MMA: Josh Thomson
CHICAGO -- It’s an unfortunate truth about mixed martial arts: Judges get it wrong sometimes.
The wrong man won Saturday when it came to a lightweight bout between Ben Henderson and Josh Thomson.
Though Thomson wasn’t completely “robbed” in the split decision, it was at least a case of petty theft. It was an especially difficult loss for Thomson due to what was at stake (a UFC title shot) and what he overcame in it (a broken hand).
Difficult enough for Thomson (20-6) to openly contemplate retirement, saying “this might be it” within the same breath of stating he is still a top-five talent in his division.
“I felt like I won,” Thomson said. “I won with one hand. I beat the former UFC champion -- a guy who was here for two years. That’s what I can’t stomach. I’m a better fighter. That’s what pissed me off.”
For the record, there is no way Thomson retires after what happened in this fight.
I felt like I won. I won with one hand. I beat the former UFC champion -- a guy who was here for two years. That's what I can't stomach. I'm a better fighter.” -- Josh Thomson, on his narrow defeat to Benson Henderson
Not that he’s a liar or that he shouldn’t walk away if his heart isn’t in fighting people for a living anymore. I’m just saying there’s no way.
Javier Mendez, one of Thomson’s coaches who was in his corner at the United Center, seemed to agree. Mendez confirmed Thomson spoke about retirement during his latest camp but said he simply cannot see Thomson walking away while still at his peak.
“Josh is honest, so if he’s talking about [retirement] he means it,” Mendez said. “But when things calm down, I think he’ll realize how good he still is, and there is no way he should be thinking about that. No way.
“The only thing he should be thinking about is that title shot he deserves to have.”
After the first round of Saturday’s fight, which all three judges awarded to Thomson, the 35-year-old went to his corner, adjusted his glove and saw his right thumb fold backward clear to his wrist.
Mendez said his heart sank when he saw the injury and immediately wondered if he should throw in the towel to save Thomson from further injury.
It would have been an easy out for Thomson -- a built-in excuse for whatever happened next. To be fair, few UFC fighters would take such an out, which Thomson made a point of saying at the postfight news conference.
Not every UFC fighter would have still found a way to win the fight, though -- as Thomson, in my eyes, did.
At one point in the fourth round, after Henderson worked back to his feet from a takedown, Thomson took a long look at the clock on one of the screens hanging in the corner of the arena.
It felt like a critical moment in the fight. Henderson had clearly won the third round and just created momentum in the fourth. Thomson’s injured hand was affecting his ability to win crucial scrambles, which he knew could be the difference in the fight.
“It was really bugging me,” Thomson said. “My corner was yelling at me to fight [my way out], but I couldn’t grab anything. Every time I pushed on his hands to separate them, my thumb would push back.
“It was more irritating than anything, just to know the things you can’t do [are] the things you need to do. To train this hard and this long and I can see my title shot just disappearing.”
But he didn’t let it disappear in that moment. After looking at the clock, Thomson scored a key takedown, which I believed put him up 3-1 entering the fifth.
Heading into the weekend, Thomson was a sort of de facto No. 1 contender, thanks in large part to the fact that TJ Grant remains sidelined due to injury.
Thomson's goal in Chicago was to prove he belonged in that role by outfighting a former champion.
Regardless of what his record says, in the eyes of many, he achieved that goal.
The former UFC lightweight champion lost his title in August -- convincingly, to the same man who took his WEC title a few years back. He became a married man Jan. 1, so looking good shirtless isn’t as necessary as it used to be.
Henderson (19-3), however, says he never considered a jump to 170 pounds and is intent on taking back his lightweight title. That process starts this month, when he meets Josh Thomson at a UFC on Fox event Saturday in Chicago.
"This is my weight class," Henderson told ESPN.com. "I want to own this weight class. It was mine for a while and it will be mine again.
"A couple years down the line, if there’s talk of 170 again, I’ll entertain it. But nah, 155 is my weight class."
Fighting out of Glendale, Ariz., Henderson says he has made no drastic changes since the submission loss to Anthony Pettis at UFC 164. He makes no excuses for it either.
"Everything was going actually really great -- I had a great weight cut and camp," Henderson said. "There is no big reason why it happened. No excuses."
Henderson says the idea of a trilogy fight with Pettis down the road has no effect on his current motivation, but he doesn't say it very convincingly.
I don't need it for any particular reason -- but we will face off again. And when we do, I will be very, very, very excited to be in the Octagon with him again” -- Benson Henderson, on a rematch with lightweight champion Anthony Pettis
He received mild criticism as champion for claiming there was little desire to avenge the first loss to Pettis. Henderson would shrug off the topic, saying he intended to defend the belt for years and assumed he’d run into him eventually.
With the series now 0-2, Henderson's comments are relatively similar -- but it's almost as though he can't get through what sounds like a scripted response without wavering. There's ultimately very little doubt he'd like a third Pettis fight.
"He has the belt and I'm going to get that thing around my waist again," Henderson said. "If he has the belt when I win it back? Awesome. But no, do I have to fight Anthony Pettis again? No, I don’t really have to.
"I don’t need it for any particular reason -- but we will face off again. And when we do, I will be very, very, very excited to be in the Octagon with him again."
The adjustments needed to eventually win that fight are small, in Henderson’s eyes. The map forward is the same it has always been -- improve incrementally and seek constant challenges.
The challenge part doesn’t seem as if it will ever be an issue for Henderson, because it comes naturally. Less than two months after surrendering his UFC title, Henderson flew to Beijing to compete in the ADCC world grappling tournament. He went 1-1, which he described as, "not doing very well at all," but it was a way to get out of his comfort zone.
He should be more comfortable Saturday, in a fight that might have surprised some when it was first announced. Thomson (20-5) is, after all, the division's perceived No. 1 contender, in part because of injury. Even if Henderson beats him, it's unlikely he’d earn a title shot so quickly.
Henderson says he's not looking too much into the stakes of the fight. Based on rankings, he knows he's deserving of another title shot whether the UFC can market it or not, but he's content for now to just accept fights and make sure he wins them.
"It doesn't really matter much to me," Henderson said. "If Pettis has the belt but he's injured and doesn't fight and I've been beating everybody up -- I’m going to make a statement in every fight I have."
At some point in his career, every fighter gets bit.
Not bit like “Mike Tyson on Evander Holyfield” bit, but by the injury bug. In a combat sport, injury almost is inevitable since the root objective of fighting is to inflict damage on another human being. Fights are harsh enough, but practice, conditioning and grueling training camps can be just as damaging.
UFC lightweight contender Josh Thomson knows full well the impact of that injury bug. At the end of 2008, he was seemingly cruising along in his MMA career. “The Punk” had found success in three fight leagues -- UFC, Pride and Strikeforce -- and wrested the Strikeforce lightweight championship from Gilbert Melendez in June 2008.
From 2009 to 2011, however, a string of injuries prevented Thomson from finding that groove again, sidetracking him out of several bouts, including a title defense and unification bout. Upon his return to UFC, an injury opened a door to a title opportunity in 2013 when T.J. Grant injured his knee and Thomson was offered a shot at champ Anthony Pettis in December. But Pettis injured his knee, and the bout was called off.
So excuse Thomson if he’s tired of fight camp and injuries. Since his convincing win over Nate Diaz almost a year ago, Thomson says it feels like he’s been in fight camp forever.
