SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Josh Thomson (Pictures) certainly picked the opportune night to fight up to the potential that most within the sport knew he possessed.
Shoulder surgery, its rehabilitation, a staph infection, and the loss of his father over a year-and-half ago seemed to stack itself firmly against the San Jose fighter. If you bought into Thomson's pre-fight chatter, you might have thought the 29-year-old was bracing himself for inevitable defeat against Strikeforce lightweight champion and top-10 ranked Gilbert Melendez (Pictures).
But in front of a crowd of 7,488 spectators inside the HP Pavilion, any hesitation that may have haunted Thomson (15-2, 1 NC) was absent, as he cruised on to a shutout unanimous decision and the Strikeforce crown.
The American Kickboxing Academy product established his confidence with Melendez early on, pulling the former Pride star's legs out from underneath him with a clean double-leg takedown. Melendez (14-2) squirmed to his feet, as he would on every occasion he was taken down, but Thomson was there to meet him and he was ready.
Thomson utilized effective lateral movement to thwart many of Melendez's trademark looping hooks and circled to the outside continuously to keep Melendez on the move. What power punches did get through landed hard, but Thomson took his punishment with pride, grinning a handful of times when a fist found its target.
Peppering Melendez with a persistent left body kick, Thomson later added knees, uppercuts, and front push kicks to his onslaught as Melendez continued to push forward. By the final round, Melendez's mouth hung open as he was labored by a formidable pace. Knowing he was behind on the cards, Melendez hunted down the punch he so desperately needed to hold onto the belt he'd protected for two years. The opportunity never came and Melendez dropped his second bout in three fights.
Melendez's manager, Chris Sanford, said his client felt sluggish and that he believed a change in routine following the 26-year-old's December loss to Japanese spark plug Mitsuhiro Ishida (Pictures) at Yarennoka hadn't taken well to the usually aggressive enforcer.
While losses to Yves Edwards (Pictures) and Clay Guida (Pictures) overshadowed his victories over standouts like Hermes Franca (Pictures) and Rob McCullough (Pictures), Thomson's victory over Melendez certainly buoys him into top 10 territory.
"I always perform when there's a big fight on the line," said Thomson, a 3-1 underdog Friday night. "It's the guys that aren't supposed to beat me that I obviously have a harder time with. I think anytime that you put somebody that's tougher in front of somebody else, they rise to the occasion. That's the sign of a true fighter."
Strikeforce promoter Scott Coker said the event had been created to showcase Melendez and Thomson, and no other fight on the card quite lived up to the main event's bravado.
Light heavyweight champion Bobby Southworth (Pictures) (9-5, 1 NC) vindicated a November 2007 loss to Anthony Ruiz (Pictures) (20-11) with a tedious unanimous decision over five rounds to retain his championship status.
The pair's first encounter -- a non-title affair -- lasted only 52 seconds into the second round after Ruiz busted the 38-year-old open with an alleged headbutt.
In their second go, Southworth controlled much of the action with numerous takedowns over the entire 25 minutes. Both men engaged little on their feet, which disconcerted the hungry San Jose crowd, and the bout's pace slowed considerably as the minutes wore on. Still, Southworth, who believed his indiscretions on the Spike TV series "The Ultimate Fighter" still plague fans' perception of him, had his moments early on with armbar and kimura attempts.
Sprightly underdog Nam Phan (Pictures) (14-5) certainly won over the fans, but couldn't get past the judges' scorecards, dropping a split decision loss to Fresno favorite Billy Evangelista (Pictures) (7-0) in a lightweight offering. Phan's 5-foot-6 frame, which seems better suited for the 145-pound division, caused him problems early on as Evangelista muscled him to the cage and wrangled Phan to the ground. Phan remained pinned under Evangelista and his ground-and-pound barrage nearly the entire round.
Phan fared worlds better in the second set, finding rhythm and range with a jab-straight combination that connected a few times. Evangelista stole recovery time with a takedown attempt, then took it back upstairs once his cobwebs had cleared. Landing a clean takedown, Evangelista then corralled Phan onto to his back to finish out the clock.
