UFC on Fox: Henderson vs. Melendez could've been a disaster. Instead, it was a face-smashing success complete with an in-Octagon marriage proposal.
The seventh installment of UFC on Fox had built up quite a reputation in the days and weeks preceding the event.
The headliner was a title bout between UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson and top-ranked challenger Gilbert Melendez, but it was the depth of the card that really had the mixed martial arts world buzzing. For the first time since UFC on Fox: Evans vs. Davis (aka UFC on Fox 2) and the second time since the two parties inked their seven-year contract for broadcasting rights, the powers that be had stacked the card with compelling matchups.
More importantly, Lady Luck cooperated, the injury bug stayed away and the matchups remained intact.
Talented UFC newcomer Daniel Cormier and former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir shared the spotlight with the champ and El Nino in the co-main event. There was a clash between elite lightweights Josh Thomson and Nate Diaz, as well as a sneaky-good pairing of middleweights Matt Brown and Jordan Mein. To boot, the undercard featured several interesting names facing legitimate competition.
So people were excited simply by the bare bones of the card.
Just in case they weren't, UFC president Dana White and Co. were promoting it with their typical understated touch.
Observers were expecting a thrilling afternoon/evening of fights, which made the stakes high enough.
You also had the lackluster feel to last four cards on Fox (here, here, here and here)—which wasn't necessarily fair, but nevertheless existed—and the fact that it was all happening on network television, a phenomenon to which the UFC is still relatively new. So you had more than a few chips on the table.
Deliver on the hype and much of the Fox-related grousing would be forgotten while the UFC added another win to an already triumphant 2013 schedule. Fail to deliver and the ironic grumbling about vanilla-but-still-free cards starts up again, putting a damper on the year's good vibe.
Fortunately for all involved, the athletes held up their end of the bargain, and Benson Henderson even added a heart-warming wild card.
Four of the 12 fights went to decisions and two of those were the co-main events, which were entertaining affairs even if they weren't completely satisfying. Only one of the decisions was a true dog—Francis Carmont over Lorenz Larkin—as the fourth, Jorge Masvidal over Tim Means, heated up toward the end.
All eight of the other tilts ended in knockouts, and more than a few of those were of the spectacular variety.
Yoel Romero kicked things off almost literally, ending the card's first bout with a flying knee to the jaw of Clifford Starks before finishing him off with punches. Anthony Njokuani shut the lights on Roger Bowling with a beautiful left hook that landed on the button, Joseph Benavidez stopped Darren Uyenoyama with a punishing left hook to the body and Thomson became the first man to knock out Nate Diaz, doing so with a savage head kick.
T.J. Dillashaw, Myles Jury, Chad Mendes and Brown each scored impressive knockouts in their own right.
Even better, the vast majority showcased fast-paced, action-packed scraps between aggressive opponents.
The Punk harried Diaz for six relentless minutes before forcing Nate's corner to toss in the towel, literally. DC did pretty much whatever he wanted with Mir, but not for lack of effort or heart on Frank's part. The ex-champ earned his warrior stripes by taking what Cormier dished out and returning fire with whatever he had left.
Smooth and Melendez battled in a razor-close, back-and-forth affair that ended in a split decision for Henderson and a very displeased HP Pavilion in San Jose, but only because the local favorite lost.
The actual title fight left little to be desired.
Of course, the Fight of the Night was Brown's aforementioned TKO of the young prospect Mein. The Immortal, who seemed to have been set up for against the 23-year-old Canadian, set a scorching pace form the outset and had Mein on the defensive for much of the first round.
Young Gun turned the tide with less than two minutes to go, however, crumpling Brown to the canvas with a heavy shot and then threatening to pound his adversary out.
Brown managed to recover and snap on a tight triangle choke, imperiling Mein for a few seconds before the youngster wriggled free.
And that was all in Round 1.
The second round started much the same way, but Mein couldn't withstand the second onslaught and The Immortal had his victory.
Granted, the event wasn't perfect.
Cormier's performance against Mir left even the fighter, himself, saying it "didn't warrant a title shot." That might've been DC posturing because he doesn't want to face his teammate, friend and UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez. But it was also the truth.
Thus the victory sheds less light on DC as a serious threat at 265 pounds, or to UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones (should Cormier drop down a weight class), than most had hoped.
Most glaringly was the ill-received split decision that kept the UFC lightweight strap around Henderson's waist.
Many in the cageside media scored the main event three rounds to two for the challenger Melendez, and the partisan crowd obviously felt like its boy had done enough to take the title. Personally, I thought El Nino had taken it 48-47 (three rounds to two), but I was also tweeting that each of the rounds could've justifiably gone to either fighter.
The thing was this close to being a certifiable tossup.
Consequently, you can understand everyone's disappointment, especially that of a "heart-broken" Gil Melendez, but the split decision was far from a robbery. It should not and cannot detract from what was a highly competitive championship collision.
I mean, c'mon, who doesn't love a marriage proposal?
Nor should/can it detract from the overall success of UFC on Fox 7.
With a ton riding on its lofty expectations, the card came through like the champ, which means Dana White and Benson Henderson both had reason to smile.
But the biggest winners were the fans, who got a night of free fights they'll not soon forget.
*All quotes acquired first-hand unless otherwise noted.
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