“Honestly, this might be the worst camp of my career,” Thomson said. “It’s just been so long. I got into camp for Pettis, then he got hurt. Then we got Henderson, so I just extended camp and kept going. So it’s been like 15 weeks. I’m like, ‘Man, are we there yet? Can we just get this crap over with?’”
Thomson cut himself some slack -- about one week’s worth after he took the Benson Henderson fight, which will be Saturday at UFC on Fox 10. But that’s it.
“You know what made it an extra tough camp is that it was all during the holidays,” Thomson said. “Everyone was gone. It was hard to get even anyone to spar or roll around with in the gym. The gym was desolate. No training partners. I had to do everything to stay focused.”
Got that groove again
Finding a moderate pace seems foreign for Thomson’s hard-charging personality. Indeed, some of his past injury issues have originated from Thomson’s own intensity during practice and training camp. Just ask his coach at American Kickboxing Academy, “Crazy” Bob Cook.
Josh is one of those guys who, in the past, probably inflicted more damage on himself than he needed to from practice. Josh has always done more than everyone else. But there comes a point where maybe you shouldn't do that extra conditioning or sparring.” -- Trainer Bob Cook, on Josh Thomson's prior overzealous approach to training
“Josh is one of those guys who, in the past, probably inflicted more damage on himself than he needed to from practice,” Cook said. “Josh has always done more than everyone else. But there comes a point where maybe you shouldn’t do that extra conditioning or sparring. You’ve got to let your body rest.”
Flash back to 2008: Thomson was on a serious roll, riding a six-fight win streak into his Strikeforce lightweight title bout with Melendez that he would win via unanimous decision. Both UFC and Strikeforce were enjoying deep and talented lightweight divisions, and Thomson suddenly was one of the sport’s brightest stars and a marquee draw for Strikeforce.
That star was due to get brighter with Strikeforce set to debut on Showtime featuring Thomson’s rematch with Melendez. However, a broken ankle suffered during training just 10 days before the fight sidelined Thomson for the next eight months. He and Melendez ended up fighting a trilogy; Thomson lost his title in the process and never regained the belt.
Injuries -- suffered in training and in fights -- would set back Thomson another couple of times to the point where many wondered whether he could ever regain the level he achieved leading up to winning the Strikeforce lightweight belt.
In fight camp, Thomson follows the AKA protocol, sparring three days a week and grappling/wrestling the other days. Conditioning is at night. It’s a plan that has produced UFC heavyweight champ Cain Velasquez and some of the best mixed martial artists in the world.
But Thomson knew he had to make some adjustments. When he first fought in UFC, he was 25 years old. In his second UFC “debut,” Thomson was closing in on 35.
“When you’re young, you can keep doing what you’re doing. But as you get older, your body changes and you have to make adjustments,” Thomson said. “I admit I tend to push myself harder. I do a little more mitt work, a little more bag work. I do a little more just about everything. But it’s about training smarter, not just harder.”
While he didn’t detail what those adjustments were, the results have been obvious. Thomson’s return to UFC was spectacular, defeating Diaz at UFC on Fox 7. Thomson bludgeoned Diaz with pinpoint head kicks and eventually earned the TKO via strikes. Until then, Diaz had yet to be finished in UFC.
Strangely, Thomson said he wasn’t feeling very well before the Diaz fight. In his win against Melendez, he battled two staph infections, the flu and several minor injuries leading up to the fight. Against Diaz, he felt a similar sluggishness.
“The morning of the Diaz fight I just felt like crap," Thomson said. "I was sitting on the couch watching TV and just passed out. I woke up at 2 p.m., and check in was 2:15, so I packed up real quick and headed down to the arena.
"On the way to the arena, I felt really, really good. Just that two-hour power nap I got in the middle of the day, I felt like a rock star, man. I felt phenomenal. I had that tingly feeling in my body and had a great fight.”
So if this camp has been grueling, perhaps a new part of that AKA protocol will be a prefight power nap.
For Thomson, it seems like a bad camp doesn’t always mean a bad outcome. Regardless, he’ll be ready.
“Just coming back to the UFC and beating Diaz was sort of the validation I needed to show I belong among the top-five guys in the lightweight division,” Thomson said. “Now it’s about making progress and show I deserve a title shot.
"The shot was given to me before, but Pettis got hurt, so I moved on. Look, if I can’t get by Benson, then I probably don’t deserve a title shot and he does. But to me he’s the best lightweight in the division. So if I beat him, there’s nothing stopping me.”
The UFC lightweight division is the deep end of the pool. It’s nondebatable.
According to the new ESPN.com rankings, a well-rounded talent like Jim Miller no longer cracks the Top 10. Same for Nate Diaz -- and he fought for the title six months ago. Athletic knockout artist Melvin Guillard is facing potential unemployment.
With as loaded as the division is, it’s pretty unbelievable Benson Henderson has already tied BJ Penn's record for all-time wins in a UFC lightweight title fight. Breaking that record in his next fight against TJ Grant is far from a given.
In 2011, I wrote a similar column to this, laying out the qualities it would take to beat Frankie Edgar. I ultimately said Henderson was the guy. I feel about 75 percent correct today. Edgar won that rematch, but you know. Spilled milk.
Question now is, who beats Henderson -- if anyone? Here are the lightweight contenders and pretenders, revisited.
The best of the rest: Mark Bocek, Guillard, Joe Lauzon, Miller, Ross Pearson.
These guys deserve to be in the conversation, but stars would really have to align for them to go all the way. Miller is terrific, but the evidence is there: When he runs into big, athletic lightweights he can’t push around, he struggles. I’d love to see him take his style to the featherweight division, which could use a mean, durable, bearded former lightweight willing to wear a farmer’s tan around. But Miller has long resisted the idea. We know Guillard is good for a handful of knockouts and an equal number of face palms Pearson could still develop, but he’s been beaten at his own game twice in his past five fights. Never a good sign.
That somebody that you used to know: Nate Diaz
Someone should probably stage an intervention for Diaz. Going back to his title fight against Henderson in December (not that long ago!), Diaz has tanked in back-to-back fights, talked about a return to welterweight (makes sense, given his vulnerability to bigger, stronger opponents) and been suspended for using a gay slur in a tweet (which he then said he wasn’t sorry about). How confident are you right now the Diazes aren’t at least thinking about a future WAR MMA card headlined by Nate? Not very, right?
The fantasy keeper league: Edson Barboza, Rafael Dos Anjos, Rustam Khabilov, Jorge Masvidal, Khabib Nurmagomedov
Every one of these guys is under 30 years old. Say you set up a fantasy keeper MMA league, where wins are worth one point and title wins are worth three. What order are you drafting these guys in? Tough call.
Barboza, Khabilov and Nurmagomedov are the Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson of the UFC lightweights. Of the three, there’s something I really like about Khabilov. Even without the first-round finishes, you can just tell this guy does everything well and he’s on opponents from start to finish. Barboza has made that weird jump from slightly overrated to underrated, thanks to a TKO loss to Jamie Varner. It seemed like everybody wanted to talk about this guy, despite the fact he barely, barely squeaked by Anthony Njokuani and Ross Pearson. Now, I don’t think we’re talking about him enough. It’s tough to pick a future champion in this very young group, but I like Khabilov’s chances the best, then probably Barboza.
The head case: Donald Cerrone
It’s possible nobody beats Cerrone when it comes to looking awesome in a win and then fairly terrible in a loss. Cerrone referenced a sports psychologist after his latest win over KJ Noons -- if you’re unaware, that’s been going on for a while now. When he’s on, he’s similar to other Greg Jackson fighters Jon Jones and Cub Swanson. He mixes it up, he reacts, he doesn’t think. Other times, it’s like he’s trying to solve for “x” out there and he seizes up.
