Jeremy Stephens (25-14)
Despite never fighting for a title, there’s a reason “Lil’ Heathen” is considered a dangerous fight for anyone: the dude is straight vicious. It’s not just that he has 16 knockouts in 25 total victories but the way he knocks fighters out. When he connects cleanly, men don’t just fall; they crumble.
Stephens is like the next step up from Chris Leben and Diego Sanchez, and one of the few fighters in the UFC that’s just as dangerous in the last round as he is in the first. Like the brawlers of old, Stephens likes to wade forward using his chin as collateral to land his own, far heavier blows. Unlike the brawlers of old, Stephens has some variety to his game; he’s knocked people out with uppercuts, hooks, head kicks and knees with equal ferocity.
But it may be too little too late.
Most people know that Stephens has had an up and down career, but they probably don’t realize that he’s 2-5 in his last seven fights. Or that the best fighter he’s beaten in his tenure with the company is Dennis Bermudez, excluding an undersized Renan Barao. Whatever little wrinkles Stephens has added to his game are insufficient to keep up with the sport.
As long as it doesn’t take too much energy to execute a takedown, Stephens is relatively easy to hold down. It’s too easy to play matador against him, letting him blow his gas on power shots and ripping combinations in return.
Gilbert Melendez (22-6)
Though fans may not believe it now, there was a time when “El Nino” was considered the best lightweight outside of the UFC. He was the champion of the Strikeforce lightweight division twice and, counting interim defenses, defended it a total of six times. This includes two wins over Josh Thomson and a win apiece over Shinya Aoki and Jorge Masvidal.
Plain and simple, Melendez is a workhorse.
With cardio for days, he’ll throw punches and shoot takedowns until he wears an opponent out for the finish or a lopsided decision. He’s content to walk his opponent down while pumping jabs and straights, throwing in the odd uppercut for good measure. He’ll shoot for the takedown when he needs to and, if all else fails, is happy to grind out wins from positioning. Melendez is a great athlete who was built for the point system.
Which begs the question: Why is this guy 1-4 in his five UFC fights? Well, Melendez is pretty limited on the feet.
That’s not to say he can’t throw a variety of strikes, because he does, however they have no depth to them. His 1-2 is fluid and quick but it’s terribly predictable; who was the last opponent who ate a clean right cross while Melendez sat down on it? In fact, whenever he sits down on his punches they become slower and whiff. He doesn’t understand how to feint to move an opponent into his punches and his leg kicks don’t carry the proper power to be fight changers.
He can push past fighters who share this weakness but loses to tactically superior fighters whose strikes are more consequential.
Stephens may be varied in his striking, but he can’t crack competent defenses. Melendez fights relatively safe, and the holes left behind aren’t ones that Stephens can exploit. The fight won’t be an exact replica of the Sanchez fight, but it’ll be pretty darn close. If Stephens wins on anything but a puncher’s chance, it’d be a genuine surprise.
Melendez via unanimous decision
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