Anthony Pettis has not fought in more than a year. | Photo: Jeff Sherwood/Sherdog.com
UFC LIGHTWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIPAnthony Pettis (17-2, 4-1 UFC) vs. Gilbert Melendez (22-3, 1-1 UFC)
THE MATCHUP: Long-lost lightweight champion Pettis returns to action to face challenger Melendez. Pettis, the former World Extreme Cagefighting champion, has rattled off four straight wins since dropping a grinding decision to Clay Guida in his UFC debut, with the most recent victory a dominating submission over Benson Henderson to capture the belt. Melendez was the longtime Strikeforce lightweight champion, and his only loss in the last six years was a razor-thin decision to the aforementioned Henderson. This is one of the best fights that can be made in a stacked division, and we should be really, really excited for it.
Pettis is an extraordinary athlete, and his ability to work out of either stance equally well accentuates his explosiveness given the greater distance in an open-guard -- fighters in opposite stances -- matchup. That is what Pettis, like Anderson Silva, prefers. Given that open-guard situation, the champion’s game revolves around setting up his rear-leg power kicks to the head and body with his rear-hand straight punch. This serves to draw his opponent’s hands out of defensive position and encourages him to slip his head off the centerline, directly into the path of the incoming high kick. If the opponent chooses not to react to the threat of the straight or the high kick, then the body is completely open, as Henderson and Donald Cerrone both discovered. His hands are quick and getting better, if not as threatening as his kicking game, and he is quick to fire off counter combinations as his opponent moves forward. The weakness of his approach is offensive output: Pettis frankly does not throw very many strikes, although he gets away with it because he is both accurate and supremely clever in the way he sets up his big shots. He is a decent wrestler, both offensively and defensively, but his lethal guard makes this relative deficiency less of a problem. On his back, Pettis is lightning-quick, immediately looking for wrist control or over hooks and controlling posture before throwing up a quick armbar or triangle. His guard retention is absolutely exceptional; he scrambles beautifully; and he can find a submission from almost anywhere.
The challenger, on the other hand, uses a far more meat-and-potatoes game based on clean, efficient angles and movement on the feet. Melendez is a talented, powerful boxer who really turns over his hip into his shots, keeps his feet under him when he throws and strings together lovely combinations both moving forward and on the counter. He mixes it up to the body and the head and throws the occasional kick to catch opponents as they slip to the side or attempt to roll under his hooks and overhands. As good as he is at range, Melendez is also a strong infighter who excels at delivering punches, knees and elbows in transition and in extended clinch grappling situations. His wrestling is proficient if not outstanding; while he lacks an explosive shot, he chain wrestles beautifully on the inside and scrambles well. From top position, he can drop absolute bombs and keeps a heavy base while doing so.
BETTING ODDS: Pettis (-220), Melendez (+180)
THE PICK: The betting odds accurately capture the two glaring problems that make this a difficult matchup for Melendez. First, Pettis tends to operate at long range, where the challenger has few consistently effective weapons. Second, Melendez, like Pettis, generally prefers to operate in the center of the cage and does not consistently pressure his opponents. A fight that takes place in the middle makes it much easier for Pettis to keep his distance and uncork his kicking game without having to worry too much about getting pushed up against the fence and grinded down for minutes at a time. While Melendez excels at both catching and countering kicks, I think Pettis’ speed and range advantages will be the difference in a competitive, back-and-forth fight. Pettis by decision is the pick.
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