At this point, I admit I’m skeptical of Cerrone ever holding the belt. He doesn’t fight particularly well in the big moments and quite frankly, he’s never been that guy who expresses a burning desire to be a champion anyway. Worth mentioning though, I thought he beat Henderson at WEC 43 in 2009. As far as controversial Henderson decisions go, that’s right up there.
The threats: Grant, Pat Healy, Gray Maynard, Gilbert Melendez, Josh Thomson
These guys are somewhat close to a title shot (with the exemption of Maynard, but I’m not willing to count him out). Thomson is going to make a lot of noise. He’s not afraid to ask for things right now because at 34, his window at a title is smaller than it used to be. Melendez will be around. He’s well-rounded, consistent, mentally tough and we know he can go five rounds, let alone three. I like Grant a lot. He’s got the power to hurt Henderson and change the fight. As good as Healy is, and I like the welterweight-to-lightweight move right now, he’s not quite as good as Grant, so if Grant falls to Henderson, it’d be tough to pick Healy over him. Interesting that these are some of the bigger guys at 155. Did small ball pack up and leave with Edgar?
The future champ: Anthony Pettis
What just happened? Pettis had been waiting around for a title shot forever. For various reasons, mostly Edgar rematches, it never happened.
So in a move to speed up his title hopes, he called Dana White and asked to drop to 145. He fights Jose Aldo on Aug. 3. It’s possible (not official) Henderson will defend the lightweight title against Grant 14 days later in Boston on Aug. 17. So basically, Pettis agreed to drop to a weight class he’s never fought in to earn a title shot just two weeks sooner, and the UFC signed off on it. Seems like we all could have handled that better.
Anyway, win or lose, I don’t think Pettis is long for 145 pounds. He has always seen 155 as his division and he’s confident he has Henderson’s number. I’ve always believed Henderson’s claim he got caught up in the moment of the last WEC fight ever and strayed from his game plan against Pettis. I think that’s real. I just don’t think it matters. Even if Henderson goes into a rematch with a strategy more reliant on his size and pressure, Pettis beats him. Bold prediction time: Pettis is your UFC lightweight champion at some point in the next 12-18 months.
UFC president Dana White told reporters on Thursday he’ll talk to welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre soon. The two haven’t spoken since St-Pierre recorded his eighth consecutive title defense over Nick Diaz at UFC 158 last month.
Expectations have been that St-Pierre (24-4) would face Hendricks (15-1) later this year, but White said that bout would go on hold should St-Pierre express interest in a long-anticipated, lucrative superfight with middleweight champ Anderson Silva.
“I am literally going to call Georges St-Pierre today and see what he wants to do,” White said.
“If Georges says to me, ‘I want to fight Anderson Silva,’ you think I’m going to go, ‘No, you’re not. You’re fighting Johny Hendricks’?”
Silva (33-4) is scheduled to defend his 185-pound title against Chris Weidman at UFC 162 in July. In yet another superfight wrinkle, light heavyweight champion Jon Jones will defend his title against Chael Sonnen at UFC 159 next week in Newark.
White said he’s interested in any fight that involves two of the three champions, saying if both St-Pierre and Jones wanted Silva, “that’s a good problem to have.”
Hendricks would be the clear loser if St-Pierre opts to fight Silva next. The former collegiate wrestler is on a six-fight win streak and was already leapfrogged earlier this year by Diaz, who was coming off a drug suspension.
White said St-Pierre would not vacate the 170-pound title if he took the Silva fight, meaning Hendricks would have to wait or accept another fight.
“If [St-Pierre] lost, he could still go back down and fight Hendricks for the title.”
Mitrione fined, suspended -- but forgiven
UFC heavyweight Matt Mitrione has been fined an undisclosed amount and remains suspended for comments made last week regarding transgender fighter Fallon Fox.
The UFC quickly suspended Mitrione following an appearance on “The MMA Hour,” where he referred to Fox as a “freak.” Fox is scheduled for her third pro fight in May.
Mitrione (6-2), who defeated Philip De Fries via first-round knockout earlier this month, spoke with UFC president Dana White following the incident and took responsibility for his actions -- but there is no timetable for his return.
“It’s up to us,” White said regarding Mitrione’s suspension. “I’m not mad at Mitrione. He did something stupid. He knows he didn’t handle it the right way.
“I’m sure he wants to know [when he’ll fight again]. We’ll let him know when we decide. He was fined, too. Enough to make him call me three times.”
• A Brazilian fan attacked UFC light heavyweight Chael Sonnen during an event last weekend in Las Vegas, according to White.
Sonnen, who challenges Jon Jones for the 205-pound title next week at UFC 159, was in Las Vegas to attend "The Ultimate Fighter" finale at Mandalay Bay Events Center. According to White, he was involved in a minor scuffle during the show.
“I don’t know if any of you guys saw this, but he was there shaking hands with fans and one guy says, ‘Chael! Chael!” White said. “Chael goes over there and the guy started swinging at him, trying to punch him. The guy goes, ‘I’m from Brazil!'”
Sonnen (27-12-1) was involved in a heated rivalry with Brazilian middleweight champ Anderson Silva from 2010 to 2012. He went 0-2 in two fights against him.
• Whether his teammate claims the UFC lightweight title on Saturday or not, Nate Diaz says he’s moving back to 170 pounds.
Diaz (16-8) meets lightweight Josh Thomson on Saturday. His teammate, Gilbert Melendez, will look to dethrone champion Ben Henderson in the night’s main event.
Regardless of the outcome of either fight, Diaz says he intends to move back to welterweight, where he compiled a 2-2 record from 2010 to 2011.
“I already fought everybody at lightweight,” Diaz said. “I don’t think there is anything for me in the lightweight division. I already beat everybody or fought everybody. The only person who beat me was Ben. What, I’m going to sit around and fight all the same guys again? That’s boring. There’s no motivation in that.”
• Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix winner Daniel Cormier still wants to fight UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones -- just maybe not as soon as he once thought.
Cormier (11-1) faces arguably the biggest challenge of his career on Saturday as he takes on former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir in the night’s co-main event.
The former U.S. Olympic wrestler has been quietly shedding weight for a potential trip to the 205-pound division. Cormier’s teammate, Cain Velasquez, currently holds the UFC heavyweight title.
Cormier has publicly expressed interest in fighting Jones previously, but now says he’d probably want a test fight at 205 pounds first. The 34-year-old experienced kidney failure while cutting weight in 2008 but is confident he can make 205.
“At first, I was so emotionally tied to [fighting Jones],” Cormier said. “I’ve thought about it, and I wouldn’t be opposed to fighting one time down there just to see how my body reacts to the weight cut. It would be very difficult to fight him in my first fight, a five-round fight.
“What if I get in a fight and I can’t do anything but wrestle because my arms are tired and my body isn’t responding to the weight cut? I don’t want that guy to be Jon Jones. Seriously, can you imagine standing in with him and not feeling your best?”
ESPN Stats & Information
UFC on Fox 7 will air on free network television from the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif., Saturday night. In the main event, UFC Lightweight Champion Benson Henderson will defend his title against the debuting #1 contender Gilbert Melendez, who was the final Strikeforce lightweight champion. In the co-main events, Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix winner Daniel Cormier will face former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir and Nate Diaz faces another UFC debutant in former Strikeforce lightweight champion Josh Thomson. Here are the numbers you need to know for Saturday’s fights:
6: UFC decisions to start his career for Henderson, second among active UFC fighters behind flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson. Henderson is the only fighter to start his UFC career with at least five consecutive decisions won.
