BEVERLY HILLS, Calif., Sept. 29 -- It wouldn't be wrong to suggest that mixed martial artists are single-handedly responsible for the outcome of their fights. On a chilly Southern Californian evening, win single-handedly is literally what Gilbert Melendez (Pictures) did.
Looking to shed 10 months of ring rust, the undefeated Melendez endured a busted right hand to out-point Japanese veteran Tetsuji Kato (Pictures) in a tougher-than-expected return to competition in the U.S.
As Hugh Hefner and his entourage of Playboy bunnies sat cage-side, the Strikeforce 155-pound champion combined with Kato to cap the first MMA event at the iconic Playboy Mansion with a compelling three-round non-title affair.
Melendez, 25, didn't look to slug early, opting instead for a fast takedown. But Kato was unwilling to give up position so easily. The squat 29-year-old Shooto veteran, who somehow managed to fight at 167 pounds early in his career, made it a fight until Melendez connected with a perfect right straight that put him on the canvas.
Hailing from Southern California originally but now making his home closer to San Francisco, Melendez (13-0) kept up a decent pace in the first period and connected with heavy left-handed hammerfists that bloodied Kato's nose to close out the opening five-minute round.
Just as Melendez gained momentum, he connected with a right that caused him to wince and shake out the pain in his hand. While "El Nino" never gave up using his right, he refrained from relying on it as a bludgeoning tool.
Melendez smartly employed his power hand to feint and set up the left, which soon delivered a steady dose of jabs, double jabs, hooks and double hooks.
"I was throwing it to set up a left, make him open up," said Melendez. "And a couple times I let it open up, try to measure for the chin, but if I hit him on the top of the head it made me think twice."
The California State Athletic Commission suspended Melendez 180 pending x-rays showing the severity of the damage.
"I know it's not broken," said Melendez, holding an ice pack to the top of his swollen right hand. "I just need to heal it up."
In the final period Melendez battered Kato's already-beaten face with a stream of lefts that pressured the Japanese fighter, who had blood pouring from his nose and a cut above his right eye, and sported a sirloin-worthy shiner around a quickly closing left eye.
It was a gutsy effort from a Strikeforce champ intent on finishing Kato (18-8), whom most predicted Melendez would walk through.
"I need to get back to training," Melendez said. "I'm not that happy, to tell you the truth."
Taking time to heal should give Strikeforce enough breathing room to sort out its plans, though it appears Josh Thomson (Pictures), also a winner Saturday at the Mansion, is in line for an opportunity at Melendez's title.
"Me and Josh are good styles," Melendez said. "We spar all the time. You know, he's a great fighter. He was a role model for me. When I used to watch him, Hermes (Franca) and Yves (Edwards) go at it, I always looked up to him. A guy I wanted to beat -- take that as compliment. It would be cool to fight him. I think he's still a great fighter, a Top 10 fighter still. But you know, I'm the champ, dude, and I got to take all the challenges. That's my belt -- I ain't giving it to him at all without a fight."
Eugene Jackson (Pictures) is fortunate that Strikeforce rules prohibit elbows to the head while fighters are on the ground. Had Joe Riggs (Pictures) been able to use the weapon, Jackson might not have gotten off as easy as being knocked out at 3:56 of the opening round.
In his Strikeforce debut, Riggs manhandled Jackson, tossing the veteran middleweight to the canvas and punching from various angles and positions.
So dominant was Riggs that he uncharacteristically gave up mount and went for an armbar. Though he failed, it was a bold move and showed that the Phoenix, Ariz.-based Riggs has room to grow as a fighter despite having 36 bouts to his name.
The end came while Jackson, 40, fought from his back. The 25-year-old Riggs, who'd taken Jackson's back twice, connected with various bombs that prompted Cecil Peoples to jump in and save "The Wolf."
With the victory, Riggs (27-9) could be in line to test Cung Le (Pictures) later this year.
The previously mentioned Thomson scored a decisive victory over Adam Lynn (Pictures) (11-8-0, 1 NC), stopping the 29-year-old Pennsylvanian at 4:45 of the first round.
Engaged in the clinch for much of the opening period, Thomson, 29, took advantage when he had space to punch by plastering a straight right to Lynn's jaw. The IFL veteran fell to the canvas, and Thomson continued the punishment to seal Lynn's third bad stoppage loss this year.
"I thought he'd be susceptible to clean stand-up," said Thomson, who raised his record to 13-3-0 (1 NC). "I noticed that he does punch combinations a little wide, and I was looking to capitalize with straight punches down the pipe. And I was able to catch that."
With Thomson likely next in line for Melendez's Strikeforce title, it could make for a potentially altered training regimen for both men since the lightweights work regularly together at the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif.
"Without a doubt, him and I are going to fight," Thomson said of Melendez. "Him and I know that."
