MMA: Strikeforce

Thomson's change of pace pays dividends

January, 20, 2014
Jan 20
9:21
AM ET
Huang By Michael Huang
ESPN.com
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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.
[+] EnlargeGilbert Melendez and Josh Thomson
Getty ImagesJosh Thomson, left, was narrowly defeated by Gilbert Melendez when the pair met in 2012.

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.”
[+] EnlargeJosh Thomson
Ezra Shaw/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesJosh Thomson became the first to stop Nate Diaz when he defeated him via strikes at UFC on Fox 7.

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.”

Fitch, Burkman cross paths again

June, 14, 2013
6/14/13
12:05
PM ET
McNeil By Franklin McNeil
ESPN.com
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Much has changed in the seven-plus years since Jon Fitch and Josh Burkman met in the cage: both are more seasoned fighters, experienced professional ups and downs and have new outlooks on life.

But each man intends to show just how much he has changed for the better Friday night during a welterweight rematch at World Series of Fighting 3 in Las Vegas.

The first fight, which took place during a UFC event on April 6, 2006, was dominated by Fitch, who won by unanimous decision. And while Fitch is prepared to face a more improved Burkman, he expects to dominate again during Friday night’s main event.

“You can’t put anything into [the first fight],” Fitch told ESPN.com. “This is a brand-new fight against a brand-new person. We’re both much better than we were back then. Our skill sets are much more developed than they were back then.

“But my skill set has progressed further. There will be a bigger gap between us than in the first fight, with where I am in my skill set, my career and my life right now. I’m peaking as a fighter, and the next four years will be the best of my fight life.”

Fitch (24-5-1 with one no contest) is excited to make his WSOF debut. And he intends to use this opportunity to change a negative perception fight fans have of him.

Despite being a perennial top-10 welterweight, Fitch has repeatedly come under criticism for putting on non-entertaining fights. But Fitch, a skilled wrestler who has relied heavily on this discipline to remain highly competitive in the welterweight ranks, proclaims that is about to change.

No longer hindered by concerns of being released by UFC, Fitch feels free to let it all hang out in the cage. He promises to be a more aggressive striker, especially while standing.

“I’m not going to be as reserved,” said the 35-year-old Fitch, who is ranked ninth among welterweights by ESPN.com. “I’m not going to be as fearful; I didn’t have a fight in UFC where I didn’t feel my job was in jeopardy. We got threats years ago about ‘if you lose this fight you’re gone.’”

Possibly being out of work after Friday night’s fight doesn’t cross Fitch’s mind. His thoughts are solely on defeating Burkman a second time and taking the next step toward becoming WSOF’s first 170-pound champion.

Competing in WSOF has given Fitch a new lease of life and professional MMA. He remains fully driven to being a champion, but doing so with WSOF will put him in position to make history in a unique way.

“I want to be the first, I want to be the best and I want to be the most memorable,” Fitch said. “I want to grow with this organization. And I want to help build it into one of the best organizations out there.”

To reach this goal, Fitch must first settle matters with Burkman. Despite Fitch’s very high confidence level heading into this rematch, Burkman is no pushover.

With a professional record of 25-9, Burkman also dreams of being the first man to wear WSOF's welterweight title belt. His motivation to succeed Friday night, however, goes much deeper.

Burkman became a father for the first time less than a year ago. The experience has changed his priorities and his attitude about being a professional fighter.

“Being a husband and a father has definitely made me grow up and expect the best out of myself,” Burkman, 32, told ESPN.com. “Now it’s not like I’m fighting for fun, I’m doing this to provide for my family and make a better life for my wife [Brandy] and my [8-month-old] son [Legend Joshua]. And that, at the end of the day, will bring out a new animal.”

As a mature family man, Burkman avoids the one mistake that dogged him during his previous loss to Fitch – taking the opposition lightly. While both were relatively unseasoned fighters when they first met, Burkman had two fights inside the Octagon; Fitch had one. And Burkman’s performances were more impressive -- a knockout and submission to Fitch’s unanimous decision win.

Under the circumstances Burkman had no reason to concern himself with Fitch, or so he thought at the time. In 2006, Burkman didn’t conduct himself like a professional fighter -- he didn’t study tapes of opponents or control his weight between fights. He struggled often to reach the 170-pound limit and it negatively impacted his performance against Fitch.

That was then. Everything about Burkman today screams professional mixed martial artist; it is the man Fitch must overcome during their rematch Friday night.