Most UFC Decisions to Start Career, Active Fighters
Demetrious Johnson 7
Benson Henderson 6*
Diego Nunes 6
Nam Phan 6
*Won all decisions
10: Consecutive title fights for Melendez, who held the Strikeforce title from April 2009 to January 2013 when the organization was dissolved into the UFC. Melendez won four fights by decision and three by KO/TKO. His notable wins include rival Josh Thomson (twice) and DREAM lightweight champion Shinya Aoki.
11: Wins by KO or TKO for Melendez, four under the Strikeforce banner. Henderson has been knocked down three times in his UFC/WEC career, most notably the jumping kick off the cage from Anthony Pettis at WEC 53.
9: This will be the ninth time Melendez will fight inside the HP Pavilion, the proverbial stomping grounds of Strikeforce. He is 7-1 in previous fights at the “Shark Tank,” losing the Strikeforce lightweight championship to Thomson in 2008.
21: Takedowns for Henderson in six UFC fights (3.5 per fight). Melendez has a 71 percent takedown defense but allowed a combined 13 takedowns in his two career losses (seven to Mitsuhiro Ishida, six to Thomson).
3.6: Strikes landed per minute by Melendez. During his seven-fight win streak, Melendez has outstruck his opponents 482-272 (plus-210) in significant strikes. Henderson absorbs 1.5 significant strikes per minute and only 30 in his last win over Melendez teammate Nate Diaz.
8: Mir has an eight-inch reach advantage over Cormier (79 inches to 71). That’s nothing new to Cormier, as he’s beaten Antonio Silva (82), Devin Cole (79.5) and Josh Barnett (78).
6: All six of Mir’s career losses have come by way of KO or TKO. The former UFC heavyweight champion has never lost back-to-back fights in his career. Seven of Cormier’s 11 career wins have come via strikes (five KO/TKO, two submissions due to strikes).
8: Submission wins by Mir inside the UFC Octagon, tied for second most all time. Cormier has faced only one submission attempt in his Strikeforce career (Barnett).
Most UFC Wins by Submission
Royce Gracie 11
Frank Mir 8
Nate Diaz 8
Kenny Florian 8
3: This is Mir’s first camp with Jackson’s MMA in Albuquerque, N.M. If he wins, Mir would be the third UFC heavyweight from Jackson’s to win in this calendar year, joining Shawn Jordan (UFC on Fox 6) and Travis Browne (TUF 17 finale).
5: Of his eight submission wins inside the UFC Octagon, five have earned Nate Diaz a UFC submission of the night bonus (second all time). Thomson has never been submitted in 25 professional fights and also has nine submission victories of his own (four in Strikeforce).
Most Submission of the Night Bonuses
Joe Lauzon 6
Nate Diaz 5
Terry Etim 4
208: Diaz landed 30 significant strikes in his title fight against Benson Henderson, 208 fewer than his victory over Donald Cerrone in two fewer rounds. Thomson will be tough to hit as well; he absorbs 1.8 strikes per minute, but did absorb 3.0 per minute in his last loss to Melendez.
Following politically charged on-camera comments early last year in the wake of a win at UFC 125 -- the lightweight mixed martial artist said he wanted to fight the president because "someone's got to knock some sense into that idiot" -- enterprising editors at "The Tonight Show" worked their magic.
As the 32-year-old resident of White Bear Lake, Minn., was being interviewed, the president digitally stepped in behind him and, smiling wry, remorselessly bounced the fighter’s head off a glass-framed photo.
"I couldn't believe they made it look so real," Volkmann said.
The spot not only earned big laughs from Jay Leno's audience, it elevated the opinion of a cage fighting chiropractor from Minnesota onto the national stage.
Life turned considerably less amusing as threats were hurled at Volkmann and his family. Zealots had the gall to call his home. Once in a while he argued, hoping an actual policy discussion would break out. Rarely did it result in something so satisfying.
"I didn't think it would be that bad," he said. "Some of those people are ridiculous in what they're saying. They don't even know what I'm talking about and they'll call me an idiot or want to kill me and my family just because I don't like Obama. I don't understand why."
Police and Secret Service knocked on his door within days of the comments to gauge how serious he was. And White Bear Lake High School suspended him from wrestling coaching duties, granted it was a week with pay.
The reaction illustrates perfectly why athletes shy away from publicly discussing their politics. If a poorly worded statement from an unranked UFC veteran can spark that kind of reaction, imagine the possibilities.
Despite the proven potential for blowback, advocacy for candidates, ballot measures, political ideologies and even conspiracy theories aren't shunned or in short supply in MMA circles.
"It's a sport that has built itself on that edgy, non-politically correct attitude," said John Fuller, operator of Full Athlete Marketing, a sports marketing and publicity firm that works with pros in various sports, including UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson and interim welterweight champion Carlos Condit. "And that's what you expect from fighters."
There could be several explanations, said Edward Sidlow, a political science professor at Eastern Michigan University who studied the intersection of politics and sport. Athletes signed to major sports leagues are often contractually prohibited from speaking politically, or, at least, mightily dissuaded from doing so by agents and public relations consultants wary of getting off-message.
Athletes, Sidlow said, "are cautioned by their agents that it's a Pandora's box they might be opening if they do become politically active in a public way. ... Professional sports has become such a business, and it's bad business to mix politics into your work if you're in the entertainment industry."
With revenue tied to jersey sales, endorsements and merchandising, alienating fans is the last thing pro baseball, football or basketball players want to do. As Michael Jordan famously noted, Republicans buy sneakers, too. However Josh Thomson, the former Strikeforce lightweight champion, also an outspoken critic of President Obama, disagrees with this way of thinking.
"Honestly, I kind of criticize other professional athletes that don't really speak up on issues like this," Thomson said. "They're just doing what they can to keep their fans and, yeah, maybe you can do that and build a better reputation, but it's kind of disturbing. You don't really have your voice. But to me certain things are very important."
If Thomson had more on the line financially, perhaps his perspective would change. For now, hammering away at the president on Twitter, or walking to the cage on Showtime wearing an anti-Obama shirt he designed hasn't cost him.
In fact, Thomson estimated he received nearly 4,000 tweets the night he wore the shirt, and soon was able to make a few bucks selling it online. A bit of a boon since most mixed martial artists don't see much in the way of ancillary rights generated money, let alone something so lucrative as revenue sharing.
"I think we're the working class of professional athletes," said Thomson, a lifelong conservative. "We're not making millions to stand in the outfield and try and catch a ball, or dribble a ball up and down a court. I'm not saying that other athletes don't work hard, but we're the blue collar of professional athletes. We do grimy work for our money. It's not like we make millions. Most of us make decent money, just not millions, so it's different for us."
Florian has taken to Twitter to share his thoughts regarding U.S. food policy with more than 143,000 followers. Believing it would propel the rest of the country to follow along, he wants a California ballot proposition to pass that would require labeling genetically modified food products in the state.
"At the very least I'm getting some information out there," Florian said. "And getting some people to go and do research, or find out even what GMO is, or what Prop 37 is -- I guess I did my job."
Politics, the saying goes, is inherently local.
