Just two weeks removed from UFC 200 and the resulting fallout from both Brock Lesnar and Jon Jones’ positive drug tests for estrogen blockers, the twentieth iteration of UFC on Fox events takes place at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois, on Saturday night.
UFC on Fox: Holm vs. Shevchenko, otherwise known as UFC on Fox 20, sees former women’s bantamweight champion Holly Holm take on multiple-time Muay Thai world champion Valentina Shevchenko in its main offering.
The co-main event, which features Edson “Junior” Barboza facing off against former Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert “El Niño” Melendez, is the perfect contest to whet your appetite ahead of a top-class headliner.
This fight signals the return of Northern California’s Melendez, who spent a year out of action following a failed drug test after dropping a gritty decision loss to now-UFC lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez—a training partner of Barboza’s.
It’s not been the best of UFC runs for Melendez after making the switch from Strikeforce. He is 1-3 in the promotion, having lost two title fights against Benson Henderson and Anthony Pettis alongside that aforementioned loss to Alvarez. Though, you can’t argue against the calibre of his opponents thus far.
Continuing a theme of the two crossing paths, Brazilian striker Barboza handily defeated Pettis when he notched up the biggest win of his career back in April. Despite his undoubted skill, one criticism continually levelled at Barboza was that he was a flat track bully—underpinned by his inability to overcome the big-name obstacles put in front of him. The Pettis victory stomped all over that notion, and Saturday night’s fight against Melendez is another opportunity for Barboza to cement his place as one of the stacked lightweight division’s top dogs—the top dog being Alvarez.
Barboza’s upward trajectory could face an issue down the line should he emerge victorious against Melendez on Saturday night. With training partner Alvarez holding the UFC strap, Junior has already commented on his unwillingness to fight a fellow gym member and friend.
That rise in fortune Barboza is enjoying is at odds with the slump in form Melendez is enduring. However, with a year out on the sidelines through the suspension imposed by the UFC, Melendez has had to watch on as his last opponent in Alvarez traversed the choppy waters of the 155lbs division towards glory.
Melendez’s urine sample tested positive for exogenous origin of testosterone metabolites and the test was conducted by the UFC themselves as the fight was in Mexico City where there aren’t any official regulatory athletic commissions. The failed test exemplified the trying times Melendez has experienced in his UFC tenure so far.
Rather than seethe at witnessing Alvarez’s emergence as a titleholder, Melendez owned up to his mistakes and has been using his old adversary’s success as an inspiration due to the close nature of their encounter. "I really feel like that's the fight gods talking to me," Melendez told Damon Martin of Fox Sports. “Sometimes you think it's been a long road in this sport and maybe it's time to cash in on some big paydays so we take a different road.
“But, I feel like these are the fight gods talking to me. 'Gilbert, you beat Eddie, he's the champ, beat this guy, you still have it, you can still do it'. These are the things I tell myself. These are the voices I hear and the feelings I get. Everybody knows I busted up Eddie Alvarez so it makes things interesting.”
Indeed it does. Though, positive attitude or not, Melendez has an impressive impediment in the way of his path back to title contention. Barboza is visibly rejuvenated training alongside Alvarez and former UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar under the leadership of Mark Henry and Ricardo Almeida in New Jersey.
Barboza has trained on the USA’s East Coast for a number of years now. But, on the face of it, it would appear that something has clicked for the specialist striker. Despite losing a back-and-forth war against perennial top contender Tony Ferguson towards the end of 2015, Junior’s stock rose. This was capped off with his April win over Pettis, showcasing the Brazilian’s immense athleticism, tantalising technique and some new wrinkles in his boxing attack—a world away from the man who was perhaps overly-reliant on an arsenal which exclusively focused on kicking a few fights back.
Barboza may be a man on form—he even has Alvarez’s experiences of fighting Melendez to draw upon. But, Melendez, like the other members of his infamous “Skrap Pack” consisting of fellow Cesar Gracie students in the Diaz Brothers and Jake Shields, is not a man you would want to face when his back is against the wall. With a UFC record of 1-3 and coming off an anti-doping suspension, El Niño certainly has a point to prove.
The heavy underdog, Melendez will be eager to prove all the doubters wrong. Meanwhile, Barboza’s imperious skills are finally piecing together and will want to maintain his positive upswing in momentum.
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