Phan delivered a spirited round three swinging for the fences, then nailed Evangelista with a knee that sent his mouthpiece flying. However, Evangelista's takedowns snapped much of the momentum the smaller fighter built. Evangelista earned 29-28 marks from judges Marcos Rosales and Abe Belardo. Nelson "Doc" Hamilton believed Phan was the victor with a 29-28 score.
Miesha Tate (Pictures) (2-1) stifled Cung Le (Pictures)'s prized female student Elaina Maxwell (Pictures) (2-3) with a takedown at the top of the first and second rounds, then hopped to mount just as comfortably.
In the first, Maxwell utilized her longer bottom limbs to trap Tate's head and stall an armbar attempt off until the final seconds. Though it appeared Maxwell had tapped from the hold, the women continued into the second round, where again Maxwell scissored Tate's head from the bottom to stave off defeat. Tate relinquished mount to free herself.
In the third round, Maxwell halted Tate's charge at the fence, while the Washington fighter continuously dropped levels to try and drag Maxwell down. After a restart, Maxwell stuffed the second shot and took Tate's back. The San Jose product could not find a finish, clearing the way for Tate to take home a deserved 29-28 unanimous decision.
Seasoned 9-4 middleweight Jeremiah Metcalf (Pictures) didn't give debuter Raymond Daniels (Pictures) even an inch to put his kenpo-shotokan-American tae kwon do background to the test. Daniels was soundly bodylocked and dumped to the mat at the opening bell; the World Combat League veteran managed to survive the first round underneath his experienced opponent. Metcalf found full mount much faster in round two, then whacked away with hammerfists until Daniels handed over his back and the rear-naked choke only 59 seconds in.
Followers of bantamweight Anthony Figueroa (Pictures) (4-3) were undoubtedly disappointed after the local draw spent much of the bout on his back, unable to unload his machine-gun fists. But opponent Chris Cariaso (Pictures) (7-1), also with a small contingent in attendance, dumped Figueroa to the mat on every occasion and controlled position amply. Cariaso found full mount in both stanzas, and finally latched on the rear-naked choke for the tapout at 4:34 of the second.
Lightweight Bobby Stack (5-1) gained momentum as his bout wore on with Jose Palacios (Pictures) (3-1). Stack completed numerous takedowns to keep Palacio away from his strengths standing, ensuring a 29-28 unanimous decision across the cards.
Cowboy Karate's Brian Caraway (Pictures) (9-2) sported a solid ground game once his bout with Alvin Cacdac (4-4) hit the canvas. Moving from knee-on-belly to taking Cacdac's back, Caraway dug his spurs in and finished with a rear-naked choke 1:39 into the first round.
Cyrillo Padhillo (1-0) was in the driver's seat for two rounds of play, utilizing low kicks and takedowns that gave Jesse Jones (2-1) all he could handle until the final set. In the third, Jones floored San Francisco's Padhillo with a scorching right. Still, Padhillo found the fire to reverse into guard and finish strong. Padhillo earned a unanimous decision with scores of 29-28 (twice) and 30-27.
Though slowed by Travis Johnson's persistent left high kick in the first round, light heavyweight Jorge Interiano (1-0) soon found his one-two range and had his suddenly gun-shy opponent on the run. A red gash leaking underneath his right eye, Johnson (0-1) declined to come out of his corner for the second round.
In a middleweight bout that followed the main event, Eric Lawson (Pictures) hardly broke a sweat in handling overmatched opponent Jesse Gillespie (Pictures). The Concord, Calif., native took Gillespie down, swam to mount, then had his hooks and a rear-naked choke in before the San Jose local knew what hit him. The sequence lasted all but 1:03.
In the night's opener, Alexandre Trivino (2-0) finessed his way to the ground by jumping to his back, then efficiently found the armbar to submit Eric Jacob (Pictures) (1-4) a cool 37 seconds into the opening frame.