Florian's interest in food policy started five years ago, when he read up on sports science, nutrition, eating and training well. It hit home when his older brother was diagnosed with diabetes earlier this year. And after watching a televised advertisement in opposition of Prop 37, Florian, who lives in California but isn't registered to vote there, acted on an urge to engage.
"It's affected my life and I see the importance of it," Florian said. "I think it's important for people to know about food and how to eat healthy and what to eat. That's probably one of the most common questions I got when I first started on Twitter. It's something my brother and I and a few people in my family are very passionate about."
Volkmann's beef is similarly personal.
Entangled in the housing crisis in 2009, he had serious concerns about keeping his home. In the end he decided to short sell. Unable to find relief through the Making Home Affordable Program, Volkmann holds the president responsible. Without that experience, there's no statement about wanting to fight Obama, no "Tonight Show" skit, no visit from the Secret Service. All of which would have been fine with him.
Volkmann wants people to know his distaste for politicians is nonpartisan. Republican congresswoman and presidential candidate Michele Bachmann is running for re-election in his district and he promised not to vote for her, either.
"They say it's bad for your PR," Volkmann said. "Most fans want you talking just about fighting and staying out of politics, because that's one place where fans escape from politics for a while. They say it's not a good choice, which is fine. I've already opened Pandora's box. I'm going to have to keep going with it, right?"
Learn a lesson from Gray Maynard.
The 32-year-old lightweight contender felt "stagnant" and "boxed in." He wasn't living in a place he or his fiancee wanted to call home. So he did what many people often discuss but rarely do: He took action.
"I didn't want to talk about it a year or two later," Maynard said.
A month prior to fighting Frankie Edgar for a third time, he parted ways with Xtreme Couture, the only MMA gym he knew, and set up his own shop.
Maynard admits the situation "wasn't good, but it's not an excuse. That's why I never made it a big deal. It was my choice and I have to deal with it."
A few weeks after losing a chance to become the UFC lightweight champion when Edgar finished him in the fourth round, the 155-pound powerhouse left Las Vegas in the rearview mirror, headed west and settled in Santa Cruz, Calif.
"It's hard to leave a gym," Maynard said. "It's hard to leave your home. It's a tough move. It's not like I was gonna leave for [one training] camp. I was like, let's move. It kind of happened quicker than we were planning on, but it was good to do that."
As a result of the journey, when Maynard steps into the cage Friday night in Atlantic City against Clay Guida, he'll do so with a revamped corner and a new view on what it means to be a mixed martial artist.
"I felt like I hit a plateau, and it was time to get some new ideas," he said. "I needed a change. Xtreme Couture is where I started; it's awesome, I love them all there. I just had to evolve more. There's a lot to the game."
Maynard's 10-1-1 record serves as testimony to the effectiveness of his wrestling skill and raw power. He is strong and hits hard, which is why it was easy to succumb to the boxer-wrestler trap while forgoing other areas of his game.
His first stop was the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif.
"He was only doing one or the other when he first came to the gym," said AKA-trained lightweight Josh Thomson. "He was only boxing or wrestling, but the combination from punch to [takedown] shot wasn't that clean. It was decent but wasn't clean."
Maynard credits Thomson, whom he helped prepare for a May contest against Gilbert Melendez, heavyweight Daniel Cormier, AKA coaches Javier Mendez and Bob Cook, boxing trainer Rick Noble, UFC veteran Mac Danzig and the Nova Uniao camp for getting his "juices flowing again."
In Brazil, Maynard worked with UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo in advance of what turned out to be a late first-round stoppage against Chad Mendes. Maynard said he was impressed by the camp and its approach to MMA.
"I just saw a lot about the whole game," he said. "Nova Uniao, they're good in all areas. It was a lot more of the MMA game, and it got me going again, got me thinking about stuff."
He brought that attitude back with him to California and continued upgrading. Maynard expects to show some of those new skills and mentality against Guida in the main event of UFC's latest offering on FX.
Thomson, who works Maynard's corner alongside Noble and Danzig, acknowledged that the No. 4-ranked lightweight according to ESPN.com has "got a lot of things going through his mind right now as far as how to try and use the new tools he's developing."
Still, Thomson said the changes Maynard implemented in recent months are paying off in the gym.
"I just want to see how it meshes and comes together in a real fight," Thomson said. "He's not going to do it overnight."
Fans shouldn't expect spinning back kicks from The Bully, but his transitions between striking and grappling realms are said to be crisper. His boxing application looks tighter, more efficient and requires less energy. As a result, combinations are flowing the way he'd like them to. He also honed in on his wrestling roots with the impressive Cormier, Strikeforce's heavyweight grand prix champion.
Guida, ranked No. 7, will provide a stern test, which Maynard welcomes.
"It was a good choice for us," Maynard said. "He brings a little bit different approach for each bout, but he always goes hard. That's all I can ask for."
As for what unfolds in the cage, regardless of where he trained or the level of shape he worked himself into, Maynard is mindful that the plan of attack is up to him. He may have new tools to use, but it would be a mistake to shift too far from the attributes that brought him to this point.
Sometimes change is good. Sometimes it's not.
However, of the eight-man field that was rolled out in January 2011 as the greatest stock of heavyweights ever assembled, Barnett was the steady. He was supposed to be in the final, and he is. He got there by competing in the quarterfinal (a submission of Brett Rogers) and the semis (a submission of Sergei Kharitonov). Isn’t it strange that the man with the most asterisks coming into the tournament was in the end the only one who could stick to the script?
On the other hand, Daniel Cormier’s course was improbable. He was an alternate to this tournament. A deep alternate. He was the 11th man in an eight-man field. Yet he worked over Jeff Monson on the same night Barnett clubbed Rogers in something called a “reserve bout.” Then Cormier found his entry when Alistair Overeem was unceremoniously removed. What did Cormier do? He obliterated heavy favorite Antonio Silva on the feet with speed and power.
And that’s how we arrive at the moment. The old “War Master” Barnett, against the opportunistic, understudy-turned-contender Cormier. The 1-seed versus the 11. Just how crazy has the 15-month journey been to San Jose? Crazy enough that sports books have these guys at even money heading into Saturday night.
Here are five things to watch for at Strikeforce this weekend.
Cormier’s lack of experience
Daniel Cormier is a nerves-of-steel guy. He is always relaxed. Right before his fight with Bigfoot Silva, he wore and expression that said, “I wouldn’t mind a nap” more than “I’m about to lay waste to somebody.” Needless to say, Cormier keeps himself cool under pressure.
This can be attributed to his wrestling days at Oklahoma State and later as a part of the 2004 U.S. Olympic wrestling team. Cormier has competed his whole life. You really believe that fighting -- for all its literal brutality -- is just another competition for him. He believes in his ability and knows he has deceptive explosiveness and speed. In short, his confidence shows in that calm expression.
Yet with only nine professional MMA bouts, and realistically only one of those against a top-10 opponent, how will he handle a submission specialist like Barnett? Even when training with the likes of Mike Kyle and Cain Velasquez, it’s hard to duplicate the strength and slickness of Barnett, who has been at this a long, long time (since he was 19 years old, to be exact). Cormier will very likely find himself in fixes he hasn’t been in before in the cage. How will he handle himself?
Barnett’s comfort zone
Everybody knows what Barnett likes to do. He likes to muscle you to the ground, straighten you out, and work for submissions from that top position. He’s not afraid to punch a hole in your head, either. Just ask Pedro Rizzo and Gilbert Yvel. But Barnett's most effective way of finishing a guy is to put him on his back and then fish for limbs to manipulate.
