SAN JOSE -- At the final horn, Gilbert Melendez and Benson Henderson both declared victory by raising their arms triumphantly. But that would be for the judges to decide after a thrilling, UFC lightweight title bout that saw the two fighters still throwing wild, tired punches late into the final round.
And when the scorecards were read, Henderson barely had held onto his championship belt with a controversial split-decision victory in the main event at the UFC on Fox mixed-martial arts card Saturday night at HP Pavilion.
As the decision was announced, San Francisco native Melendez dropped to one knee in stunned disbelief that two of the three judges had scored the fight against him.
Then in a bizarre scene, as loud boos rained down from the pro-Melendez crowd, Henderson also dropped to one knee and presented a diamond ring to his girlfriend Maria Magana as he proposed marriage. The crowd stopped jeering for a moment when Magana said yes -- and then immediately launched into a new round of booing over the decision.
"I'm just heartbroken," Melendez said afterward. "That's it. Heartbroken."
Beyond dispute, though, is that Melendez and Henderson put on a great show in the first nationally television event to be held in San Jose as part of the UFC on Fox series, which is intended to broaden the appeal of MMA to a mainstream audience. The event also once again showed the strength of the emerging sport's appeal in the Bay Area -- drawing 13,306, raucous spectators.
In the other marquee bout, San Jose heavyweight Daniel Cormier stayed unbeaten with a methodical, unanimous decision over an overmatched Frank Mir.
But it was the final bout that had the crowd buzzing. The Henderson-Melendez showdown was billed as "champion versus champion" because Henderson (19-2) entered the Octagon cage as the reigning UFC title-holder while No. 1 challenger Melendez (21-3) was the last man to hold the belt in Strikeforce -- the rival, San Jose-based MMA company that was bought out by UFC.
"Great fight," said UFC president Dana White. "Everybody was talking about how they scored the fight. Some people had it at a draw. Some had Ben winning. Some had Gil. But that's a Ben Henderson fight. All of his fights go to decisions, and they're controversial decisions. But for his first UFC fight, Gil really came out and rocked tonight."
The two former college wrestlers went toe-to-toe for five rounds of mostly stand-up fighting. While the action was continuous, neither fighter ever appeared close to putting away the other.
Melendez controlled the early rounds while Henderson, who is 7-0 in UFC fights, looked best late in the third round when he brought Melendez down with a sweep kick and the delivered a series of short punches as the horn sounded. But after allowing Henderson back into the fight, Melendez was the aggressor in the final five minutes.
"I thought I won the first two rounds and the fifth for sure," Melendez said. "I thought it was going to come down to the fifth, and I thought I won the last round."
Two judges, though, scored the bout 48-47 for Henderson while only one had it 48-47 for Melendez.
"I didn't have any doubt," Henderson said. "I knew it was close, but I thought I won. He did a great job of dictating early and making me fight while backing up. I started slow because Gil made me start slow. But after the first round, I felt like I was winning."
Much of the buildup to Saturday night centered on heavyweights Cormier and Mir, whose pre-fight chatter had gotten personal. But the actual fight had no spark. With the HP Pavilion crowd alternating between chanting "D.C." and booing Mir's defensive style, the 34-year-old Cormier didn't have to break much of a sweat to improve his record to 12-0.
Cormier, 34, a two-time U.S. Olympic wrestler who trains at the American Kickboxing Academy, entered the cage hoping to use it as a springboard to a possible title bout. Mir, 33, a former two-time UFC champion, had claimed in he was in the best shape ever and wanted another crack on the title, currently held by San Jose's Cain Velasquez.
But Mir (16-7) showed little as Cormier won a lethargic fight.
"I've had a very long athletic career and competed at the highest levels," Cormier said. "So I always laughed at Dana when he said there's nerves and jitters that come with these fights. But I felt so nervous today. It's almost like you want it so bad and want to do so well, and I kind of laid an egg. I didn't fight the fight I want to, and I felt tired for some reason. I think it was my nerves."
San Jose's Josh "The Punk" Thomson made a victorious return to UFC by hammering Stockton's Nick Diaz in a lightweight bout. The 34-year-old Thomson (20-5) had been away from UFC for nearly a decade and had a difficult opponent in Diaz, 29, whose most recent fight was a title-bout loss to Henderson.
But Thomson took control in first round by softening up Diaz with a strong kick and two punches to the head, and also slamming Diaz to the ground. In the second round, Diaz's face already was bleeding profusely when Thomson knocked him down with another kick to the head, and then swopped down with a flurry of punches.
Diaz' team already had thrown a white towel into the cage before the referee finally stopped the fight at 3:44 of the second round.
"I played this fight in my head over 100 times, and I probably lost it about 50 of those times," Thomson said. "But I never saw it playing out this way. I just picked him part. When I don't get caught up in what the other guy is doing, I feel like I'm one of the best fighters in the world."
In the opening fight of the Fox broadcast, veteran welterweight Matt Brown (19-11) taught Canadian youngster Jordan Mein (28-8) a few painful lessons about life in UFC. After a wildly entertaining first round where the two fighters traded wicked punches that drew blood, the 31-year-old Brown brought the bout to a brutal end 59 seconds into the second round.
Brown caught Mein, 23, fighting in his second UFC bout, with three consecutive stand-up knees to the face. Then he ended the fight with repeated elbows to Mein's body for the technical knockout.
Contact Mark Emmons at 408-920-5745.