It seems nobody is buying Diego Sanchez as a legitimate contender at lightweight in 2013. It’s bad enough that Sanchez opened as a +260 underdog against Gilbert Melendez, but three months of the public betting on Melendez has made Sanchez a huge underdog at +550. However, when I look at how Melendez matches up with Sanchez I can’t justify favoring Melendez by such a wide margin.
The most important thing for Sanchez in this fight is to get his takedown game working. That’s because Melendez’s first two career losses can be blamed on a lack of effective takedown defense. Melendez was taken down seven times in a loss to Mitsuhiro Ishida in Japan and six times in a loss to Josh Thomson in Strikeforce. While Melendez has an effective career takedown defense rate of 72 percent, he has been taken down 32 times total.
Melendez isn’t the easiest fighter to take down but it’s been done plenty of times before. It’s a particularly tough task for Sanchez, who has not been a good offensive wrestler in the UFC. He has landed only 22 percent of his takedown attempts in the UFC, including an infamous 0 for 27 showing in his championship fight against Penn. Overall, Sanchez has landed 30 takedowns in 21 fights. If he can land at least two or three takedowns on Melendez it will go a long way towards potentially stealing a decision victory.
Sanchez does have a history of winning controversial decisions. In his last fight, Sanchez was awarded a split decision victory against Takanori Gomi while every media score collected by MMADecisions.com gave the fight to Gomi. Against Martin Kampmann, Sanchez won by unanimous decision despite being out-struck by a 77-51 margin. Back at UFC 60, Sanchez defeated John Alessio by unanimous decision despite landing just nine significant strikes and one takedown in 15 minutes. It’s possible that Sanchez could win by controversial decision yet again if he can land a couple well-timed takedowns on Melendez.
On the other hand, if Melendez shuts down Sanchez’s takedown game entirely then whatever chance Sanchez has of winning such a decision will be greatly diminished. Almost every striking metric favors Melendez by a significant margin.
Both fighters are very difficult to finish. Seven of their combined eight losses have been by decision. Only once has Sanchez lost by TKO, and that was a doctor stoppage due to a deep cut suffered by Sanchez in the fifth round of his fight against Penn.
In a fight that’s likely to go to decision Sanchez needs to give the judges a reason to score the fight in his favor. If all he does is get out-struck for three rounds by Melendez then it’s unlikely Sanchez would be able to win another “gift” decision. There’s very little in the striking statistics to suggest that Sanchez can win on points in a match that stays standing.
Overall, the potential for Sanchez to win a decision based on a combination of aggressive striking and well-timed takedowns needs to be acknowledged. His chances of winning this fight are better than the betting public is giving him credit for. At the same time, Melendez is clearly the superior overall fighter. He’s the more efficient striker and has superior takedown offense and defense. Melendez should be considered a strong favorite to win on points in this match, but not so much that he should be an 8-1 favorite to win the fight.
Pick: Gilbert Melendez by decision