Dating back to 2006, Barnett has finished foes via toeholds, heel hooks, kimuras and arm triangle chokes. He does these things more with brute force than textbook jiu-jitsu. In Cormier, Barnett gets a guy who has never been made to fight off his back and has never had his shoulder joint pressured into a panic situation.
But the bigger questions are these: Can Barnett get Cormier to the ground? And if so, can he keep him there?
Trilogies are usually pretty personal grudge matches. In the case of Gilbert Melendez and Josh Thomson, it feels more like a necessary evil. At least to Melendez, who will be asked to duplicate what he did in 2009 when he smoked Thomson in the rematch to unify the interim and meaningful belts. That fight was so definitive that most thought he was done with Thomson for good.
Well, circumstance has made that impossible. Thomson gets a chance to strip Melendez of his belt a second time because the “Punk” was the best option available on Strikeforce’s depleted roster. It’s a rubber match that benefits Thomson a thousand times more than Melendez, because third chances rarely come along.
Which begs the same question that has fallen to Melendez for the past year: How motivated will he be to again prove himself against Thomson? Knowing the work ethic of “El Nino,” it’s easy to expect to see him in vintage form. But complacency is a hard-to-detect virus that usually gets discovered after it’s too late. Will Melendez suffer from this?
(Probably not, but you never know ...)
The first time Thomson fought Melendez in 2008, it was as if Thomson was showing up for a day of capers and fun. He was smiling the whole time. He was loose. There were moments when it almost felt like he was messing with his younger brother, just fooling around. Every so often he would do something to remind Melendez that, when serious, he could dictate things how he wanted.
But the key to that fight was that Thomson was first. He was quick with the leg kicks. He was effective with his combinations. He would shoot now and again for a takedown and keep Melendez off balance. Thomson thwarted Melendez’s wrestling. And by being the aggressor, he disrupted Melendez’s timing and flow. Can he do that again?
Remember, Thomson had broken (and rebroken) his fibula before that rematch with Melendez in 2009, and he was carrying some ring rust after 15 months on the shelf. Chances are we'll see a combination of those two fights with one similarity: that it goes the full five rounds.
Though it’s getting very little fanfare, former 205-pound champion Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante returns to the cage on Saturday night against Mike Kyle. Remember, Cavalcante is the guy who beat Muhammad Lawal to win the Strikeforce belt not all that long ago. And, in his title defense against Dan Henderson, there was a moment where it looked like Cavalcante had Hendo in trouble.
It’s been eight months since Feijao beat Cuban freestyle wrestler Yoel Romero, a fight that Cavalcante finished even with a broken arm. He’s still one of the best 205ers in the world, and a win over a tough Kyle might make Feijao a tempting property for the UFC to bring over and fortify its own light heavyweight division. After all, the list of contenders for Jon Jones has shrunk down to Henderson and change.
There was a time not that long ago when Dana White assured everybody that Melendez -- a top three lightweight who happens to be in his prime -- would not be left pining for challenges in Strikeforce. This was before his Dec. 17 Strikeforce bout with Jorge Masvidal. This was after reconciliation between White and Showtime. This was right around the time when everybody fell into reverie as to whom, and began envisioning expensive imports (maybe Benson Henderson? Clay Guida? Gray Maynard?).
Even Melendez’s camp couldn’t help but imagine the possibilities.
Things have obviously changed.
Melendez has been made into a window shopper. All those elite UFC lightweights that sit on the showroom floor? He’s left to browse and wonder with his nose smudged on the glass. Despite those early fits of optimism, Zuffa isn’t going out of its way to find Melendez challenges -- it is recycling whatever it can find in the cupboards. Somewhere along the way, things soured (again) between Showtime and White. Melendez is the biggest casualty.
Yesterday Strikeforce announced that Melendez would defend his title against ex-champ Thomson on May 19 in San Jose, Calif.; a rubber match that has an ounce of good drama. Problem is, the fight is a buzzkill for those who are interested in Melendez’s upward trajectory. Yes, they’ve split the previous two matches, but Melendez avenged the first loss easily and has won six in a row all told. Thomson has won exactly one in a row, a unanimous decision over K.J. Noons that he said afterward “was s---.” Before that, he lost to Tatsuya Kawajiri. These aren’t the kinds of credentials that earn title fights, even if there are scores to settle.
That’s one of the reasons this trilogy fight will require rose-colored glasses to appreciate. Even if the situation is deeper, it feels like "who cares" matchmaking at its laziest. That is, if you’re Gilbert Melendez. If you’re Josh Thomson, it’s an overly generous chance to reclaim the lightweight belt. And if he does, this will turn the sports world aloof. What could we look forward to then -- Thomson/Healy II? That is true tundra. Keith Wisniewski versus Chris Clements has greater import. Or we could play back Thomson/Melendez IV, and put the thing on a perpetual loop. Strikeforce might have to, because the promotion's lightweight pool is ankle-deep.
If Melendez does lose to Thomson, you’d be left wondering if something like ennui played as big a role as the “Punk” himself. That’s why it’s hard to swallow. Why should all the favors go to Thomson, the sorta-deserving challenger? Why shouldn’t Melendez, the flagship champion of Strikeforce, be better attended? Fans of MMA don’t have interest in behind the scenes politics as much as they do in watching two heads of momentum collide.
But chances are Melendez will win, live up to expectations, and then disappear into waiting for the next thing to materialize. That’s not the kind of immediate future that lights fires in competitors. Yet that’s where Melendez is in 2012 at as Strikeforce lightweight strap holder. A sort of hostage to his throne.
And if he wants to remain the most persecuted champion in MMA, at least for the rest of this year, he’ll need to stay hungry for it. Maybe that’s what White meant about finding Melendez challenges. Maybe Melendez’s biggest challenge in 2012 will be fighting through the set of circumstances, rather than whoever they stick in front of him in the cage.
Though this isn’t major news in itself, it’s a turnaround that beats nine months of involuntary limbo. Action is good. If nothing else, we can cling to silver linings.
Now the question becomes "against whom?", and Strikeforce is spinning the mystery wheel right now to determine that. Will it be Josh Thomson, who went to Columbus under the presumption that if he beat K.J. Noons (which he did), the title shot would be his? Will it be a darker horse like journeyman Pat Healy, who put in a yeomen’s effort against Caros Fodor to make it four wins in a row? Or will it be ... wait, nope ... the other slots on the mystery wheel are all whammies.
It’s Thomson or Healy.
Or, something far bolder if Zuffa is feeling charitable. Is it possible that the UFC will lend out one of its top 10 fighters to challenge Melendez in the hexagon? It’s a sister promotion, after all, and there are starving contenders. The UFC’s lightweight title picture has had only four people in it for the last two years -- Frankie Edgar, B.J. Penn, Gray Maynard and now Benson Henderson. For anybody else, the summit has been closed off. You can see how the temptation might be there to open up an alternative pass to its second peak.
And why not? A cross-promotion fight that falls within the same company is all that makes sense for Melendez (who’s been promised big challenges) and fans (who’ve grown suspicious of that promise). Currently, there are some top-selling lightweights available for a Melendez clash.
If you follow Melendez’s manager Cesar Gracie’s Twitter feed, you know he’s dropping a couple of names right off the bat -- Anthony Pettis and B.J. Penn. Both of these look compelling (read: available) for “El Nino.” One just had a title shot snatched from his purview, and the other is semi-retired and in the process of self-discovery. Either would make for a fascinating challenge against Melendez, the only pound-for-pound top 10 fighter that spends so much time in quarantine.
