SAN JOSE, Calif. – Josh "The Punk" Thomson played matador to Gilbert Melendez as the bull in avoiding and countering the Strikeforce lightweight champion for five straight rounds Friday. As a result, Thomson earned an across-the-board 50-45 title-winning decision Friday night at the HP Pavilion.
"It feels awesome," said Thomson, who was all smiles from the moment he came to the cage until the decision was read more than a half hour later. "It meant a lot more to me beating Gilbert than it would have beating Clay (Guida, who defeated Thomson two years ago in the match to create the championship). I have a lot of respect for Gilbert. If I had lost, I'd have held my head up high.
"But I wasn't going to lose," he said. "I trained my ass off for this fight. It was like B.J. Penn. I woke up one day and decided to dedicate myself to the sport. I spent all last year in the bar and had nothing to show for it but a bar tab. I haven't had a drink since January."
The battle between two fighters who once spent 18 months as training partners saw Thomson dominate every aspect of the game. Thomson used better footwork to land more strikes and exploded for several takedowns late in rounds, and most effective were his kicks, which kept Melendez out of good takedown range. Melendez, who came into the fight ranked in the top five in the world in many lightweight polls, fell to 14-2. It was the first time in his career when he wasn't either dominant or at least fought evenly with an opponent.
Melendez, whose specialty is staying aggressive and strong ground-and-pound, was rocked with a hard knee up the middle when going for a first-round takedown. After the same thing happened in the second round, he seemed hesitant to try again. Thomson, who trained extensively with UFC fighter Josh Koscheck, one of the best wrestlers in MMA, was able to take Melendez down almost every time he shot.
In the second round, Thomson started to dominate with body kicks and jabs while standing, and then as Melendez shot for a takedown, nailed him with another hard knee.
"I've got hard bony knees, and Gilbert knew from all the time we trained together that if he shot, he'd have to pay for it," Thomson said.
By round four, Melendez seemed both tired and frustrated, as whenever he charged in, he would get caught. Thomson, who had a 69-1 edge when it came to kicks landing, kept using the front kick and low kick, a strong knee to the head, and late in the round got another takedown.
While not a fight-of-the-year candidate, it lived up to hype as being five rounds of action between two of the top lightweights in the country. Thomson (15-2) almost surely will break into the top 10 with the win.
Melendez asked for a rematch after the fight.
"Anytime he wants, I'll fight him again," Thomson said. He added that he had hoped for Yves Edwards to beat K.J. Noons in Honolulu two weeks ago for the Elite XC title. Edwards knocked out Thomson in 2004, the only time Thomson has been stopped during his career.
"I was hoping we could do title vs. title, but Yves didn't hold up to his end of the bargain," said Thomson, who came into the fight as a 3½-to-1 underdog and had complained about not being 100 percent physically after a January shoulder surgery and a staph infection during training.
The main event saved what had been a lackluster show to that point before a crowd of 7,488 fans, a healthy number with neither of Strikeforce's top stars, Cung Le or Frank Shamrock, on the card.
Former Ultimate Fighter Season 1 villain Bobby Southworth (9-5) retained his Strikeforce light heavyweight title with a five-round decision win over Anthony Ruiz (20-11), avenging a non-title loss last year in a bout that nearly killed the live crowd.
The difference between MMA and kickboxing was made clear quickly in the MMA debut of Raymond Daniels, who had an 18-0 record as a world champion kickboxer and is the star of Chuck Norris' World Combat League.
Daniels was taken down, grounded and completely dominated by Jeremiah Metcalf (9-4) in Daniels' MMA debut. Metcalf dominated the first round, taking Daniels off his feet quickly and giving him a beating on the ground. He took Daniels down again in the second round before winning with a choke at 0:59 of the second round.
In arguably the second-best match on the show, Misha Tate defeated Elaina Maxwell by unanimous decision in the only women's match on the card.