championship, battling Frankie Edgar to a draw at UFC 125 in January 2011 before succumbing to fourth-round punches from “The Answer” in their rematch nine months later. Meanwhile, the fast-rising Grant has pieced together a string of four consecutive wins since he shed his welterweight skin and relocated to the 155-pound division. The 29-year-old Canadian moved into the top 10 following his first-round knockout against Matt Wiman at UFC on Fox 6 in January.
In the wake of UFC on Fox 7 “Henderson vs. Melendez,” here are six other matches that ought to be made:
Gilbert Melendez vs. Gray Maynard-T.J. Grant loser: Melendez fell short in his bid to unseat Henderson, dropping a controversial split decision that seems destined to be debated for months. However, in defeat, the 31-year-old Californian erased whatever doubts remained about his ability to compete with the cream of the crop at 155 pounds. A rematch with Henderson may present itself in the not-too-distant future, but until then, Melendez figures to hang around the top of the lightweight division. Maynard and Grant will toe the line against one another at UFC 160 on May 25 in Las Vegas.
Daniel Cormier vs. Mauricio Rua-Antonio Rogerio Nogueira winner: Cormier was effective but unspectacular in his promotional debut, as he repeatedly trapped former heavyweight champion Frank Mir in a bottomless-pit clinch for the better part of three rounds. With longtime friend, training partner and American Kickboxing Academy stablemate Cain Velasquez perched atop the division, Cormier has flirted with the idea of a move to 205 pounds. At 34, he will need to commit to a decision soon, though most agree he has far more options as a light heavyweight. Rua and Nogueira will collide in a long-awaited rematch at UFC 161 on June 15 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
Josh Thomson vs. Jim Miller: No one gained more at UFC on Fox 7 than Thomson, as he became the first man to ever finish “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 5 winner Nate Diaz with strikes. In his first appearance inside the Octagon in nearly a decade, the gifted but oft-injured 34-year-old cracked Diaz with a vicious head kick and put him away with follow-up punches in the second round. The AMA Fight Club’s Miller will lock horns with Pat Healy at UFC 159 on April 27 in Newark, N.J.
Frank Mir vs. Alistair Overeem: Mir had no answer for Cormier’s stifling clinch game, as he lost a decision for the first time in his career. The 33-year-old entered the cage with a renewed sense of purpose under the Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts banner but could do nothing to counter the advances of the two-time Olympian. Still, Mir remains a bankable commodity in a still-shallow division and appears to have plenty left in the tank. Overeem crashed and burned at UFC 156 in February, as Antonio Silva buried him under a vicious volley of punches at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas.
Matt Brown vs. Robbie Lawler-Tarec Saffiedine winner: Once viewed as little more than an entertaining journeyman, Brown suddenly has the attention of the masses following his fifth consecutive victory -- a second-round technical knockout against highly regarded Canadian prospect Jordan Mein. Few can match Brown’s competitive spirit or his willingness to pursue victory at all costs, with aggression and resolve. Lawler and Saffiedine will throw leather at one another as part of the UFC on Fox 8 lineup on July 27 in Seattle.
Chad Mendes vs. Chan Sung Jung-Ricardo Lamas winner: They say one can tell a lot about a fighter by how he responds to adversity. In wake of his January 2012 knockout loss to Aldo, Mendes has finished three straight opponents inside the first round. He made Darren Elkins his latest victim, as he clobbered the resilient Duneland Vale Tudo export with a pair of clubbing right hands and then finished him with a series of unanswered lefts on the ground. Lamas will meet Jung at UFC 162 on July 6. Perhaps Mendes can interest the victor in a 145-pound title eliminator.