Over the past five years, the term "superfight" has lingered like a storm cloud over the MMA landscape. Certainly, the thought of pound-for-pound great Anderson Silva stepping in against welterweight king Georges St-Pierre or light heavyweight phenom Jon Jones has gotten everyone's attention anytime the potential matchups have swirled about in the air, but until they materialize and bring the lightning, rather than the rumblings of thunder, fans will continue to do what they have been conditioned to do and move along.
The problem with the notion that a "superfight" has to consist of one of the previously mentioned champions, is that fans may fail to recognize when something truly unique has come before them. This weekend's bout between UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson and former Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez presents a scenario that may never occur again in the modern era of mixed martial arts, and, for the most part, this aspect of the fight is being overlooked.
A true champion-vs.-champion fight will take place this weekend at UFC on Fox 7 in San Jose, and it's something that needs to be celebrated.
Granted, there doesn't appear to be anyone sleeping on the fact that this bout will feature two of the best 155-pound fighters in the sport. But what does appear to have been passed over for the most part is that this matchup will feature two reigning champions from different major promotions. This, of course, is due in large part to the now-defunct Strikeforce organization having gone the way of the dodo, but the promotion's fate doesn't change the fact that its lightweight champion reigned until its final breath.
Melendez isn't coming into this fight with Henderson as a "former" champion in the sense that he was dethroned and is working his way back up the ladder. It has been over four years since "El Nino" visited the loss column, and the 31-year-old has collected seven consecutive victories over this stretch.
As for "Bendo," the UFC champion has made two successful defenses of his lightweight title since claiming the strap from Frankie Edgar at UFC 144 in February 2012. His most recent win over Melendez's friend and training partner Nate Diaz at UFC on Fox 5 in December was his most dominant performance under the UFC banner and his sixth-straight victory.
The larger point I'm getting at is that this fight features two champions who are set to collide on an ascending trajectory. While other "superfights" appeal in different ways (greatest fighter of all time vs. the future of MMA, etc.), this bout features two of the best fighters in one weight class, each of whom has built tremendous momentum, and the aftermath of their scrap in San Jose will clear up the argument once and for all as to who is truly the best 155-pound fighter on the planet.
The last time these conditions arose, Dan Henderson was representing the former Pride organization in the UFC. In back-to-back fights, "Hendo" tested his light heavyweight and middleweight titles against the respective UFC champions. Unfortunately for the former Olympian, neither of the tilts went in his favor, but that's beside the point. It was a rare moment in the sport when a champion from a competing organization squared off with the standing champion in the UFC.
The potential for this scenario was there with Nick Diaz, but by the time he faced Georges St-Pierre last month at UFC 158, the Stocktonian had already suffered a setback at the hands of Carlos Condit.
Fans and media in combat sports love to dabble in the hypothetical, and this weekend's clash between Henderson and Melendez is one of the rare occasions when we get to see an actual result. The "what if's" will finally be put to the test, and, for all the hyped-up and rumored fights we have speculated about over the years, on Saturday night, there will finally be a payoff in that category.
It is also an understood fact that much like Henderson's Pride titles, Melendez's Strikeforce belt isn't up for grabs here. Pride and the San Jose-based promotions are no longer in existence, but that doesn't mean the accomplishments of Melendez and Henderson were meaningless. They were champions going into their bouts in the UFC and deserve to be recognized as such.
In my opinion, the UFC dropped the ball a bit in its pre-fight buildup to this weekend's tilt by tagging Melendez as a "top contender" in the promotional spots. If the fight were to be pushed as a champion-vs.-champion clash, fans would get the feeling that they are about to witness something special. At the very least, Henderson vs. Melendez is significant because of the prominence of the organizations they championed. While the UFC has been the most successful promotion in mixed martial arts for the better part of the past decade, Strikeforce was widely recognized as the second-best organization in the sport.
That being said, this fight features one fighter who has been on a mission for the last three years to prove he's the No. 1 155-pound fighter in the world, and another fighter who holds the top spot because he is the UFC champion. Make no mistake about it: I'm not taking anything away from Melendez in that regard, but perception is reality, and most consider the tag "UFC fighter" on a resume to carry far more value than if it were any other organization in the sport. And that is why I believe this fight carries tremendous importance.
It's champion vs. champion. Two of the best lightweight fighters in the world will scrap it out to determine who is truly the best in the weight class.
There will be one battle on the sport's biggest stage, and the victor will walk away with the most coveted title in mixed martial arts.
In the realms of the actual and the hypothetical, it simply doesn't get better than this. Maybe one day it will, but until those other "superfights" become more than just talk, this Saturday in San Jose, fans will finally get a chance to see what happens when two of the best fighters on the planet, from opposing organizations, collide to determine who is the true champion.