UFC lightweight champion Benson "Smooth" Henderson is clearly a big part of the UFC's plans for their FOX shows. He defends his belt against Strikeforce champ Gilbert Melendez tonight on UFC on FOX. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

UFC on FOX 7 Preview and Predictions

Tonight, the Ultimate Fighting Championship returns to the HP Pavilion in San Jose,  California, with a local favourite headlining the main event.

More than that, though, the UFC is back on FOX, and they’ve brought a lightweight title fight, a fun heavyweight clash, a meeting of welterweight scrappers, and a Diaz brother. Sounds like a party to me.

It’s clear the UFC is starting to build a brand identity for their big time network shows on FOX, and a big part of that identity is lightweight champ Benson Henderson. Bendo has now fought on two FOX cards, including headlining a network card in his last outing against Nate Diaz. Both times, his fights have been absolute fan favourites. When you factor in his youth, charisma, overall marketability – well it’s easy to see why the UFC wants to make these FOX shows the “Benson Henderson Experience.”

In his last outing, Henderson defended his title against Nate Diaz in a great fight. And wouldn’t you know it – Nate Diaz is on this card too, another example of an exciting young fighter the UFC is building through these FOX shows. Throw in the clash of trash-talking heavyweights, and an opening fight between two go-for-broke welterweights, and you have all the makings of an extremely “casual fan-friendly” card.

Let’s break down the night’s action, shall we?

Matt Brown vs. Jordan Mein

The opening fight on the card should be like the appetizer at a nice restaurant: it should be overpriced, under-sized, and contain a fancy lettuce like Arugula or something.

Wait, I think I messed up that metaphor. Let’s try again – the opening fight on a card should be like an appetizer: it should be light, easy to digest, and guaranteed to please (and thus set the tone for the rest of the meal). The UFC is outstanding at picking “curtain jerking” fights (most of the time, anyways) and they’ve done it again with Matt Brown vs. Jordan Mein.

Originally, this fight was going to pit Brown against British slugger Dan Hardy, in the biggest battle of “really fun but title irrelevant” welterweights you could possibly feature.

Mein coming in as a substitute only hurts this fight a little bit, as Mein brings slightly less name value, but slightly greater recent success, than the mohawked Brit. Mein is a veteran of Strikeforce and The Score Fighting Series in Canada, where he holds victories over Forest Petz and “Cyborg” Santos (Evangelista, not Christiane, although either would impress me). His only loss in the last three years came at the hands of Strikeforce welterweight title challenger Tyron Woodley in an extremely close split decision. In his last fight, he upset the tough-as-nails Dan Miller, taking him out with a stunning first-round TKO.

Mein is riding a bit of momentum at the moment, but Matt “The Immortal” Brown is used to derailing guys who look to be building a head of steam. One of the most well-rounded and durable veterans in the welterweight division, Brown’s career was on life support until, recently, he finally seemed to turn a corner. After going 1 for 5 in his previous fights, Brown rattled off four straight wins in 2012, finally righting his ship and putting him back on the road to the upper echelon of the division. In his last fight, he thoroughly dominated fellow veteran Mike Swick, putting him back on every fan’s radar screen.

Remember when I said this fight was “title irrelevant”? Yeah, maybe not so much as it turns out. Both these men have been on an absolute tear through the lower levels of the division. Tonight, one man will have to make the statement that he’s ready to start challenging the division’s elite. My money’s on Mein because he’s Canadian, and I’m a homer like that.

Jordon Mein via (T)KO

Nate Diaz vs. Josh Thompson

There’s something about the Diaz brothers that Dana White just can’t get enough of.

No matter how much he complains about their antics, their choice of language, their spotty attendance record at press events, or their choice of, um, “supplementation”, he can’t stop booking them on big cards. And that’s true for fans as well. No matter how much we may complain about the Diaz brothers, there’s something about them that is undeniably compelling – and that goes double when the cage door slams shut, and it’s time to watch them fight.

It might be unfair to tar the younger Diaz with some of the crimes of his older brother, considering Nate has been much more reliable in his outside-the-Octagon responsibilities than Nick has. Nate is coming off a loss against Benson Henderson for the UFC lightweight championship, and needs this fight to firm up his place in the division’s top-5. Fans wondering if they’re going to get a good fight shouldn’t worry – his last four fights, he’s won “Submission of the Night” twice, and “Fight of the Night” once. The one fight he didn’t win an “…of the night” award was the universally-acclaimed fight with Henderson.

