The team of analysts for the UFC on Fox Sports 1 and Fox broadcasts has been providing the most in-depth coverage that mixed martial arts has seen in its 20 years of existence.
With a collection of seasoned fight veterans and a handful of well-versed hosts at the helm, the people who work the pre- and post-fight shows for the UFC have consistently raised the bar.
The team at Fox Sports 1 has proved to be a savvy collective, but there is always room at the analyst table for up-and-coming talent to shine. While Gilbert Melendez has solidified himself as one of the very best lightweight fighters on the planet, "El Nino" is rapidly proving he's equally capable outside of the Octagon as well.
He is the latest edition to the analyst team on FS1 and has been solid in every endeavor he's signed on for. With his experience as the long-reigning king of the 155-pound ranks under the now-defunct Strikeforce banner and his gritty efforts to get his hands on championship gold in the UFC, Melendez is as well-versed as they come in the fight game. When you add his ever-evolving suit game into the mix, the No. 1 contender to the lightweight crown is all business regardless of the platform.
For the most recent installment of our "Dropping Knowledge" series here at Bleacher Report MMA, the "NorCal" representative jumped into our makeshift booth to break down the upcoming card for Fight Night 42 this weekend in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Debut showings come with a lot of pressure, and this series is no different, but much like everything else he does, Melendez put forth a championship-worthy performance.
Bleacher Report: You are no stranger to pressure and have proved to be as game as they come inside the cage, and I would be lying if I didn't tell you this interview comes with a certain amount of expectation. That said, let's jump into the deep end of the pool and start with the main event between Benson Henderson and Rustam Khabilov. Before we get into the stylistic differences in this fight, I want to put the focus on the risk/reward factor.
Henderson is hovering at the top of the division, while Khabilov isn't ranked in the top 10 at 155. Nevertheless, the Dagestan-born fighter is a tough matchup for anyone in the division. In your final years at Strikeforce, you had a handful of matchups with this particular circumstance. Can you shed some light on the mindset of fighters like Henderson who are heading into high-risk/low-reward fights?
Gilbert Melendez: It can be tough at times, especially if you are a tired fighter who has been fighting a lot, which Benson has been doing. But he's also very mentally strong, and this is where mentally strong fighters shine by keeping their focus and delivering. It's certainly going to be difficult for Benson to keep that mental toughness in this situation, but he's definitely capable of doing it. If he comes in mentally sharp, I think he will get the job done on Saturday.
B/R: Let's talk about the stylistic matchup between Henderson and Khabilov. Benson has a variety of tools he uses, but most of his success has been found on the strength of his ability to push the pace, apply the pressure and utilize his wrestling. Khabilov is a monster in the grappling department as well. How do you see this fight playing out from a stylistic standpoint?
GM: I think the keys in this fight are going to be the scrambles and the takedowns. I think Khabilov is going to attempt to push for the takedown, but I believe Benson will be too savvy and tricky and will be able to scramble out.
I'm not sure if Henderson will be very offensive with his takedowns, but I'm positive he'll be doing a lot of work to defend them. On the feet, Khabilov has an aggressive offense with his striking game, but Jorge Masvidal had some success stopping his forward pressure with kicks. Khabilov also got a bit tired in the third round of that fight as well, but rightfully so.
Those Russian fighters are always bouncing around and using a lot of effort with the punches they throw and grinding for takedowns. Anyone would get tired with that style. Benson fights with more of a pace, and if he can make Khabilov work harder than he wants to and still control the fight, he can be successful. But if Khabilov starts landing some punches and does a good job of mixing it up and improvising during the fight, he could have success as well. This is definitely an interesting matchup.
B/R: Both men in the main event have solid grappling credentials, much like yourself. With your experience on the mat and inside the cage, can you break down the difference between the wrestling styles of Henderson and Khabilov for our readers?
GM: U.S. wrestling is more of a scrambling style where guys take a lot of risks. You could watch a match in the states and see a score of 18-12. There is going to be a lot of action, transitions and guys going back and forth and trading points.
Things are completely different in Russia. You could see a match go into triple overtime and the score be 1-0. They have a more conservative style where someone will get a point, then grind out his opponent for the remainder of the time. Over here, we will take a guy down and hit them up. It's a different speed.
The Russians are a little stronger, but they excel at the basics. Lock the hands, bear hugs, takedowns, riding are all strong points for them, whereas Americans tend to have more finesse and take more risks. They might let you up in order to hit something else, and that's completely different from the Russian approach.
I think another interesting factor in this matchup will be if Khabilov is able to lock his hands. He has vice grips for hands. If he can lock those hands on Benson, it is going to be tough for Henderson to get free. Benson needs to scramble and keep Khabilov from getting that grip and taking control. That's huge, because once those Russian fighters get that control on you, it's very difficult to get free.
