While Gilbert Melendez was the golden boy of Strikeforce and constantly praised for his improvements in his boxing game, a closer review of his fights reveals a far more basic and flawed game than he is often credited with.
Make no mistake, Melendez could easily starch Benson Henderson and win the title at UFC on Fox 7—such is the nature of his punching power and accuracy—but as a technician, he leaves a lot of openings. Benson Henderson might not be the man to exploit them, but that doesn't stop them being there.
The general consensus on Gilbert Melendez is that he struggles when an opponent turns a fight into a brawl as Josh Thomson was able to do in their three fights, but I'm not a hugely sold on that idea and it certainly isn't the only weakness Melendez has shown.
Melendez's fight with Jorge Masvidal said an awful lot about what he does against a fighter who keeps the distance. While Masvidal is an orthodox fighter, Melendez's upcoming opponent, Benson Henderson, is a southpaw, and the distance which Masvidal kept between himself and Gilbert was far more like the type of distance in an Open Guard (southpaw vs orthodox) engagement. Melendez seems to make serious errors when his opponents don't come straight at him and let him strike them.
The first thing to notice is that against Masvidal, Gilbert was constantly trying to close in with combinations ending almost exclusively with his right hand—obviously bad form when he should be “closing the door” for a counter with his left hand.
In traditional boxing, it is advised that you don't end combinations with a right hand (with some exceptions) because the hips are square and need to be returned to half-facing to get back into position to fight.
If you end your combinations with left hands, you turn your hips back to their normal position, while keeping the opponent off you. If you end with right hands, you offer the left side of your head up on a platter with nothing to dissuade the opponent from attacking it.
Check out the fight with that in mind and you will notice that it's nearly constant. The left side of Melendez's head is constantly in jeopardy, but most of his opponents simply let him pull it back because they are worried about defending themselves.
Against Kawajiri, literally every attack that Gilbert made ended with a right hand and with his left hand low and chin hanging out. Of course Gilbert was connecting because Kawajiri just isn't a very good striker—though he's convinced himself that he is—but Gilbert should still be recovering safely from these punches.
Here it is again, fortunately Melendez catches Kawajiri again because Kawajiri is constantly flailing his left. Were Kawajiri to catch the right with his forearm or elbow (crazy monkey style is probably best given the size of gloves in MMA) and come back with a right hand or left hook, Melendez would have struggled to avoid it.
Watching even his most recent fight with Josh Thomson, where Melendez proved far more willing to throw his left hook, he still ended all of his combinations with a right hand. Melendez compounds this fault by leaning forward on most of his right hands for power. A catch and pitch strategy seems tailor made for Melendez when he is chasing because he only has one power hand and doesn't recover well after throwing it.
This is something which Benson Henderson may be in a good position to exploit because he showed against Nate Diaz that he can use distancing when appropriate and step in when it's time to as well. Melendez's kicks are pretty mediocre whereas Henderson is pretty comfortable from kicking range so the onus is on Melendez to close the distance.
If a fighter lets Melendez up close from the off, he'll be happy to mix it up and throw combinations including the left hook and occasionally the 1-3-2 (jab, lead hook, rear straight) which is an especially useful combination against southpaws because it blocks their path away from his right hand. This could cause Henderson some trouble because Anthony Pettis was able to force him into his rear hand with a 3-2 and Henderson was able to do the same thing to Pettis.
Should Henderson stay at range in a Jon Jones or Anderson Silva vs a grappler frame of mind, side kicking the knee, low kicking and snap kicking, he should be able to frustrate Melendez into closing the distance with his jab to lunging right straight or double jab to lunging right
Melendez is horrifically out of position when he gets into this chasing mind set so an opponent who can pull a Machida—letting him chase them three or four times—then stop and counter could have great success.
Here it is yet again as Melendez delivers a counter punch. Notice also that he eats a jab because his right hand is so low—unable to parry or catch when his head movement fails him.
Because Melendez is such a one-sided power puncher, he has a tendency to drop his right hand when he jabs to get more swing into it. This was pretty hard to catch in stills—because it turns out Strikeforce had pretty bad camera work, always directly behind one fighter or the other—but you can see what I mean here.
Consequently when he is charging in, he is sometimes caught by strikes from opponents which a disciplined striker has no business being caught by. Kawajiri managed to kick Melendez in the head as Melendez's right hand was down by his waist, loading up to swing.
This was more chance than a counter, but I see no reason why a southpaw such as Henderson, if he were training to throw the left hook with a right slip, couldn't catch Melendez clean as he loaded up. The catch and pitch strategy is probably a safer bet, but if an opponent can catch him with a classical southpaw left hook counter, they could certainly cut their night's work short.
Melendez's stance is very narrow because he likes to bounce around and load up his right hand—this means that his left hook doesn't have much on it and that his base is pretty easy to manipulate with kicks—both Josh Thomson and Masvidal had a good go at this.
Masvidal even used a calf kick to plant him on his backside—something we know that his next opponent, Henderson likes to do. It seems like the entire Cesar Gracie team flat-out refuses to check low kicks.
Melendez does, unlike the Diaz brothers, try to catch kicks and counter, Fedor / Igor style. When he does this, he drops his lead hand to his thigh in hopes of catching and pushes forward with a right straight.
This is another great opportunity for a right hook if an opponent can set him up with a couple of kicks and then fake it and follow with the right hook.
Henderson is pretty much the first decent southpaw striker that Melendez has faced so he will either be tentative, or trying to jam the basics down Henderson's throat. The obvious things to look out for throughout the fight are:
- If Melendez's starts to control Henderson's lead hand, he'll rip it down, duck to the same side and try to come in with the right hand.
- Melendez might try to use the jab, left hook to get to a dominant angle and land his right straight as Pettis managed to against Henderson. That's probably the biggest threat to Henderson on the feet in this fight.
The slapping left hook that Pettis used was a great attempt to herd Henderson right into his right hand. Notice how Pettis uses the left hook primarily to hold Henderson still and get his left foot outside of Henderson's own.
In conclusion Melendez's game doesn't seem nearly so varied as many pundits have made out. He seems to rely on jabbing towards his opponent and swinging his right hand almost entirely. Mixing in the takedowns he can effectively use level changes to fake his opponent out and land powerful right hands, but he hasn't done so against many competent strikers. The best idea to beat Melendez in the standing portions is to give him distance and make him work his way in, annoying him with non-commital kicks. The significant openings to counter into are:
- To catch the right hand on the left high elbow guard and counter with the right hook as he is over-committed.
- To counter his dashing jabs with a hard left hook.
- To fake the low kick and deliver a right hook as he tries to catch it on his thigh.
Whether Henderson will do any of these things against such a dangerous power puncher, or whether he will try to keep the fight in the clinch will be revealed at UFC on Fox 7. It is, however, safe to say that Melendez is not so much a great boxer as a craftier-than-normal power puncher.