He’s been given an interesting opponent in long-time Strikeforce contender Josh Thompson. Thompson is well-known for his trilogy with Gilbert Melendez, which was extremely well-fought but ultimately went against Thompson two fights to one. It’s a bit strange to see Melendez’s greatest Strikeforce opponent take on the last man to challenge Melendez’s opponent tonight. This would seem to be a serious litmus test for both fighters going forward.

I’m taking Nate in this one. I think he’ll give Thompson problems for the same reasons he gives all his opponents problems – his reach, his boxing game, he toughness, and his elite-level BJJ. The proven way to defeat a Diaz brother is to be an aggressive wrestler who can dictate the pace of the fight, avoid submissions, and prevent them from working their high-volume striking style. I just don’t see Thompson having success with this gameplan.

Nate Diaz via Submission

Frank Mir vs. Daniel Cormier

No big card would be complete without a clash of heavyweights. It’s something the casual fan just demands. And if those heavyweights can hit hard (most can) and talk some trash, well, it only sweetens the pot.

I’d call Daniel Cormier “the future” of the heavyweight division if it wasn’t such an absurdly silly thing to say. The current reigning heavyweight champ has exactly zero title defences to his credit, so it seems pointless to look to “the future” of the division when the present is so fluid and exciting. Cormier brings a perfect 11-0 record into this fight, along with one of the strongest amateur wrestling pedigrees of any fighter in the game. He also won the Strikeforce heavyweight Gran Prix as an alternate, which started off as one of the most anticipated tournaments in MMA history and ended, well…as a bit of a joke, really.

Still, Cormier won said tournament, and he beat some damn good guys to do it. Anyone who doubts that DC is one of the elite fighters in the division will likely get their answer tonight.

Then again, Frank Mir is a master of spoiling other people’s plans for greatness. He submitted Brock Lesnar in his first-ever UFC fight, and handed the legendary Minotauro Nogueira his first-ever TKO and Submission losses. In his last fight, Mir came up short against then-heavyweight champ Junior Dos Santos, who exposed Mir’s deficiencies in both wrestling and striking.

Still, Cormier is a much different fighter than Dos Santos, and I can’t wait to see how these two stack up. On the feet, both men possess underrated striking skill as well as proven KO power. On the mat, it’ll be Cormier’s world-class wrestling against Mir’s battle-tested BJJ skills. Cardio, preparation, and gameplanning will all be huge factors in what could be a very evenly-matched fight.

So who takes it? The BJJ-lover in me wants to say Mir, but it’s tough to overlook how much of a beast Cormier is. We’ve seen Mir has a tendency to take his foot off the gas when pressured, especially if the guy doing the pressuring is a solid wrestler (Brock Lesnar, Shane Carwin). I see Daniel following a similar gameplan to victory.

Daniel Cormier via (T)KO

Ben Henderson vs. Gilbert Melendez

There’s been plenty of debate over whether Gilbert Melendez deserves a world title shot in what will be his debut bout in the UFC. After all, if he is getting a shot based solely on his Strikeforce title, why isn’t every champion afforded the same opportunity? Last time I checked, Tarec Saffiedine wasn’t getting a shot against GSP any time soon.

This argument overlooks the fact that Melendez was undoubtedly the most “elite” of Strikeforce’s champions. Even while guys like Nick Diaz, Jake Shields, and Dan Henderson were holding Strikeforce gold, it was clear Gil was the promotions most stable, dominant champion. During his run in Strikeforce, Melendez put together 12 wins in 13 fights – and only one of those fights wasn’t for a title. That’s a run of success that no one can overlook.

So now, in the familiar confines of San Jose (Strikeforce’s “home base” for years), Melendez will try to prove his amazing success in Strikeforce can translate into the UFC. And in Benson Henderson, Melendez has an opponent that should test him in every area. Bendo’s pace and conditioning is second to none, and he’s one of the most determined, “game” fighters in MMA. On top of that, his striking, grappling, and overall MMA ability have improved by leaps and bounds over the last few years.

I have no idea who takes the advantage in every area this fight will be contested (and you can believe it will be contested in every area). Striking-wise, they’re roughly even, with both men possessing excellent technical striking skills (if not one-hitter KO power). On the mat, it’s the battle of Melendez’s Cesar Gracie BJJ against Bendo’s well-nigh unsubmittable neck, arms, legs etc. Both guys are monsters in the scramble, and both men have gone the distance many times in their career.

Bottom line: this one should be a classic. I see Bendo’s pace, tenacity, and inability to get tapped out seeing him through to victory here. But I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if either guy won this one. It’s that close.

Henderson via Decision.


Tags: Ben Henderson Gilbert Melendez MMA UFC UFC On FOX

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