Josh Gross
Sunday December 20th, 2009

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Josh Thomson and Gilbert Melendez needed 25 minutes to determine the Strikeforce lightweight championship when the Bay Area lightweights met in the middle of 2008. Eighteen months later, the world-class pair again went five rounds in the HP Pavilion, this time in one of the best fights of year -- only this time with different results.

Though Thomson (16-3) dominated the first contest -- a title-seizing unanimous decision awarded for his impeccable timing, ring generalship and proper counter-fighting -- he was unable to measure the former champion in the rematch. Instead, Thomson took part in one half of a war that rendered furious exchanges, knockdowns and wild sequences.

"The first fight he kept coming and we kept countering, so there was always active movement," Thomson said. "But this fight, the pace was a little bit slower but when we did throw it was hard. It was stand toe-to-toe, go hard and someone was getting hit. To be honest, it was one of those things were we just enjoyed the moment."

Melendez, too, said compared to their first go, the pace was slower and more controlled. However most observers, including many in press row, disagree with their assessment. Each round, save the third, resulted in dangerous moments as Melendez (17-2) fared better in most of the exchanges.

"He delivered what he had to do to beat me tonight," Thomson said of the 27-year-old Melendez, his old friend and former training partner. "That's the bottom line."

From the outset Melendez did what he couldn't the first time encountering Thomson: assert himself. Round 2 was where action picked up. Controlling the first four minutes of the round, momentum turned for Melendez when Thomson connected on a left hook that stunned the challenger with 60 seconds remaining on the clock. Refusing to fight from his back, Melendez recovered, swapped positions and fired away until the bell tolled.

Following the slower third, action picked up in the championship rounds. Thomson finished a rare takedown in the fourth, but it wasn't worth much as Melendez again sprung to his feet and unfurled punches, including a head shot that knocked the wind out of Thomson and caused his entire body to "start vibrating."

"Standup was working for me," Melendez said. "My timing was good. I felt comfortable there. It's dangerous because I got hit a couple times. It was a war."

Indeed it was, particularly in the fifth when Thomson, down big on the cards, attacked early. Heavy salvos marked the beginning and end of the period, which saw both men strike to the bell.

In addition to the Strikeforce lightweight title, a shot at No. 2-ranked Shinya Aoki hung in the balance. Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker will attend "Dynamite!!," Japan's traditional New Year's Eve fights, with the intention of finalizing a deal to with FEG to put Aoki and in the cage against Melendez in the second quarter of 2010. He also hopes to get Thomson back in action against highly regarded Tatsuya Kawajiri.

On a rubber match, both men shook their heads and laughed at the prospect, knowing full well it will likely happen sometime in the coming year -- and another five-rounder seems certain.

"I'm cool with calling it even if he wants to," Melendez joked.

Headlining the effort in San Jose, local favorite Cung Le (6-1) fell for the first time in his short MMA career. Scott Smith -- one of the grittiest, guttiest fighters in the sport -- knew he needed a knockout heading into the third. For 10 minutes, Le employed spinning kicks that ruined any sense of distance and timing Smith carried into the fight. He was battered to the canvas several times, though most of Le's fistic artistry failed to leave a serious dent. Still, the spinning kicks -- to head and body -- put Le well ahead moving into the final period.

"I knew I needed to finish him to win," said Smith, who improved to 17-6 with his second Hail Mary victory of the year. "Definitely a sense of urgency. I felt him slowing down, but of course I was slowing down a little bit too."

Smith stalked, closing the distance to stifle Le's long-range kicks, and connected with a left hook to the chin. He swarmed, landing another left hook before a right straight short-circuited Le's ability to stand.

"I think I definitely need to change my strategy a little bit, maybe get beat up in the corner before I go in to fight," Smith joked. "I need to get beat up and get mad and have a sense of urgency to do good. I can't remember the last time I won the first round in a fight."

Muhammed Lawal and Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza earned impressive victories in their Strikeforce debuts.

The powerful Lawal (now 6-0), an All-American wrestler in 2003 at Oklahoma State, walked into his heavyweight bout against veteran Mike Whitehead fighting with a 43-pound weight disadvantage. But that mattered little as Lawal's speed, movement and athleticism allowed him to punch and move at will. A heavy shot put Whitehead down, leading to a ground-and-pound finish.

"Jacare," (11-2) one of the top submission grapplers in the world, dominated veteran middleweight and former U.S. Olympian Matt Lindland before closing the fight with an arm-triangle choke at 4:18 of Round one. With the win, he joins an improved cadre of middleweight fighters signed to Strikeforce.

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