For months, all we heard about in the UFC were superfights. Hypotheticals were being played out, again and again, to the point where they were built up into myths. Anderson Silva vs. Jon Jones vs. Georges St-Pierre vs. Superman vs. Popeye vs. Moe Howard vs. Ronda Rousey. Any two elite mixed martial artists who even looked in each other's direction were being matched up by the fans, by the media, by everyone but the actual matchmakers.
That is to say, it was starting to look like the dream matchups were all talk. Sure, we got to watch José Aldo defend his featherweight belt against former lightweight titlist Frankie Edgar back in February, with the UFC even putting "SUPERFIGHT" (actually, "SUPER FIGHT") in big letters on its hype poster. But champion vs. ex-champion is only pseudo-super. And as Silva and Jones and St-Pierre signed up for other title bouts, the fanciful chatter just went poof. No superfights.
Until Saturday night, that is, when Benson Henderson defended his lightweight championship against Gilbert Melendez, the longtime Strikeforce champion at the same weight. OK, maybe there's an asterisk on this superfight, too. With Strikeforce now kaput, Melendez was technically the champion of nothingness. But if you watched the fight, as many millions did during the UFC's seventh network television appearance on Fox, you're probably having a hard time holding back your superlatives.
Henderson and Melendez both fought like champions. That shiny brass-and-leather strap fits around only one waist, though. So after five rounds in which the fighters traded stretches of sustained aggression but neither landed a telling blow or seized a positional advantage to make the cage-side judges' job easier, one man was going to have to take a punch to the gut. That turned out to be Melendez, the champion who was the challenger, as Henderson eked out a split decision for his third successful title defense.
How close was it? Consider the judges' scorecards: All three gave Melendez the first round and Henderson the third, and the other three rounds were a free-for-all. Derek Cleary scored Rounds 3, 4 and 5 for Henderson, Wade Vierra gave 1, 4 and 5 to Melendez, and Michael Bell had the champ taking the middle three rounds. SI.com saw the fight as Bell did, scoring it 48-47 for Henderson.
If the decision had gone the other way? You'd have heard no cry of "Robbery!" from here.
Then again, we would have been robbed of a tender moment. As the decisive score was being read, Henderson brushed away sweat from his forehead, let out a theatrical "Whew!" and, before he'd take a question, told post-fight interviewer Joe Rogan, "I've got to go see about a girl." He followed that
"I'm heartbroken," Melendez later would say in the post-fight press conference. Indeed, this was just the latest heartbreak for the Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu team. Last month, Nick Diaz was thoroughly dominated in his challenge for St-Pierre's welterweight belt. Nick's brother, Nate, was even more soundly beaten by Henderson back in December, and on Saturday night, he was knocked out by Josh Thomson, who'd been last seen dropping a highly questionable decision to Melendez in the final Strikeforce title bout. As for the other high-profile member of the Gracie gym, Jake Shields saw his most recent fight result turned into a no-contest after he failed a drug test. That'll douse team spirit.
None of this is to suggest that Melendez came out of this fight looking like a loser. He didn't have his hand raised, but he certainly validated his standing as one of the sport's top 155-pounders. I've never ranked him as highly as most have; I've downgraded him in part because the seven-fight win streak he brought into this one was accomplished against Strikeforce competition. But that promotion apparently wasn't as B-level as I thought.
On Saturday night, for example, debutantes from the defunct organization fared pretty well against UFC veterans. Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix winner Daniel Cormier grinded out a decision over two-time UFC champ Frank Mir. And Thomson smashed the same Diaz brother who four months ago went the distance with Henderson. (Who would have imagined that a Diaz would lose on 4/20? If you don't understand the significance, ask a Deadhead friend.) For Thomson, who last fought in the UFC nine years ago, the second-round TKO showed that he's right where he belongs.
Not in a title fight, however. UFC president Dana White announced that Henderson's next opponent will be the winner of the May 25 bout between Gray Maynard, who twice challenged ex-champ Frankie Edgar in thrilling fights, and T.J. Grant, a winner of four straight since moving to lightweight a year and a half ago.
No one would have griped, however, if White had instead announced Henderson-Melendez II. (Well, that's not true. There are those in the MMA public who'll find an excuse to gripe about anything.) Anyone who closely watched Saturday night's main event surely saw the potential for an encore. The fighters didn't exactly hold back this time, but both showed a healthy respect for what the other brought to the table, which resulted in more stalking and circling than full-on engagement. Perhaps a second go-round would be a little looser. Perhaps we'd even see a departure from Henderson's string of eight straight decisions.
The champion started slowly in this one, with Melendez the aggressor in the first round and a good bit of the second. But as Round 2 wore on, Henderson found his range with leg kicks and also landed some elbows, none of which significantly affected the challenger (aside from some swelling and redness on his lead leg) but gave the champ momentum. The leg assault continued over the next two rounds, a couple of times even taking Melendez off his feet, if only briefly.
The damage to Melendez might have been minimal, but Henderson was landing more and being hit less. According to FightMetric statistics, the champ landed over 50 percent more significant strikes, 68 to 43, including 15-7 and 15-8 edges in the third and fourth rounds, respectively. Numbers don't tell the whole story, of course. Henderson landed more in every single round, even ones that my eyes saw him losing. But when your punches are connecting and the other guy's aren't, judges notice.
How'd the tide turn? "I took my foot off the gas," Melendez acknowledged, puzzlingly, at the press conference. And by the time he put the pedal back to the metal, it was too late. At least on two scorecards.
However, half an hour after Henderson had had his hand raised -- and had slipped a ring on his girlfriend's finger -- neither man was talking as though their jointly authored story was over. "I'll be seeing Gil again," Henderson said. And Melendez nodded.