UFC 166 showdown between Gilbert Melendez and Diego Sanchez, longtime color commentator Joe Rogan declared the fight to be the greatest he’d ever seen in his life.
Rogan, of course, makes his main living as an edgy standup comedian, so he’s not exactly known for a sense of understatement.
But what went down for 15 minutes between the pair of Mexican-American lightweights and former training partners was something that will be long remembered. Melendez outlasted Sanchez for a unanimous-decision victory at a raucous Toyota Center in Houston.
"That was a Mexican world war in there tonight,” UFC president Dana White said at the post-fight news conference. “These are two guys who just move forward and just keeping swinging. It's just awesome, man. In the 13 years of being in this company, we've seen some amazing fights. I don't think I've ever seen a fight like that. That fight was insane."
Sanchez came into UFC 166 with a reputation for putting on wild bouts. From his 2006 Match of the Year win over Karo Parisyan, to his 2009 Match of the Year victory over Clay Guida, to a controversial decision against Martin Kampmann, The Ultimate Fighter 1 middleweight winner has long been associated with legendary scraps.
But it’s been awhile since Sanchez looked like the Diego Sanchez of old. So, conventional wisdom held that while the bout would have its share of action, a prime Melendez, the former Strikeforce and WEC champion, should cruise to victory.
For two rounds, that appeared to be the case. In the first, Sanchez actually trapped Melendez in an early guillotine. But Melendez escaped and began to impose his will on Sanchez. A standing short elbow opened a nasty gash on Sanchez’s left eyebrow, as Melendez outlanded Sanchez by a more than two-to-one ratio for the round (29 strikes to 13, according to official UFC statistician FightMetric).
In round two, Sanchez appeared to go for an “eat three punches to land one good punch” approach, and it had marginal effect. He appeared to be fading by the end of the round. Over the course of the first two rounds, Melendez stuffed five of Sanchez’s six takedown attempts, keeping the bout from going to the ground.
Then, it happened.
Trainer Greg Jackson told Sanchez after the second round that he needed a knockout. A switch seemed to go off in Sanchez’s brain and the clock turned back to 2006.
What followed were five of the most thrilling minutes any combat sports fan can ever hope to witness. Sanchez came out swinging. Melendez was ready. The two started trading punches. They combined to throw 178 significant strikes over the final round (92 for Melendez, 86 for Sanchez).The fight was nearly stopped when the doctor checked Sanchez’s profusely bleeding cut, but he was allowed to continue.
Melendez landed more (40 to 21). But Sanchez scored the nastiest blow, a monster uppercut which nearly ended the fight. Sanchez then got Melendez in a rear-naked choke. But Melendez summoned the heart to escape and get back to his feet.
The fight, fittingly, ended with the pair trading haymakers as if they were trying out-do each other on Wanderlei Silva impersonations.
"I've been there plenty of times, it's just unfortunate I haven't been there on the UFC stage to do it," Melendez said. "I've done that plenty of times in a lot of my fights, but yeah, it's just something. You get lost in the moment. You don't want to back down.”
Both combatants came out winners in the fight’s immediate aftermath. In April, Melendez (22-3) was on the wrong end of a controversial split decision against then-lightweight champion Benson Henderson in a bout a majority of viewers felt he won. That snapped a seven-fight win streak. Fifteen minutes of trench warfare against one of the UFC’s most enduring stars can not only up his stock with the fans, but also with his boss. White indicated Melendez is back on the short list of challengers for the title, now held by Anthony Pettis.
"It's obviously very fortunate for him that Pettis won [the title], because he just came off a title shot against Henderson,” White said. “Definitely, Gilbert Melendez is one of the best in the world. It definitely puts him back in the mix for the title shot."
Sanchez, meanwhile, offers proof that you don’t have to have your hand raised to come out a winner. This fight was about silencing all the whispers that he was finished. Sanchez (24-6) is relevant again. He’ll never likely hold a championship, but he’s still Diego Sanchez.
“I think, honestly, the fight was a draw,” Sanchez said in an interview which aired on FOX Sports 2. “I landed a lucky shot in the third and he dropped. I thought that was enough to get a draw. I want five rounds. I want the rematch.”
So, was the bout, as Rogan hyperventilated, the greatest ever? Those are lofty standards. It's hard to compare any three-round bout to a five-round classic, like Jon Jones’ epic victory over Alexander Gustafsson just last month, or Dan Henderson’s Nov. 2011 decision win over Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, which many consider the best UFC fight of all-time.
And there are other comparable three-round fights. There was, of course, the legendary Forrest Griffin-Stephan Bonnar standoff, the one largely credited for putting the new-era UFC on the map, in 2005. And the 2007 showdown between Chuck Liddell and Wanderlei Silva, the former longtime 205-pound champions, was worth the several-year wait.
Both of those three-round bouts have more historical impact that Melendez-Sanchez likely will. But neither fight, nor the five-round bouts listed above, had a round quite as epic as the third round of Melendez-Sanchez.
So maybe Melendez-Sanchez wasn’t the greatest fight ever. But it belongs on the list of the best. And that’s a fine compliment in its own right.
Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter: @DaveDoylemma