Following their show-stealing slugfest Saturday night at "Strikeforce: Evolution," the general consensus seemed to be that a third installment was in store for the now-epic rivalry between Josh Thomson and Gilbert Melendez.
At the post-fight press conference, Melendez (17-2), fresh off his defeat of Thomson (16-3) to reclaim his Strikeforce lightweight crown, initially seemed willing to oblige.
"There's going to be a third (fight)," the Santa Ana, CA native said. "I'm not looking foward to it."
Melendez may not find too many people who share that sentiment—aside from perhaps Thomson—as once again the two Bay Area-based fighters waged battle for five action-packed rounds. It was a fight that assured Strikeforce promoter Scott Coker that he has a built-in main event gem as long as these two are on his roster.
"When you look at their first fight, I thought that was an amazing fight," Coker said. "And this was even more ferocious."
The Strikeforce founder would later joke that there could be five or six total battles in the Melendez-Thomson series, comparing it to the Rocky movies.
But as the two battered and bruised combatants addressed the media after the event, it became clear that both are eager to put their rivalry on the back-burner in search of new challenges, not just for themselves, but for their promotion.
"I'm tired of clicking on websites and all I see is 'UFC, UFC, UFC,' " an upbeat Thomson said. "I'd like to see something positive about Strikeforce and our fighters."
Knowing that the key to gaining respect for Strikeforce's 155-pound division lies not in rematches, but in taking on the best lightweights available to Strikeforce, the new champion was on the same page.
"I think (Thomson) and I can take out all the dudes in the UFC, and all the guys in DREAM," Melendez said rather bluntly. "We don't get the respect we deserve. It's not about rankings, it's about respect."
Earning that respect could be an uphill battle given the current stable of 155-pound fighters in Strikeforce. The most highly regarded lightweights to recently join the Strikeforce roster, Mitsuhiro Ishida and Rodrigo Damm, were both dispatched by Melendez in his previous two fights.
The up-and-comer with the most momentum in the division is Fresno-based Billy Evangelista, a 10-0 fighter who's highest profile win so far has been over former UFC journeyman Jorge Gurgel.
But despite his unblemished record, Evangelista has yet to build the kind of name-recognition that could carry a main event title fight on Showtime or CBS, which will leave Coker looking to the outside for new challengers.
On a night when Coker welcomed several high-profile signees to the Strikeforce fold—heavyweight prospects Roger Gracie and Bobby Lashley, as well as former PRIDE champion Dan Henderson were among them—the only lightweight newcomer of note was former Elite XC champion KJ Noons.
Coker indicated that Noons could be Thomson's next opponent, as early as January, and that Strikeforce's relationship with Japanese promotion DREAM could lead to submission wizard Shinya Aoki finally fighting stateside, in Melendez' first title defense.
He also said that Brazilian superstar Vitor "Shaolin" Ribiero was under contract, providing another worthy challenger to the Strikeforce belt.
But for the time being, the only two bona-fide top-10 lightweight talents to compete for Strikeforce remain "The Punk" and "El Nino," and while their rivalry remains friendly and they expressed the desire to seek new opponents, their 25-minute barnburner left little doubt that a rubber match would have to go down at some point.
For Thomson, the pace and the action were simply par for the course.
"We had a plan, we talked about it at the weigh-ins, and it was to be fight of the night," he said. "And I think we accomplished that."
It was clear that Melendez entered the fight with a chip on his shoulder, eager to avenge the previous loss to Thomson and put what he felt was a lackluster performance in the first fight behind him.
One sharp contrast between the first and second fights was the change in the kicking attacks from both fighters. Missing through the first three rounds was the push kick that Thomson employed throughout their first bout, which he had used to stifle Melendez' attack and keep the distance he needed to mount his own.
"I was tired of going to 24-Hour Fitness and having some random guy try to tell me how to stop a kick," Melendez joked.
Conversely, he utilized awkward-looking—yet effective—leg kicks of his own, stunting Thomson's movements as he routinely beat him to the punch. It was somewhat of a surprise tactic for "El Nino," who in years past would not even wear shin guards when sparring because he never threw kicks of his own.
The result was fierce battle that saw both men have their moments, but Melendez being the more frequent winner of the heavy exchanges.
"To me, I felt the pace was slower than the first (fight), but when we did throw it was harder," said Thomson, who admitted to being rocked in the fourth, but said a second-round shot that dropped him to the mat wasn't as bad as it appeared. "He obviously had a gameplan he was working on for a year, and he came out and delivered."
In the end, after having unified the Strikeforce lightweight titles, the two were also unified in their quest to fight the best talent Strikeforce can acquire.
"I welcome all DREAM fighters and all UFC guys anytime," Thomson said. "I'll welcome them with a closed fist."
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