Checking out Saturday’s Strikeforce event
Remember how leading into the Diaz vs. Cyborg card, all that anyone was talking about in terms of Strikeforce was the Heavyweight Grand Prix? Somehow, the first leg of the event has still managed to sneak up on me.
It would be easy to highlight the negatives here (and there are a couple), but right now, this tournament has the potential to be a thoroughly entertaining endeavour that captures our collective attention through the year and I’m excited to see it get underway.
No preliminary card preview, as per usual with Strikeforce coverage, so we’re right into the big boy bouts.
Chad Griggs (9-1-0) vs. Gian Villante (7-1-0)
A New York native and the Ring of Combat heavyweight champion, this is Villante’s chance to take Griggs’ place in the heavyweight pack. The 25-year-old has collected six first-round finishes out of seven wins, and his lone loss to date came thanks to a broken elbow suffered in his one-and-only fight in the light heavyweight division. While Villante hasn’t faced anyone of great consequence in New Jersey’s premier organization, his youth and overall athleticism are a welcome addition to the heavyweight ranks.
For Griggs, this is a chance to prove that his win over Bobby Lashley wasn’t simply a result of (1) a very bad mistake by referee Jon Schorle and/or (2) exhaustion on Lashley’s part. While Griggs took home the win, it was far from dominant and he needs to show he belongs in this one.
This is a huge opportunity for both men, and really a far better pairing than could have been afforded to either fighter. Both could have been matched with more complete and experienced opponents; instead, they face each other with a potential trip into the Heavyweight Grand Prix at stake.
Valentijn Overeem (28-25-0) vs. Ray Sefo (2-0-0)
There are all kinds of ways to look at this bout in a negative light, but what’s the point? Both guys are highly-experienced veterans who should combine for an entertaining battle.
For those who don’t know, Sefo is a decorated kickboxer with a tremendous all-around combat sports record; while he’s got just two wins as a mixed martial artist, he’s tallied more than 50 wins competing at the highest levels of kickboxing over the years, facing greats like Ernesto Hoost, Peter Aerts, and Badr Hari.
The elder brother of Strikeforce heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem, Valentijn is admittedly on the downside of his career, having lost more than he’s won over the past decade, but that is the beauty of pairing him with Sefo, and not Antonio Silva as was originally scheduled back in December. While he’s won consecutive bouts coming into this fight, it’s been a long time since the older Overeem was relevant in the heavyweight division, but rest assured that he still has the skill set to put on a good show against the less experienced Sefo.
Neither of these men will be the first choice to step in for an injured fighter, as their futures are limited. Still, it should be an entertaining scrap, and at the end of the day, who doesn’t like a good heavyweight tilt?
Shane del Rosario (10-0-0) vs. Lavar Johnson (15-3-0)
This is easily the top reserve bout Strikeforce has put together, and truth be told, I would have put the talented and unbeaten del Rosario in the tournament over Arlovski or Kharitonov in a heartbeat.
A former Muay Thai world champion, del Rosario has earned nine of his ten career victories inside the first round, with eight of those wins coming by way of knockout. Though he’s been impressive in each of his two Strikeforce performances, the Colin Oyama trainee has been mired in obscurity facing overmatched opposition on Challengers series events, but he gets a bump onto the big card and opposite his toughest opponent to date here.
Johnson made a successful return to the cage last March, stopping Lolohea Mahe in the second round just eight months after being left in critical condition after being shot twice at a Fourth of July barbecue. Like del Rosario, Johnson is a powerful heavyweight with a penchant for knockouts, having amassed 13 stoppages from 15 career wins.
The winner jumps to the top of the list of replacements should anyone come down with an injury, and remains as the top “prospect” in the heavyweight ranks along with Daniel Cormier. While I don’t wish ill on any of the eight fighters taking part in the tournament, I would like to see how either Johnson or del Rosario handle a step up in competition.
Whether or not they’ll get their chances after this bout is yet to be determined.
Andrei Arlovski (15-8-0) vs. Sergei Kharitonov (17-4-0)
North American fans may not be familiar with Kharitonov, but all they need to do is ask the legions of Pride fans happy to see the Russian striker in this field and they’ll tell you all about him.
The 30-year-old was a long-time fixture in the heavyweight ranks of the Japanese organization when it had the greatest collection of heavyweight talent assembled under one roof, and holds wins over Fabricio Werdum, Pedro Rizzo and Strikeforce champ Alistair Overeem; they’ve actually split a pair of fights.
He hasn’t faced elite level competition since the fall of Pride, however, so it’s unclear where he’ll be at coming into this fight. Wins over Tatsuya Mizuno and Jimmy Ambriz sandwiched around a first-round loss to Jeff Monson don’t inspire that much confidence, but there is no question that Kharitonov has the skills to give Arlovski all he can handle and then some if he’s on-point.
A loss here would give Arlovski four straight and surely drop him of the face of the heavyweight map and into Tim Sylvia territory, which would be kind of fitting if you think of it; the two had their best battles against each other, and will be forever linked together because of it.
It’s hard to know what to expect from Arlovski at this point as he’s starting to get into the Tito Ortiz mode prior to every fight. Each loss is met with promises to come back stronger, better prepared and more focused, but when the cage door closes, we see the same fighter as always: a technically crisp boxer who hasn’t evolved with the sport and is at a disadvantage of it.
We haven’t seen any semblance of an Arlovski ground game since he tapped out “Big Timmay” way back at UFC 51, but if he’s got anything in that area under his hat, this might be a good time to dust it off; standing hasn’t won him anything lately and Kharitonov has just as much firepower on the feet, so the canvas might be a safer path to victory.
Fedor Emelianenko (31-2-0) vs. Antonio Silva (15-2-0)
This fight alone is reason to be excited for this card.
Emelianenko returns for the first time since being submitted by Fabricio Werdum last summer, and everyone is curious to see how he will respond. The stoic Russian superstar seemed to take the first true defeat of his career in stride, but you can never really be sure with Fedor; “The Last Emperor” is as emotionless as they come in a sport populated with athletes who wear their emotions on their sleeves.
One loss does not change the outstanding career Emelianenko has put together or take away from the tremendous skill set he brings into the cage. It does, however, remove the aura of invincibility that beat many opponents before the fight had started. According to Silva, he hasn’t been all that impressed with Emelianenko lately anyway.
Silva told Tatame that Fedor “hasn’t changed much” in the last seven or eight years, and that this is a bout where “he’s coming trying to stay relevant, and I’m trying to stay inside the Top 10.” While I know I speak for many when I say Fedor will always be relevant, Silva has been on a nice roll of late, earning his place in the upper echelon of the division. His loss to Werdum was a close back-and-forth contest, and he showed continued development and growth in his wins over Arlovski and Mike Kyle.
Silva’s comments show that he’s in the right mindset to challenge Emelianenko, but words and actions are two different things. This will be the biggest fight of the Brazilian’s career, a chance to add a win over an all-time great to a steadily improving resume, and he’s got the tools to make that happen. Now he just needs to put it all together on Saturday night.
Stay tuned to @HeavyMMA for more Strikeforce coverage this weekend