Clint Coronel (Pictures) made it three tight split-decision losses in a row, falling on two judges' cards to Billy Evangelista (Pictures).
The lightweights traded punches in the cage for 15 minutes, which caused the mingling crowd to pause and watch some mixed martial arts.
The second period was the fight's best. Having opened a cut above Evangelista's right eye, Coronel (2-3) unleashed a series of counter left hooks that made the work of his opponent's corner moot. A stream of crimson, the first blood of the night, trickled down the 26-year-old Evangelista's face.
In the third Evangelista (5-0) scored with kicks to Coronel's legs and landed the bout's only takedown in the final minute.
Cecil Peoples and Abe Belardo scored it 29-28 for Evangelista, while Luis Cobian dissented with a 29-28 tally for the hard-luck Coronel.
Jorge Masvidal (Pictures) thumped Matt Lee (Pictures) to score a stoppage win at 1:33 of round one.
Lee (9-7-1) came out firing crisp strikes, to which the 23-year-old Masvidal (12-2) responded by moving expertly around the cage. When the lightweights met in the clinch, Masvidal pushed Lee, 37, against the cage and unloaded a vicious series of strikes, including elbows to the head, that put the Massachusetts fighter down for good.
Bobby Southworth (Pictures) didn't get much of a workout facing 40-year-old Bill Mahood (Pictures). A quick takedown put Southworth (8-4), the current Strikeforce light heavyweight champion, in half-guard. Southworth, 37, popped Mahood to the left side of his ribcage, prompting the Canadian fighter to address referee Marcos Rosales.
The official moved in and, after Mahood (15-6-1) took another shot to the midsection, stepped in to stop the fight just 75 seconds after it had begun.
Falaniko Vitale (Pictures) overwhelmed Ron Fields (Pictures) en route to a stoppage at 3:02 of the first round.
Fighting at a catch-weight of 195 pounds, the 33-year-old Vitale took Fields (18-22-1) to the canvas with a perfect slam-and-place takedown that put him in side-control.
Vitale (24-7) used his legs to trap Fields' right arm, allowing the UFC veteran to fire undefended punches to the head. Referee Nelson Hamilton stepped in after it was clear Fields could not continue.
Daniel Puder (Pictures) showed little in the way of progression during his three-round unanimous decision over heavyweight Richard Dalton (Pictures). Judges at ringside scored it 30-27 for the former professional wrestler.
He and Dalton (3-3-1) fought primarily in the clinch. Puder, now 6-0, looked for a guillotine choke in the first, but Dalton remained calm and escaped after standing in the submission for what seemed like three minutes.
Had the 26-year-old Puder wanted to stand on the outside and strike -- and it didn't appear he did -- he would have had a tough time against Dalton, 30, who moved into the clinch whenever he could.
Dewey Cooper (Pictures) moved to 2-0 as a professional mixed martial artist. He is also now 2-0 against Adam Smith (Pictures), taking a unanimous decision win for the second time in five weeks.
Cooper, a 32-year-old longtime veteran of the K-1 USA circuit, had a decided edge on the feet. The southpaw landed several punches and kicks, hurting Smith, 28, in the third with consecutive left straights.
Nelson Hamilton and Abe Belardo scored the fight 29-28 for Cooper, while Luis Cobian had it 29-27 for the Las Vegan. Smith fell to 2-2.
Daniel McWilliams (Pictures) finished 40-year-old Eddy Millis (Pictures) at 2:05 of the opening round. McWilliams fought off several of Millis' takedown efforts while threatening the entire time with a guillotine choke.
When Millis (0-2) finally found top control, the head of the Shark Tank fell back for a rather sloppy heelhook. McWilliams, announced as fighting out of Team Garage, defended and quickly moved to the mount. Millis turned to avoid punches to the face, and McWilliams (2-1) sunk in the fight-ending choke.
Once Luke Stewart (Pictures) found the mount against Sam Liera (Pictures), the Ralph Gracie (Pictures)-trained fighter offered undefended strikes before referee Cecil Peoples halted the contest at 3:09 of the opening round.
Stewart (4-0) missed a high kick to start the bout and fell to the canvas. He quickly sprang to his feet, but Liera (4-2) popped Stewart with a right straight as penance for the mistake.
They soon clinched and Stewart, 28, brought the fight to the floor, where he eventually passed the 23-year-old Liera's guard and started a minute's worth of punches from the mount that prompted the stoppage.
Anthony Figueroa (Pictures) capitalized off a solid right hand to Miguel Linares (Pictures)' jaw while the 135-pound fighters battled in the clinch. After a tentative opening minute, Figueroa and Linares, 20, clinched. The stout Figueroa (3-1) connected with a short right hand and several punches to the body before an uppercut dropped Linares (2-3).
Another punch from the 27-year-old Figueroa followed and referee Marcos Rosales moved in to stop the contest, which was officially ruled a knockout, at 2:09 of the opening round.