B/R: Let's move onto the co-main event between Diego Sanchez and Ross Pearson. Coming into this fight, a lot of people are looking at this fight on Saturday as "do or die" for Sanchez. While I believe that's true, I think it is an equally important fight for Pearson as well. Coming off The Ultimate Fighter he had solid expectations, but after a rough run of things, he moved down to featherweight. He had some success at 145 pounds but hit rocky terrain once again and decided to move back up.
There is no doubt Diego has to win this fight, but do you agree that Pearson has his back against the wall in a very big way as well heading into his bout with Sanchez this weekend in Albuquerque?
GM: You brought up some very good points, and I agree. You're totally right, and this is absolutely a big fight for both of these guys. Neither guy can afford a loss, and whoever walks out of that fight with the loss is going to find himself in a rough position.
Ross is a talented fighter but he's had some ups and downs in his career. This fight with Diego is a tricky one because it could be his way up the ladder and progress his career, or it could be a downward fall where he gets pushed to undercard fights and really puts himself in jeopardy of getting lost in the shuffle in a deep 155-pound division.
B/R: There is no secret that Diego Sanchez is a fighter who thrives off emotion. You have firsthand experience in this department, as you and Sanchez put on an epic battle last year at UFC 166. Sanchez has been vocal about wanting to fight in his hometown of Albuquerque for some time and now finally gets his wish. Going into a fight with too much emotion is something most competitors try to avoid, but Sanchez feeds off it.
Do you think competing in Albuquerque is going to create too much emotion for Sanchez to handle, or will it be the perfect formula to bring out the best in him?
GM: Diego definitely runs off emotion, and that is when he's at his best. In his last fight against Myles Jury, he was a little sick going into that fight. He tried to dig deep and pull it out, but he just couldn't summon the beast.
He won't have a hard time summoning the beast in Albuquerque. I think he's definitely going to bring it, and if he doesn't, then there is something wrong with Diego at this point of his career. But I think he's going to feed off all the emotion that will be there and turn this fight into a scrap, which is what he needs to do.
B/R: There is a bout on the card between John Dodson and John Moraga with heavy implications on a future flyweight title shot. The 125-pound division is still somewhat thin on title contenders, and both men have been turned back in their respective bids to dethrone Demetrious Johnson.
Do you believe this fight holds potential championship opportunities for both? Or more so for just Dodson?
GM: I believe that scenario plays more for Dodson. He's coming off a finish and an impressive showing in his last fight, whereas Moraga came out on the winning side of a close fight with Dustin [Ortiz]. I would say Dodson could solidify a No. 1 contender spot with a win, but Moraga is definitely a tough matchup for him.
They are both slingers who are fast, athletic and have tremendous movement. I'm leaning toward Dodson getting the next shot with a win, but if Moraga is successful on Saturday, I could see him being one win away from getting another title opportunity.
B/R: There a couple of more matchups on this card where the fighters involved have their backs against the wall. The two fighters I believe are in desperate need of victories in their showings are Yves Edwards and Scott Jorgensen. Let's start with Edwards.
"Thugjitsu Master" has been fighting at the top level for more than a decade and has been a staple of the lightweight division. That said, the American Top Team product has struggled recently going 0-2 (1 no-contest) over his last three showings. Do you believe Edwards needs a victory over Piotr Hallmann at Fight Night 42 to keep his place on the UFC roster?
GM: That is certainly a possibility. I also think Yves has been on the wrong end of a few split decisions as well. He's been in some superclose fights. Don't get me wrong: Those decisions were nothing to cry about. Things just didn't go his way that night. That is just how it works sometimes in this sport. But he's look solid in all of those fights.
He's 37 years old but doesn't look like it. Does he look like he's taken too much damage? Not really. Does he look rough out there? No, he looks healthy and totally capable. I just think he's had some difficulty pulling the trigger as of late.
I believe if he pulled the trigger a bit more, he would create more openings. He needs to put a little more on the line in this fight and go after it because if he doesn't, he could be letting his career in the UFC slip away.
B/R: The next matchup I want to put the spotlight on is Scott Jorgensen vs. Danny Martinez. "Young Guns" was a staple in the upper tier of the bantamweight division for years, but a rough patch led him to drop down into flyweight waters. He was figured to become a major player immediately at 125 pounds, but then he dropped his first two showings as a flyweight.
While I can't see him losing his roster spot with a loss against Martinez, I believe it could very well push him out of relevancy in the flyweight fold. Do you agree with that line of thinking, or do you think Jorgensen is facing a different set of circumstances?
GM: It has taken Jorgensen a few fights to adapt to the new weight class, but I think he can be competitive there. The flyweight division is a shallow weight class, and they need names. Jorgensen not only has a name, but he has an exciting fighting style where he gets in there and gets after it. Whether he wins or loses, he's pretty entertaining. Anything could certainly happen, but I think the flyweight division needs a guy like Jorgensen.
