For years, Gilbert Melendez has resided near the top of most lightweight top 10 lists circulating the web. Now that the UFC has introduced rankings of its own, giving some semblance of authenticity to rankings, Melendez has "officially" been classed as the second-best 155-pounder in the organization.
That he has never fought in the UFC before should give anyone pause before accepting him as the promotion's No. 1 (highest ranked after the champion) lightweight in reality. Countless stars who have built their reputation outside the UFC have jumped into the mainstream, only to be stalled somewhere near the middle of the pack.
Judging where a fighter will fit into the UFC based on external accomplishments is a guessing game, and one that more often produces heightened expectations instead of realistic ones.
Nevertheless, it's not fair to say Melendez is overrated just because guys like Hector Lombard, Hatsu Hioki and Jake Shields recently joined the UFC to disappointing results. Their failures are completely isolated from anything Melendez will do under the promotion's banner.
I only mention the trend as an overture to the real issue—that being, Melendez simply isn't that good of a mixed martial artist. He's good. He's just not THAT good.
Since 2009, Melendez has posted a 7-0 record. It's an impressive feat, but less so because of the fighters he's beaten. Josh Thomson is the highest-regarded opponent Melendez has dismissed over that period, and, of course, he is no pushover. In fact, he's probably a fringe top-10 competitor in the UFC, though I'd have him on the outside, as does the UFC rankings.
Of course, there still must be something else to Melendez's ranking. Winning a couple decisions, the most recent one split, over someone who enters the UFC as a mid-teens fighter doesn't get you to No. 2 in the promotion's deepest weight class.
Melendez also beat Shinya Aoki via five-round decision, something only maybe 15...20 UFC lightweights could accomplish. You could argue me down from that number, but I'd steadfastly proclaim at least 10 could finish, let alone convincingly defeat Aoki, more often than not.
He also beat Tatsuya Kawajiri and Jorge Masvidal, fighters that probably rank somewhere near the back end of the teens when compared to the UFC roster. They certainly rank behind Thomson.
So while Meledenz's streak is a fine accomplishment, nothing about it screams No. 2 lightweight in the UFC.
But to be fair, rankings aren't all about accomplishments. They also factor in how well a fighter has looked during competition and consider upside. Perhaps this is where Melendez's ranking spawns from?
"El Nino" is billed as a well-rounded fighter with strong wrestling and dangerous stand-up. And while the wrestling part is accurate, the prevailing perception of his stand-up is overly generous.
Sloppy, limited and inaccurate aptly describe Melendez's striking, something confirmed by his subpar 33 percent connection rate. And when you consider that his current win streak is void of anyone with particularly strong striking, his precision seems all the more underwhelming.
Throw in that Melendez has very little submission game to speak of, and once again, we return to the baffling question of why Melendez is ranked where he is.
He is not better than Anthony Pettis, Gray Maynard or Jim Miller. I'd also take T.J Grant, Rafael dos Anjos and Khabib Nurmagomedov to beat him.
Stylistically, Nate Diaz and Donald Cerrone should not fare well against Melendez, a wrestling powerhouse, but I wouldn't be shocked if either handled him in a match.
All this not to mention Benson Henderson, who has asserted himself above all those listed. He is the one tasked with welcoming Melendez to the UFC, and he is the one who will crush the misconception that Melendez is an elite fighter.
Whether "Smooth" finds a finish or simply wrecks Melendez for five rounds is a question worth pondering. Whether he will retain his lightweight title is not. That is a foregone conclusion.
Between his latter WEC matches and his more recent UFC tenure, Henderson has been taking on far better opponents than Melendez has, and he's looked more impressive doing it.
There is a significant gap between the two, one that will be exposed this Saturday night.
After being taken down a peg by Henderson, Melendez will fade back into the lightweight fray and stay there. Because while he is skilled enough to stay relevant, his talent hardly stands out at 155 in the UFC.
When it comes down to it, Melendez is a good fighter, but good fighters aren't ranked No. 2 in the UFC. Great fighters are ranked No. 2.
The prestige of Melendez's name should never have made it so far, but it is poised to rescind. Even if losing to a fighter ranked above him does not drop him in ranking, perception will alter. From there, all it will take is a loss to a lesser-regarded fighter—a loss that will come, and not far off—before Melendez's official status mirrors his real place in the picture.
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