One round on one scorecard was the difference between Benson Henderson retaining the UFC lightweight title, and Gilbert Melendez claiming the strap in his UFC debut.
The two battled tooth-and-nail for 25 minutes in front of a frantic crowd at “The Shark Tank” in San Jose, with Henderson earning a split decision win over the former Strikeforce champion to retain the belt. And then he got engaged, asking his girlfriend, Maria, to marry him on national television. As expected, she said yes, otherwise we’d be leading with something like “Henderson wins fight, loses marriage proposal.”
As is customary after each event, we’re on to the next one, looking ahead to UFC 159 next weekend in New Jersey, and forecasting who Saturday night’s main card competitors will meet the next time they step into the cage.
Benson Henderson vs. Gray Maynard/T.J. Grant Winner
UFC president Dana White announced this one right at the close of the press conference Saturday night, and it makes a lot of sense considering Anthony Pettis has relocated to featherweight to fight Jose Aldo in August.
Maynard is a perennial contender who has twice fought for the title, and earned a win in his return to the cage last June, while Cole Harbour, N.S.'s Grant has been on a roll since relocating to the lightweight ranks, winning four straight. They meet on the main card of UFC 160 on May 25 in Las Vegas, and now the stakes have just gotten higher.
Gilbert Melendez vs. Anthony Pettis (or Donald Cerrone)
I’m offering up two options because I think who Melendez fights next is contingent on how a couple other fights play out.
If Pettis loses to Jose Aldo in August, pairing the last man to challenge for the title with the former No. 1 contender would be easy. They both remain in the thick of the chase, but you’re not going to spoil someone’s winning streak by matching them with a tough out like either one of these two coming off a loss.
If Pettis wins, he’s sticking around featherweight, and that would shuffle Melendez into a bout with Cerrone, provide he wins his next fight. “Cowboy” is set to take on former Strikeforce slugger K.J. Noons at UFC 160, so the timing would work, and stylistically it would be fireworks.
Basically, “El Nino” is in a “hurry up and wait” pattern right about now.
Daniel Cormier vs. Shogun/Lil Nog winner
My personal feeling is that Cormier will make the move down to the light-heavyweight division. He looked very good early, but not nearly as good later in his fight with Frank Mir, and there is no need for the UFC to keep feeding him heavyweight contenders if he’s not interested in fighting for the title himself.
Having said that, I don’t think you can jump him to the front of the line at light heavyweight -- not when he’ll need 5-6 months to prepare. Fighting the Mauricio Rua/Antonio Rogerio Nogueira winner for a potential title shot seems like a good starting point.
Frank Mir vs. Alistair Overeem
Mir didn’t have a ton to offer Cormier Saturday night, and I honestly wouldn’t be too surprised if he called it a career. He’s accomplished a lot, but appears to have slipped from the upper echelon. If he does stick around, I think he’s the biggest name available to pair with Overeem in a “the winner gets back in the mix” match-up.
Josh Thomson vs. Jim Miller/Pat Healy Winner
Thomson pulled off the upset by stopping Nate Diaz, and vaults himself into contention in the process. With Miller and Healy part of the queue jockeying for a shot to fight for the title, pairing next weekend’s winner with yesterday’s victor is a good fit all around.
Nate Diaz vs. Joe Lauzon (or Josh Koscheck)
This one depends on what Diaz wants to do next. If he’s sticking around at lightweight (which makes the most sense to me), a fight with Lauzon would be all kinds of entertaining. If he really does want to go back to welterweight, he’s too big of a name to bury against a tough, unknown talent, so a veteran like Koscheck who is also coming off two consecutive losses would make sense.
Matt Brown vs. Martin Kampmann
Five consecutive victories have carried Brown to the fringes of contention, and the brink of the top 10. Now comes the really hard part: beating the very best the division has to offer. Kampmann is coming off his loss to Johny Hendricks, but feels like the right pairing for Brown at this time -- a well-rounded, more technical fighter with plenty of top 10 experience.
Jordan Mein vs. John Hathaway/Erick Silva Loser
The young Canadian got battered on Saturday night, but he still had his moments. Long-term, he still has upside, but he needs a step back after this defeat. Pairing him with the winner of the upcoming prospect battle between Hathaway and Silva would work, as both in are in a comparable position as Mein at this point in their careers.
Preliminary card quick hitters
Chad Mendes vs. Cub Swanson/Dennis Siver winner
Featherweight is backed up, and they’re going to have to clear the jam by pairing off worthy title challengers at some point.
Francis Carmont vs. Yoel Romero
Carmont’s win was questionable; Romero’s was not. Timing obviously works, so why not see how good the Cuban Olympian is right away?
Myles Jury vs. Jorge Masvidal
I’m not being lazy and just pairing guys from this card together. This fight makes sense for both guys right now -- Jury needs a more experienced, well-rounded test, and Masvidal needs someone who will force him to be a little more urgent in the cage if he wants to win.
T.J. Dillashaw vs. Takeya Mizugaki
At some point in every bantamweight up-and-comer’s career, he has to face Mizugaki. He’s the guardian to the upper echelon. Dillashaw’s time has come.
Anthony Njokuani vs. Ross Pearson
I just want to keep seeing Njokuani in entertaining, back-and-forth battles, and I know Pearson would stand and sling with him. Would be a great main card starter for a TV show.