When the prospect of the two fighting ever came up, the two mirrored their replies; it would surely be an epic engagement with two fight-first combatants going after one another.
On Saturday night at UFC 166, MMA history caught up to its past when Melendez and Sanchez finally met in the Octagon.
And whatever was promised to the fans, and maybe even to themselves, was exceeded by even the most ardent fight fans wildest imagination, in what will surely go down as one of the greatest fights in UFC history.
Round one kicked off as the raucous fans inside the Toyota Center in Houston awaited a bona-fide scrap-fest. They didn’t have to wait long for the two fan favorites to engage with reckless abandon.
In pure Diego Sanchez fashion, the Greg Jackson product plodded forward with his signature warrior-like disregard for his or his opponent’s safety. As Sanchez pressured, Melendez looked to counter with winging hooks.
The flurries began early at an ever-increasing pace as the two exchanged wicked flurries, seemingly every few seconds.
It would go like this: step away, engage, step away, engage, step away, engage…
It didn’t take long for those watching to realize they were watching something special. With two minutes left, and with Melendez unleashing overhand, MLB-hooks to the head of Sanchez, a deep gash formed over the left eye of Sanchez.
With an ever-developing axe wound to his skull, Sanchez bit down on his mouthpiece, blood streaming and ran off what seemed like a wild, 10-punch flurry.
Not to be outdone, Melendez matched the tornado-like set of hooks with his own display of complete disregard for safety, and the crowd rose to their feet in a roar of applause. As the round came to a close, Melendez floored Sanchez with a right hook during a particularly insane flurry. Sanchez rose to his feet almost as quickly as he was dropped, and the two swung wildly as the opening bell sounded.
Round two began with Sanchez ripping body shots to Melendez. Early on as the shots were adding up, Melendez was dropping his hands in obvious discomfort. Oddly, in between rounds no doctors were called on to check gaping Sanchez’s eye wound.
That eventual call came midway through the second round. As the doctor was brought into the cage and the action halted, the fight world waited with baited breath to see if the fight would be allowed to continue.
Almost inexplicably, it was allowed to continue and the fighters were back to flurrying in the middle of the cage. The round continued with Melendez counter punching and Sanchez pressuring. After ten minutes, there was little doubt that we were watching one of the greatest fights in UFC history.
In between rounds, Sanchez’s corner screamed, “Don’t let him take this away from your daughter!”
As if Sanchez needed any more motivation at this point.
Round three was a round that did this classic justice. There was more action in the final five minutes of Sanchez-Melendez than in 90-percent of most UFC fights you will ever see.
It had everything: the flurries continued from the earlier two rounds, Sanchez’s face was draped in a crimson mask that would make Ric Flair blush, and each combatant shed any semblance of safety for his future. It was MMA at its finest.
As the final minutes ticked away, the action was briefly halted to check on Sanchez’s cut. It was another high-stress moment for fighters and fans alike as we waited to see if this classic would continue.
The ringside physician gave the okay to continue after a brief stoppage, and the MMA world once again exhaled. Sanchez stood in the center of the cage, leaking from his face, and pounded his chest in a memorable adrenaline-fused display.
As the flurries continued, and the crowd stood at attention, roaring at every exchange, Sanchez leveled Melendez with an uppercut. Melendez dropped to the Octagon floor and Sanchez looked to be on his way at scoring a storybook comeback victory.
Sanchez darted to the ground to finish off Melendez – something that had never happened in his previous 24 fights. “El Nino,” showing his trademark toughness, weathered the oncoming storm of Sanchez and rose to his feet.
As the ten-second horn sounded, both fighters engaged in one final fit of brutality that set the fans at the Toyota Center into a deafening frenzy.
With 15 classic minutes in the books, the fighters raised their respective hands in a sign of victory.
The phrase, “there was no loser in this fight,” is a piece of rhetoric mirrored throughout fight history. Dana White famously said it after Forrest Griffin defeated Stephan Bonnar at the inaugural Ultimate Fighter finale in 2005.
It was apt then, and it is even more apt when dissecting Melendez-Sanchez and its place in the annals of fight-sport history.
The scorecards read 30-27, 29-28, 29-28, for Gilbert “El Nino” Melendez and the Northern California product erupted in pure elation. Seeing as Melendez was coming off a brutal, and hotly contested loss to then-champion Benson Henderson at UFC on FOX 7, this fight was a vindication of sorts.
Post-fight the victorious Melendez took to the mic to praise his opponent, and former buddy.
“You don’t feel that when you’re in here,” Melendez explained when asked about the brutal uppercut that dropped him in the third. “I was out for a second, but then I grabbed a single and started fighting.”
UFC announcer Joe Rogan, who has been around since UFC 17, called it the single greatest fight he has ever seen.
“Best compliment I’ve ever had. Just, better than winning, is just (you saying it’s) the best fight you’ve ever seen,” Melendez said in return.
Rogan then asked about his soon-to-be legendary exchanges with Sanchez and Melendez credited his Mexican roots for his ability to get down and dirty.
“Exactly, that’s what Mexicans do. We hold our ground and fight,” he said.
Melendez ended with one final set of praise for his opponent, and in the process, put UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis on notice.
“Diego’s a warrior. I slept on his couch and trained with him,” he recalled. “It was an honor to fight such a warrior like that. If I can get through a guy as tough as him, I think I can get through anyone in the division. I feel like I’m the uncrowned champ and I’m coming for that belt.”
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