In the special case of the former lightweight champion Penn, it might take a dangling carrot to motivate him -- here would be a chance to add to his collection of UFC belts with a gravy Strikeforce strap. Who knows what happens if he wins, but in some ways, who cares? He will either defend that belt in Strikeforce or expedite himself back into the UFC lightweight picture with a case of unification. Seems like a win/win, should he win. And should he lose, he’s in no worse a situation than he is now.
Pettis’s case is interesting, too (though his manager Mike Roberts says they haven't been approached). He’s 25 years old and not overly concerned with the long haul. Twice since coming over as the reigning WEC champion he’s been right there for a title shot, and twice he’s been thwarted. I have sort of campaigned that he should do what Edgar was being asked to do, that of dropping down to 145 pounds to challenge Jose Aldo for the featherweight belt. Maybe he will. That fight would be a crazy indulgence of some of the game's most dynamic strikers. It would be big business for the feathers.
And of course, Gray Maynard and Clay Guida are also out there. If they aren’t turned on each other, either could be a candidate for Melendez.
But there is one more option out there that that might not be as far-fetched as it seems. What if Aldo came up to challenge Melendez in Strikeforce while the featherweight picture sorts out? He has been tempted to dip his toe at 155 pounds anyway, ever since the weight cut nearly ruined him when fighting Mark Hominick. With Hatsu Hioki not quite ready enough (or marketable enough) for a title shot, and Chan Sung Jung/Dustin Poirier slated for a May fight of their own, can you imagine the potential for fun there? Would that not make for creative matchmaking?
Either way, whoever Zuffa is thinking of putting against Melendez, you have to wonder if there’s a trick tucked away up their sleeve. Because right about now there are so many good fights for Melendez that a marquee of “Strikeforce: Melendez vs. Thompson III” in San Jose can’t help but feel a little cheap by comparison.
Not bad for somebody with two minutes, 18 seconds of professional fighting experience.
Rousey will challenge Miesha Tate for the bantamweight title on Saturday (Showtime, 10 p.m. ET). There’s a storminess between the two, which gives the whole thing the kind of hypeable dimensions that Gina Carano and Cristiane Santos had back in 2009. But there’s also a “let it all hang out” feel to this fight because, after Tate/Rousey sort things out, what's left?
With her suspension for using anabolic steroids, featherweight champ Cyborg Santos isn’t looming, and Carano is done with the racket. Which leaves Alexis Davis and Sarah Kaufman -- who are facing off on Saturday night as well -- and then an otherwise pretty empty field.
And that’s where things stand with the women’s roster on Strikeforce. In short, pretty much business as usual. Only this feature attraction has some nice friction going, and the murky future happily gives way to the here and now.
Tate is tired of hearing about the arm collection that Rousey has going, and Rousey is warning that what few reels we’ve seen of her are either pretty accurate or entirely misleading.
“The less that everybody knows, the better for me,” she said at the prefight news conference. “I feel very fortunate that they have very little footage of me and very little knowledge of everything that’s in my arsenal.”
Tate, a seasoned grappler with a tenacious ability to dictate a fight, will be up against a larger opponent than she’s used to. And so far, an immovable one. Rousey has finished all four of her pro fights via first round armbars, and she did it all in 2011. Since we know of her strength on the ground, this means we’re left to speculate about potential holes in her stand-up game. Tate will have to find out if that’s where Rousey has a weakness.
But that’s only part of the curiosity with this fight. With Rousey’s longest cage adventure lasting just 49 seconds against Charmaine Tweet, deep water may come in the form of something as simple as a second round. It may come in the form of frustration of finding herself in a fight. The bottom line is, she hasn’t been challenged yet. How does she respond to somebody who thwarts her game plan? How does she adapt as a fight goes on?
“I think the thing about Ronda is she’s a very kind of self-righteous person,” Tate said. “She cares more about herself than she does about the sport of women’s MMA and I think what’s she’s done is all about her and marketing herself. She’s talked her way into a title fight in my opinion, and she’s not the No. 1 contender at 135 because she’s never ever fought here. At 4-0, what she’s done is what she’s done. It’s been moderately impressive, but she’s never fought anyone of my caliber, and I think it’s going to be a true test for her.”
The main event, ladies and gentlemen.
Thomson expects best from foe Noons
In what easily is the best-looking match-up of the night on paper, lightweight Josh Thomson will take on K.J. Noons with plenty on the line. As everybody knows, champion Gilbert Melendez is without a fight right now, and there’s a pretty epic back-story to Thomson and “El Nino.” Thomson has been on a little bit of a bumpy ride of late, having split his last four fights. But should he get by Noons, there’s a good chance that Strikeforce will look to book Thomson/Melendez III, since it’s a rubber match.
All that talk, though, is premature for Thomson, who is expecting to get the best version that anybody’s seen of the obstacle in front of him.
“I think what everyone should understand is that I’m going to get the best K.J. you guys have seen,” he said.
“I think you saw a little bit of it in his fight with Billy [Evangelista]. He’s obviously been working on his wrestling, and working on his wrestling defense. He’s also been working on his kickboxing, not being a flat-footed boxer. So to be honest, it means a lot me to know that, nobody else in Strikeforce has fought the K.J. I’m going to fight. And so for me to get a win over him, it’s going to be great. With a good showing, I definitely think it should be a title shot next. But that’s just obviously my opinion.”
Kazuo Misaki appears in U.S. for only third time
Though he’s stood across from some of the fiercest guys in MMA, Japanese fighter Kazuo Misaki has only fought twice before in America -- at Pride 33 against Frank Trigg (a decision loss), and in his last Strikeforce appearance against Joe Riggs in 2009 (a win via TKO). Now he’ll go against welterweight contender Paul Daley in a fight with plenty of intrigue.
“He represents threats from everywhere,” said Daley. “If you look at his record, like [Strikeforce president] Scott [Coker] said, he’s a tough guy. He’s beat a lot of big names, and I consider him an all-arounder. His stand-up is kind of crazy and a little bit unpredictable. I’m taking this fight very seriously, and he’s a dangerous guy.”
Ten-year MMA veteran Pat “Bam Bam” Healy is expected to take the place of an injured Josh Thomson to face Maximo Blanco on Strikeforce’s Sept. 10 card at the U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati.
News of a foot injury which forced former Strikeforce lightweight champ Thomson to withdraw from the bout circulated on Aug. 23, leaving Blanco without an opponent for his highly anticipated stateside debut. Though no official announcement has been made regarding a replacement, sources close to the bout confirmed Monday to Sherdog.com that Healy (25-16) has agreed to face the Venezuelan import.
A former welterweight titleholder in Canada’s Maximum Fighting Championship, Healy has since dropped to lightweight, winning his last four of five fights in the division. His sole loss at 155 pounds came in June 2010 at the hands of Thomson, who submitted Healy with a rear-naked choke in the final minute of their bout.
Healy rebounded in February with a unanimous decision victory over Lyle Beerbohm in the main event of Strikeforce Challengers 14, handing “Fancy Pants” his first career loss.
Sherdog.com first broke news of Blanco inking a three fight deal with Strikeforce in May. Since the signing and subsequent pairing with Thomson, the 2007 Pan American Games wrestling bronze medalist has relocated from Japan to New Mexico in order to train at the Tapout Ranch and Jackson’s MMA for his stateside debut.