If he wins, it could very well put him right back into the mix at 125. If he loses, as long as it's an entertaining fight where he goes out on his shield, then I can't see him losing his spot on the roster. I think he still has life because of his fighting style. The UFC needs as many solid flyweights as they can get, and Jorgensen is one of them.
I had a chance to grapple with him recently when he was in town, and he felt solid. He was in town for some video game stuff because I think he's a big gamer. He's a solid wrestler, and we were doing takedowns. I'm a much bigger guy than he is, and I had my hands full. He's definitely ready for this fight.
B/R: We'll finish things up talking about fighters who are carrying expectations. Both Erik Perez and Sergio Pettis are fighting on this card, and they are both guys who the UFC has put a bit of buzz behind. "Goyito" has been tied in with the UFC's push into Mexico, and the company has brought him along at a steady rate. He did have a tough showing a few fights back against Takeya Mizugaki but bounced back to get the win in his next fight against Edwin Figueroa at UFC 167.
With the momentum he's attempting to build, is there any room for error in his fight with Bryan Caraway on Saturday night?
GM: That is a lot of pressure on him. That is a lot of pressure to put on a young fighter who is evolving. Erik Perez is only going to get better as he goes, but there is a lot of pressure on him to work his kinks out in a quick time frame. His fight with Mizugaki was a war. He had some good moments but ultimately came out on the losing end of things.
His fight against Figueroa was a little bit easier of a fight for him. If he loses this fight against Caraway, I don't think there is any shame in that. Caraway also had a tough split-decision loss against Mizugaki, and I think this is a great matchup that will tell a lot about the 135-pound weight class.
Perez is a warrior, and I think he still has a lot of room to grow. I believe as long as he puts forward a good showing—win or lose—he has a lot of life left in this weight class. He's going to get there and figure it all out eventually. It just may take some time.
B/R: Sergio Pettis came into the UFC with a lot of hype and buzz behind him and looked great in his debut showing when he defeated Will Campuzano. He was handling Alex Caceres in his next fight but then froze up on the ground and was submitted with less than a minute to go in the bout.
He has shown that he definitely has talent, but buzz in MMA can be extremely fleeting, and he could be in a position where that excitement around him could disappear quickly with another setback so early into his UFC career.
If he were to suffer a setback against Yaotzin Meza and lose two out of his first three showings inside the Octagon, do you believe it would be disastrous for the buzz surrounding him?
GM: I see it that way as well, and a loss here would be disastrous for him. It's a shame too, because the kid is so young and obviously has a ton of talent. There is just no rush to bring some of these guys up so fast, and when they go through some of these battles like he had with Caceres, it can put them in a tough position.
He's already started his climb in the UFC, and you can't take steps backward once that starts. It's all moving forward, and if there are steps back, it is a big negative. If he does get a loss here against Meza, he may need to take some time off, regroup a bit and try to come back down the road with another campaign.
He's a young guy with a lot of talent, but he's going to face tough competition from here on out. I hope he doesn't take too much damage as he is developing, because I really like his style. I think he has a great style, and he actually likes to stay in the pocket a bit more than his big brother. I think there is a lot of potential there, but this could all be too much, too soon.
B/R: I know you have your title fight against Anthony Pettis coming up, and you are both coaching The Ultimate Fighter 20 here soon. I wasn't trying to throw in rivalry in there, just to be clear.
GM: Ha...it's all love, man. Game recognizes game, and I have to give little Pettis respect. He's tough, and I think he's a little bit tougher in the pocket than his brother.
Melendez's picks for UFC Fight Night 42
Benson Henderson vs. Rustam Khabilov: Henderson
"This is a great fight, but I'm taking Benson in this one. Khabilov is a great fighter, but he had some rough spots against Masvidal, and we really saw him look human there. I think Benson is going to push through and get the win."
Diego Sanchez vs. Ross Pearson: Sanchez
"This is a hard decision, but I'm going to go with Diego. I think he can turn this fight into a scrap and get his takedowns. Plus he's fighting in front of his hometown, and I think he's going to rise to the occasion."
John Dodson vs. John Moraga: Dodson
"I think Dodson's attack is just going to be too much for Moraga. He has great killer instinct, and that is what Moraga lacks."
Rafael dos Anjos vs. Jason High: Dos Anjos
"This is a tough fight too. I'm going to go with dos Anjos on experience. There are some questions when it comes to Jason High's cardio, but man, that guy is a beast when it comes to grappling. I could see him taking Dos Anjos down and tapping him out, but I think Dos Anjos is going to pull through in the end. I think High will win the first round, but Dos Anjos will power back strong and take it on the judges' cards."
Yves Edwards vs. Piotr Hallmann: Hallmann
"This one is hard to decide. I want to think Yves, but I think Hallmann is going to come away with it. I think he's going to be a little too active with his footwork and outpoint Yves in this one to win the split decision."
Erik Perez vs. Bryan Caraway: Caraway
"I think the ground game and the takedowns are going to make the difference here. I'm cheering for Goyito, but I think Caraway has the advantage."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.