THIS DAY IN MMA HISTORY (12/19): Smith upsets Le, Melendez beats Thomson in rematch at Strikeforce Evolution in 2009

By Dayne Fox, MMATorch Contributor

I’m not going to lie: I’ve been in a bit of a hangover state from all of the MMA action last weekend, in addition to having a heavy workload this week (not referencing the writing). So I was a bit late in getting around to the history lesson for the week, leaving me short on options in addition to eliminating some potentially better subjects. No one to blame but me.

So what was I left with? Strikeforce: Evolution from 2009. If you’re like me, you have problems differentiating the Strikeforce events, and feel a little let down that it was all I was left with. But upon further review, I actually became ecstatic with the opportunity to review this event, and in the process was reminded just how good Strikeforce was at times.

Remember Scott Smith? Yep, the same dude who ate a vicious body shot from Pete Sell, only to KO Sell as he charged in to finish him. Smith became known for his resilient nature following that win, as well as a win over Benji Radach in which Radach dominated him most of the fight only for Smith to land a finishing blow more than halfway through the third round. On this card in 2009, Smith would be matched up against the returning former Middleweight Champion Cung Le, who vacated his title due to film obligations. Smith was dominated through the first two and a half rounds as Le landed spinning back kick after spinning back kick on him, knocking him to the ground at least three times while coming dangerously close to finishing the fight in the first. Smith was somehow able to climb to his feet despite the barrage of ground punches. Catching Le with a sneaky left hand in the third, Smith swarmed once he saw Le was hurt and finished off the Vietnamese star shortly thereafter to pull off yet another comeback, and his biggest upset to date, to cap off one hell of a night.

What is even better is that wasn’t even the best fight of the night. A year and a half earlier, UFC retread Josh Thomson had taken the Lightweight Title from Gilbert Melendez in a sizeable upset. At Evolution, Thomson was set to make his first defense against… Melendez. Thomson had dealt with a laundry list of injury issues since winning the belt (tearing ligaments in his toe, suffering a broken ankle, and a broken leg) and had been unable to defend his title as a result, which led to Melendez capturing the interim title. Their first fight had been exciting, but it wasn’t able to properly prepare fans for what they were about to witness.

Both came out fast and furious as they engaged in a number of flurried exchanges. Thomson appeared to own the upper hand in the first round, as he pushed the pace while putting together a greater volume of combinations. Melendez immediately swung the momentum in the second, as he countered with a right hand that floored Thomson 30 seconds into the second round. Melendez continued to control the round until late when Thomson started putting together good combinations once again. Melendez then engaged him in a wild exchange that again saw Thomson fall to the ground before the round ended, with Melendez on top of Thomson.

This event being the only one left in the week to review turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I hadn’t seen the entirety of the Le-Smith fight ever, only highlights and the climactic ending, and was able to develop a better appreciation for Smith’s toughness given what he was able to overcome in the fight. I had seen all of the Thomson-Melendez fights before, but forgot just how good the second fight was. All of the fights are fun to watch, but there is no doubt this one was the best of the series.

The third round was good action without any standout moments, as Melendez landed the steadier stream of offense, and the fourth starting much the same. Thomson started looking for takedowns as the round went on and landing combinations once again before Melendez was able to land some of his own shots before the round closed out. It seemed Thomson now needed a finish to win the fight, and began engaging Melendez in an exciting firefight about a minute into the round with both rocking one another. The action slowed a bit with both picking their spots before Melendez again put Thomson on the ground with a punch. Thomson was able to get to his feet and score a brief takedown where he looked to get Melendez’s back searching for a submission but being unable to get it. The fight ended appropriately with both swinging for the fences.

This was the second of a trilogy of fights that has become one of the hallmarks of Strikeforce’s history. Thomson had a dominant performance in the first with Melendez taking this fight pretty clearly. The third fight was very close with Melendez eking out a split decision to complete the trilogy.

The strongest reminder of how good Strikeforce really was actually came from last weekend. With Luke Rockhold taking the belt from Chris Weidman, the current UFC champions in the four highest weight classes were all imports from Strikeforce from when the UFC absorbed the dissolving organization: Fabricio Werdum at heavyweight, Daniel Cormier at light heavyweight, Rockhold at middleweight, and Robbie Lawler at welterweight. What was all this talk about the UFC being better than Strikeforce?

The lesson here is obvious: even though the UFC has the majority of the top stars in the sport, and by far more depth than any other organization, they don’t have a monopoly on all of the greatest fighters. Don’t get me wrong, the UFC is clearly head and shoulders above any other MMA organization. Just don’t tell me that’s the only place any world class fighter does their thing. The UFC was firmly in the driver seat throughout Strikeforce’s existence, but was able to find four of their future champions in another organization. Anyone think Will Brooks couldn’t compete with Rafael dos Anjos? History would indicate otherwise. Perhaps someday we’ll find out.


This Week in History

December 13, 2008: In a bit of a surprise, underdogs Ryan Bader and Efrain Escudero beat Vinny Magalhaes and Phillipe Nover, respectively, to win the light heavyweight and lightweight tournaments in the eighth season of TUF. Bader and Escudero would go on to have the better careers over their contemporaries as well, as Magalhaes and Nover would only pick up a lone UFC win each, coming in their second UFC stint for both of them.

December 14, 2013: In his third title defense, Demetrious Johnson made short work of the man whom he met for the inaugural flyweight belt in Joseph Benavidez, KOing the Team Alpha Male representative just a little over two minutes into the fight at UFC on Fox 9. Earlier in the night, Benavidez’s teammates Urijah Faber and Chad Mendes would punch their own tickets to title shots with dominant victories over Michael McDonald and Nik Lentz, respectively.

December 16, 1995: In an attempt to find out who was truly the best fighter in the world, the UFC put together the Ultimate Ultimate tournament, featuring fighters who had either won a tournament, finished as a runner-up, or were just a flat out fan favorites. Dan “The Beast” Severn had little trouble running through the field, beating Paul Varelans, Tank Abbott, and Oleg Taktarov to claim the original Ultimate Ultimate tournament.

December 16, 2000: In the last show underneath SEG ownership, Tito Ortiz survived an early scare from Yuki Kondo to quickly reverse course and score a dominant victory to defend his title. Pat Miletich had defended his belt against Kenechi Yamamoto earlier in the evening in a rather blasé affair, while longtime middleweight staple Matt Lindland made his UFC debut by successfully disposing of Yoji Anjo.


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