A former lightweight King of Pancrase and Sengoku fan favorite, Blanco will enter the Strikeforce cage on a six-fight winning streak. His last action saw Blanco take a unanimous decision over Won Sik “Parky” Park in Sengoku’s last event, Dec. 30’s “Soul of Fight.”
If Ryan Seacrest happened to be a major celebrity in Japan, he would eventually be offered a substantial sum to be beaten severely in any number of the country's traditional New Year's Eve fighting events. The Japanese watch television in huge numbers on that night, and promotions have hired everyone from actors to pro wrestlers to fighters dressed in costumes to draw attention away from the standard music and variety programming.
Does it work? For a long time, it did. Any combination of Sumo, Bob Sapp or Olympic champions would usually produce tremendous ratings. But the decline of real fighters and the increasing reluctance (possibly related to the shrinking pay stubs) of the "special attractions" has taken its toll.
It's a real sign of MMA's erosion in Japan that only one event -- K-1's Dynamite -- is actually airing on New Year's Eve. The more serious Sengoku takes place Dec. 30. In both cases, fans can watch a series of competitive fights. But in K-1's arena, the need for ratings prompted the usual stunt work. Shinya Aoki will face Yuichiro Nagashima in a fight that alternates kickboxing rounds with MMA rules, and Bob Sapp will wrestle Sumo great Shinichi Suzukawa in an orchestrated, entertainment-only intermission. Both spectacles are likely to dwarf the night's most legitimate bout, a lightweight meeting between Strikeforce's Josh Thomson and Tatsuya Kawajiri.
Stateside, most of the attention has been directed at Todd Duffee taking a late-notice bout against Alistair Overeem. Duffee was touted as a UFC prospect before suffering a shock KO at the hands of Mike Russow (and his eventual release after reported head-butting with UFC management). But Duffee can strike, and he's a few levels above the kind of competition you'd expect Overeem to accept three weeks after a grueling K-1 tournament. Too good to believe, actually. Like most of the Japanese product, it's subject to change.
What:Sengoku Raiden Championship: Soul of Fight -- a 25- to 30-bout card from the Ariake Coliseum in Tokyo; K-1 Dynamite 2010 -- a 15-bout card from the Saitama Super Arena near Tokyo
When: Thursday, Dec. 30, with replays on Jan. 14 and 21 on HDNet (Sengoku); Friday, Dec. 31, at 4 a.m. ET on HDNet (K-1).
Why you should care: Because MMA's Evil Knievel, Ikuhisa Minowa, will force an entertaining fight with 2004 Olympic judo silver medalist Hiroshi Izumi; because it will be incredibly fun to see Aoki strapped up in kickboxing gear; because Kawajiri is Thomson's strongest opponent in years outside of Gilbert Melendez and Gesias Cavalcante; because Sapp has the lungs of a coal miner after only two minutes of activity and might need resuscitation; and because Sengoku's Marlon Sandro-Hatsu Hioki fight decides the identity of the best featherweight not in the UFC.
Hype quote of the show: "If everything goes well with this fight, maybe I'll just switch to a three-week training camp." -- Josh Thomson to Knoxx Gear on the late-notice New Year's tradition.
Questions: K-1 Dynamite and Sengoku
Can K-1 ever repeat its past successes on New Year's?
Last year might have been K-1's last gasp as a viable television property during the holiday. The promotion was able to attract a sizable audience based largely on interest in kickboxing legend Masato's retirement fight. Names such as Kazushi Sakuraba and Aoki continue to be scheduled but appeal primarily to devoted MMA fans and not casual viewers who have been spoiled in past years by the popularity of Sapp and actor Ken Kaneko and fights involving massive size disparities.
The show remains a free-for-all -- Sapp is here, along with flexible rules -- but the Japanese public may no longer be interested, even at that price.
Why is Thomson taking the risk against Kawajiri?
Lack of planning is a notorious trait among Japanese fight promoters, who often cobble together cards by measuring production in days instead of months. Where foreign fighters once were content to trade prep time for sizable cash purses, the shrinkage of the sport in Japan and reliable employment in the States has made that deal less attractive over time.
Thomson, a former Strikeforce lightweight champion, accepted a fight with the dangerous Kawajiri on three weeks notice. At this level of prizefighting, it's unreasonable to expect a standout performance with minimal notice. If Thomson wins, there's no penalty. But if he loses, few will remember he entered the ring at a disadvantage.
Will Sandro stick around Japan?
Sandro is Sherdog.com's No. 5-ranked featherweight, an impressive feat considering the majority of that division's talent (Jose Aldo, Michihiro Omigawa, Mike Thomas Brown) resides in the UFC's newly created division. If he can defeat Hioki in Sengoku's most relevant bout, the American promotion might be able to make him a financial offer that would trump his obligations -- which might not even exist on paper -- to Sengoku.
The problem? Sandro is on Team Nova Uniao, the same gym real estate as Aldo. That friendship could prompt him to stay put. But being the best in the country -- instead of the world -- might eventually begin to feel like a consolation prize.
Will a weight cut finally euthanize Sakuraba?
MMA's running joke has long been Japan's treatment of Sakuraba, an all-time great whose career was derailed after Pride booked him in a series of brutal mismatches. At 41, assisted living can't be far off.
What better way to celebrate New Year's than to book him against vicious striker Marius Zaromskis? K-1 figured it out: Force Sakuraba to cut to 170 pounds for the first time in his career to make it an official dream welterweight fight. A dehydrated body might unfold into a televised execution.
What would a Duffee win mean for the heavyweight division?
It wasn't long ago that Duffee's promise in MMA was the subject of magazine covers and protein shake ads. He seemed to possess the vaunted "big man's athleticism" that's normally the exclusive property of pro football.
The upset loss to Russow shut it all down. Duffee's idea of a rebuild is to tackle a peaking Overeem on short notice. While Overeem isn't in prime condition -- he finished a K-1 tourney only three weeks ago -- it's a risk that most athletes wouldn't be willing to take. If Duffee wins, it would have a dramatic effect on Strikeforce's heavyweight matchmaking into 2011. Overeem would no longer be the top of the mountain, and big fights with Fedor Emelianenko or Fabricio Werdum would be muted. If Duffee loses, the hole he started digging with Russow will only get deeper.
One loss can be passed off as an anomaly. Two in a row is a freefall.
Red Ink: Aoki versus Nagashima
With nearly 50 fights on the schedule -- more than some promotions put on in an entire year -- New Year's in Japan is a blender of competitive fights and sideshow attractions. At least one of the bouts will manage to amount to both.
For K-1's Dynamite program, Aoki has agreed to an alternating-rules bout with Nagashima, an experienced kickboxer with modest MMA skills. A coin toss decides which round begins the fight. If a stand-up round is needed, Aoki and Nagashima will switch to larger kickboxing gloves. The premise was first used by K-1 for a Jerome Le Banner-Sapp fight in 2004, an event notable for Sapp begging his corner not to send him out for a striking round against the kickboxer.
Is it ridiculous?
Absolutely. Aoki is no great striker, even by MMA standards. Likewise, Nagashima has no business being on the ground with anyone. But rather than book a squash match, Nagashima is being afforded a chance to ply his trade.
What it means: Absolutely nothing.
Wild card: Everything.
Who wins: Aoki might be better able to avoid Nagashima's strikes than Nagashima is able to avoid a clinch. Still, this is a format James Toney would appreciate. Aoki by submission.