Saturday’s event in suburban Chicago is a make or break event for Strikeforce; I believe that 100%.
Seven days before the decimated UFC 133 pay-per-view, this is a chance for Strikeforce to make a final case for their future existence as a brand. That might sound harsh, but with the state of the Heavyweight Grand Prix and how much audiences want to see the stars of the organization migrate to the UFC, what happens this weekend could produce a domino effect in the organization.
There are intriguing elements to this card both inside and outside of the cage. The questions will be answered on Saturday night. If you have Showtime – or SuperChannel in Canada – you should be watching, no questions asked.
1. The Last Battle for The Last Emperor?
Saturday night’s main event could be the final appearance of Fedor Emelianenko inside the Strikeforce cage. Depending on how things play out, it could be the last fight of his career. That’s the kind of moment most mixed martial arts fans wouldn’t want to miss.
I don’t know the details of Fedor’s contract. I don’t know if the standard “we can cut you if you lose” clause is a part of the wording. I do know that Emelianenko was dejected after taking a beating from Antonio Silva and brought up retirement then; I think we’re safe to assume that a loss to the smaller Dan Henderson would stir the same emotions again.
He’s talked about wanting to make one final run at championship gold, but if he can’t get through a forty-year-old middleweight, you’d have to imagine Emelianenko would once again consider retiring. The man who once carried an aura of invincibility has been proven to be a mere mortal over his last two fights, and a third successive loss would strip Emelianenko of any legitimate value that remains, especially in the UFC-focused North American MMA market. Fights with M-1 will always be a possibility, but three defeats should spell the end of his career with Strikeforce, a tenure that held such potential, but will ultimately be viewed as a failure.
The conversation changes if Emelianenko emerges victorious. While it doesn’t put him back into the mix at the top of the heavyweight division, it drives the discussion of a move to light heavyweight and at least maintains some reasons to run him out to the cage again under the Strikeforce banner.
Emelianenko’s story alone should be reason enough to tune in. Just in case it’s not, I’ve still got four more reasons to help sway you.
2. An Interesting Opportunity for Henderson
I kicked off my week-long coverage of this event by questioning what Henderson — and Strikeforce — had to gain from this bout. As soon as it was announced, it sounded like a fantasy fight that didn’t translate in reality.
Emelianenko remains one of the most globally recognized names in mixed martial arts. Beating Fedor adds to Henderson’s standing as one of the sport’s all-time greats, but it feels like the cherry on top of an already massive ice cream sundae. Emelianenko isn’t the same fighter he was at the height of his dominance, and while inching across the heavyweight border and earning a win is solid, it doesn’t really do anything for Henderson moving forward.
But maybe I’m over-thinking it. Instead of looking at this fight in terms of rankings and career trajectories, I should be keeping it basic and seeing it for what it is: an interesting match-up that should be fun to watch.
After all, that has been the Strikeforce way all along; make the fun fights that deliver entertainment and let decisions about the future be made in the future.
Okay — that’s a bit of a stretch.
I don’t really think women’s MMA will fall off from the sport based on the results of tonight’s title fight between Marloes Coenen and Miesha Tate. I think WMMA will continue to grow and develop on smaller shows and have a home on the Challengers cards, but this fight controls the fate of women on the bigger stage.
This is the biggest fight possible in WMMA right now. If it misses the mark, it will take the triumphant return of Gina Carano and/or Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos for another female fight to make it to the main card of a major event, though I even have my doubts about “Cyborg” getting a prime time placement in the future.
Both Coenen and Tate know the additional weight that is on their shoulders heading into this fight. They’ve said all the right things about wanting to show everyone that WMMA deserves to be under the brightest lights too, but now they have to deliver.
This can’t be a pedestrian affair, and stylistically, the potential is there for this fight to travel that road. Tate is a good wrestler who has a solid top game, and with Coenen’s submission skills from the bottom, she’s going to want to stay close and not leave the champion any openings. It makes for a great chess match on the ground for grappling-loving set, but a bout that appeals to a small minority isn’t going to score many points with the powers that be.
On a card filled with fights that have some legitimate “Oh Sh*t!” potential, this needs to be the fight everyone is talking about on Sunday morning. Whether fair or not, anything less will be a blow to the female fighters in the sport.
4. Championship Caliber Meeting Between Daley and Woodley
This fight ranks right up there alongside anything the UFC is rolling out in the 170 pound division next weekend. To be honest, it tops all three of those fights and everything else the UFC is offering from the welterweight ranks between now and The Battle of the Jakes at The Battle on the Bayou.
Paul Daley is a proven commodity; an explosive finisher who ranks in the top 15 in the world for the weight class. Last time out, he was a punch or two away from taking the welterweight title from Nick Diaz. Now he stands as the biggest challenge in the as-yet-unblemished career of Tyron Woodley.
A bruising wrestler with solid submissions and improving hands, Woodley paid his dues on the Challengers circuit and was tabbed to fight for the title prior to Diaz vacating the belt and defecting to the UFC. This is his chance to prove to a larger audience that he was deserving of that opportunity by knocking off the most recognizable name his faced to date.
Just as Woodley says he understand the decision to keep the belt out of this bout when we spoke last week, I do too, but that doesn’t meant this isn’t a championship caliber fight. These are the best two welterweights in the organization and two of the best 170 pound fighters outside of the UFC.
The winner becomes one half of the next welterweight title fight, which should push both fighters to bring their best even more on Saturday night.
5. Knockout Artists Lawler and Smith meet Rising Stars Kennedy and Saffiedine
Both the middleweight meeting between Robbie Lawler and Tim Kennedy and the welterweight contest featuring Scott Smith and Tarec Saffiedine will tell us a lot about the future prospects of all the parties involved.
Lawler and Smith are battle-tested veterans looking to rebuild their careers and restart winning streaks. They’ve each been on both sides of highlight reel finishes and are capable of producing another YouTube moment with their heavy hands every time out.
Kennedy and Saffiedine are emerging stars in their respective divisions ready to prove their ready for the next step. In Kennedy’s case, he’s looking to take a step back into the cage with the middleweight championship on the line, while Saffiedine wants to make his move to the main shows permanent.
What makes each of these fights intriguing — at least to me — is that while Kennedy and Saffiedine are favored and viewed as the more complete mixed martial artists, Lawler and Smith both possess the ultimate MMA equalizer — one punch knockout power. Neither of them are out of a fight until the final bell has sounded, and I’m always interested in watching those kinds of fights.