Why Aoki/Melendez II Is the Biggest Fight in the Lightweight Division

Elton HobsonCorrespondent INovember 5, 2010

Though not official yet, DREAM is purportedly looking at Gilbert Melendez vs. Shinya Aoki II for the DREAM LW title on New Years Day. If that fight ends up getting made, I believe it will be the biggest Lightweight fight of 2010, or 2011 if you want to get technical, but let‘s grant 2010 an extra day just for the hell of it.  

And before you jump all over me, let me state for the record that yes, I know BJ Penn exists and yes, I know he lost this year. Twice, actually. And I’ll get to that. But before I do, let’s take a little trip back through time.  

When 2010 began, Shinya Aoki was the consensus No. 2 lightweight in the world. The DREAM lightweight champ had just capped off a three fight win streak by brutally  snapping Sengoku champion Mizuto Hirota’s arm and then flipping him the bird afterwards. Oh, and the crowd too. OK, so that wasn’t exactly a proud moment, but it’s possible that it also represented the high water mark for Japan’s biggest MMA star.

Call it Japanese MMA’s “Brock Lesnar” moment. Like Brock at UFC 100, in the long run this may be remembered as Aoki’s defining moment, his biggest night, his high water mark. The analogy is even more fitting because both Brock and Aoki paid for their respective Stone Cold Steve Austin impersonations by falling off a cliff shortly thereafter.

For Brock, karma struck in the form of diverticulitis, a rare form of stomach disease brought on by ingesting too much red meat (only Brock). When he returned against Carwin and Velasquez, he also showed a marked propensity for getting run the f*ck over. OK, he beat Carwin, but it really should read “Win - Deus Ex Machina” on his official record.

But back to Shinya. Fresh off the Hirota maiming, the brash judoka jumped the pond for a match with Melendez to be televised on CBS. This was sure to be Aoki’s coming out party. A chance for him to unify two major Japanese and U.S world titles and make a strong claim to No. 1 lightweight in the world status, all in front of a network TV audience on CBS.

Only it didn’t exactly happen like that.

For 25 minutes, a versatile, conditioned Melendez smashed Aoki in an utter rout. The fight was a slow, tedious affair that saw Melendez control every range and dominate every aspect for a landslide decision win. Gilbert put on a tremendous display of versatility, game planning and guts. “Tobikan Judan” alternated between butt scooting and looking like he wanted to cry in the cage.

Now their roles are reversed, with Melendez sitting as No. 2 and Aoki on the outside of the top five looking in. To his great credit, Aoki has bounced back well from the Melendez loss and has racked up three straight, including wins over Tatsuya Kawajiri and Marcus Aurelio. He’s earned his rematch with Melendez. It’s part of what makes this match so compelling.

Melendez sits in the same spot rankings wise as Aoki once sat, at No. 2, with an outside shot at making No. 1 with the right win. For Melendez, this shot isn’t even that “outside.” The recent shake-up of the UFC Lightweight division and the crowning of King Frankie has thrown the whole division wide open.

Yes, Frankie Edgar beat BJ Penn twice this year. As a whole, that likely had more of an impact on the sport then Aoki/Melendez II. I would argue, however, that no single fight of the BJ/Frankie series outweighed it in importance or significance.

The first go round, Frankie edged BJ in a razor close split decision in a somewhat slow fight on the worst night of PPV the UFC has ever put on. This fight got ignored in the coverage in a way that shocked even me. Some fans railed against the decision, and most agreed that a motivated BJ would kick Frankie’s butt in the rematch.

Their second fight was an absolute classic. Frankie Edgar silenced every detractor and dominated BJ in a masterful performance. It was truly the fight of his career. Sadly, it was a tiny ray of light dwarfed by a massive, James Toney-shaped shadow.

Together, these bouts represented a seismic shift in the 155 pound landscape. Taken individually, they were big, but never huge. People weren’t talking about Penn/Edgar II like they were talking about Penn/GSP II even though the stakes were arguably higher for Penn in the Edgar rematch.

Does that mean people will be talking about Melendez/Aoki II? Probably not. But no one ever talks about Japanese MMA, so they shouldn’t feel offended. All joking aside, there’s a hell of a lot more on the line in this fight then just casual fan interest.

This is do-or-die for Aoki. In his backyard, in a headline spot on the biggest night of fights in Japan all year, it doesn’t get any bigger then that. For a struggling Japanese MMA scene in desperate need of a marketable home-grown star, Aoki’s destruction (or re-emergence) as a star could have drastic consequences for the future of the sport in the land of Nippon.

Aoki said losing the first Melendez match would make Japan “a colony of American MMA”. Losing the rematch in Japan, I fear, will actually make that statement true. The MMA scene in Japan will certainly be set back, perhaps mortally so. There’s not a lot of names outside of Aoki for them to fall back on unless they plan to keep Sakuraba fighting into his 50’s (knock on wood).

For Melendez, another dominating win gives him a legitimate case for No. 1 Lightweight fighter in the world. Period. No matter who wins the Edgar/Maynard rematch. This fight represents the possibility of a promotion outside the UFC stealing the coveted recognition of “best in the world,” at least among hardcore fans, especially if Melendez can put together a few more wins after this one.

So what’s not on the line in this fight? World titles? Check. National Pride? Check. Pound-for-pound rankings? Check. The future of the sport in both the U.S and Japan? Check and check.

This is the real deal, folks. Aoki.Melendez II is the biggest fight in the Lightweight division.