Gilbert Melendez successfully defended his lightweight title this evening against Josh Thomson in the Strikeforce cage, but only by way of a controversial split decision ruling.

In contrast to their previous two fights the first round of this third encounter was fought at a relatively steady, methodical pace.

In the stand-up department it was fairly even with Thomson using good footwork and angles while Melendez was staying composed and firing off the occasional leg kick which seems like a good strategy given that his opponent’s knees were heavily strapped, likely due to a pre-fight injury.

Outside of the that the two most notable moments were takedowns from Melendez. The first up was up against the cage and he couldn’t quite get Thomson’s body out from the cage, so he was able to wall-walk his way back up to his feet. The second came at the very end of the round as Melendez caught a kick and dumped him to the mat.

The first few minutes of the second round were also fairly even and uneventful, but things started to heat up a little towards the end, starting with a nice exchange in close with Melendez getting the better of it with several solid shots landing to Thomson’s face.

He then puncuated that brief moment of success by soon after securing another double leg takedown against the cage. Again Thomson was able to wall-walk back to his feet, but Melendez caught him with a couple of punches up before he could circle out of danger.

Looking to redress the balance Thomson tried to go for a takedown of his own in the final seconds of the round, but Melendez defended it well and landed some nice elbow strikes in return.

Melendez looked to have really settled into his striking groove in the third and showed some terrific head movement at times, bobbing and weaving through flurries of punches and emerging unscathed.

He was also landing some nice hooks and following it up with hard uppercuts – his most effective punches of the fight thus far.

Thomson had his moment though, pressing forward with punches in bunches that were landing and sending Melendez into reverse gear, but they were coming too few and far between to really swing the fight in his favor, though the champion’s right eye was swelling.

After exchanging more blows for much of the fourth round there was high drama in the final minutes as Thomson tripped Melendez to the ground and started to rain down blows upon him. Melendez got to his knees and started to crawl towards the cage, but Thomson was on him and took his back.

This was Thomson’s chance and he went all in for the finish by going for the rear-naked choke. Melendez showed heart and technique though, keeping his chin tucked and looking to fight for control of his opponents limbs to relieve the pressure. There were some tense moments, but he survived and made it to the final round.

Into the fifth and Thomson’s tail was up while Melendez was now more cautious again. Thomson was becoming more aggressive with his striking now and was definitely getting the better of the exchanges, landing with more regularity.

It looked like the two were going to slug it out for the remaining minutes, but then Thomson changed things up nicely with another crafty trip takedown.

That should have sealed the round in his favor, though to be fair it was actually Melendez who was the far more active fighter offensively from his back, landing a series of elbow strikes, while Thomson appeared happy just to hold the position until the bell.

So, despite a slightly slow start this turned out to be a fitting third fight in the trilogy between these two, and an extremely close one to, leaving the judges with a tough decision on their hands.

In fact it was so close that they ended up with a split decision verdict, but by the skin of his teeth the champion Melendez retained his belt (48-47 x2, 47-48).

Credit to Thomson for really making a fight of this one and perhaps putting some doubt in the mind of those who say that Melendez is the No.1 lightweight in the sport.

There’s only one way to find out for sure though, and really both Melendez and Thomson would benefit greatly from being able to fight the caliber of fighters that are available in the UFC’s 155lb ranks, though such a move seems unlikely in the near future.