“I underestimated Jon Fitch [in 2006],” Burkman said. “And I probably overestimated my abilities at that point in my career. I didn’t know who he was. I wasn’t quite the student of the game then that I am now.

“I’m a real mixed martial artist now. That’s what people will see from me in my next few fights. And everything I do in my life is to become better at it.”

Melendez: 'This is my coming-out party'

April, 19, 2013
4/19/13
2:17
PM ET
Gross By Josh Gross
ESPN.com
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SAN FRANCISCO -- Gilbert Melendez’s long, winding ride to the UFC concludes Saturday, not so far from where it began.

The 31-year-old Californian, a Strikeforce lightweight champion and longtime resident of top-10 lists, enters the Octagon for the first time against Benson Henderson -- making him a rare rookie title challenger inside an arena that played host to some of his greatest moments as a professional mixed martial artist. All of this will be taking place an hour’s drive from where Melendez was introduced to the sport, on a whim, while wrestling at San Francisco State.

"It doesn't hurt that the Octagon is going to be in the HP Pavilion, where I've been plenty of times,” Melendez said. “So in some ways it's unfamiliar but in some ways it's so familiar.”

This could very well describe Melendez’s presence in MMA since 2002.

Compiling one of the most impressive outside-the-UFC résumés of any fighter in the sport, Melendez (21-2) fought at 143 pounds in Japan at a time when that meant something. Moving up to 155, “El Nino” dominated a strong contingent of contenders in Japan and the U.S. There isn’t a man he fought whom he didn’t defeat. Yet on the verge of his UFC debut -- a scenario he heavily though begrudgingly campaigned for in recent years -- Melendez is of the opinion that his numerous accomplishments don’t matter.

"This is the UFC. I'm 0-0 here,” Melendez said. “This is my coming-out party. Am I a certified fighter or not? Am I a joke or not? I could have a bad day and people would still think I'm a joke. I could lose and they'll think I'm a joke. But I have to win.

“I've stepped into rings. I've stepped in places where you can stomp on peoples’ faces and knee them in the head [on the floor]. I've been to other countries and other states with different rules. This is a different size cage, different rules, different organization, different title. So, yeah, I'm definitely walking in as a challenger."

The opportunity comes at the right time. Melendez readily admits he reached a plateau in Strikeforce, a promotion that couldn’t provide him with the kind of challenges he wanted, especially after Zuffa took control of the company in 2011.

"The politics behind Strikeforce, Showtime and UFC played with his head quite a bit,” said Gilbert Melendez Sr., a strong presence since the beginning of his son’s career.

Melendez got away with simply showing up in shape because it was his sense he was better than everyone he fought. “It hindered me not because of the talent of the people I fought, but the motivation,” he said. So his desire to improve waned as he struggled mentally with not being where he wanted to be. Among other reactions, frustration set in.

“You're Strikeforce champ, you can't be like, 'Hey, I don't want to be here anymore,' " said Jake Shields, who introduced Melendez to MMA and was similarly a Strikeforce champion before fleeing for the UFC when his contract was up. “He was getting paid, so he was happy in that sense but you could just see he didn't have any motivation. His training camps were suffering. I could see it.”

Rather than improving as a fighter, save taking the time to heal a nagging back injury, Melendez spent his days focused on his personal life, which included a fiancée, Keri Anne Taylor, and a baby girl. Melendez also opened an expansive gym in San Francisco’s warehouse district, not far from AT&T Park, where a full training camp was spent preparing for gifted UFC champion “Smooth” Henderson (18-2).

"He's on beast mode. He's ready to go,” said Nate Diaz, Melendez’s teammate and younger brother-in-arms. “I don't think there's anyone better than Gilbert in the lightweight division. This is his time.”

Diaz was the last member of Melendez’s crew to get a crack at a UFC belt, falling to Henderson on points in December.

"The thing with Gilbert is he really steps his game up for competition,” Diaz said. “When he's set to win, he wins. He does even better in fights than he does in training most of the time, and right now he's unstoppable in training. I think Henderson has his hands full."

All told, the Cesar Gracie jiu-jitsu team is 0-5 in UFC title contests -- a fact Melendez is keenly aware of but not consumed by. Their experience was built from the ground up, a distinctly Bay Area crew that molded itself into one of MMA’s most respected teams. All of that is undeniable and powerful should Melendez choose to call upon on it, though he knows on fight night, it’ll be just him and Henderson alone in the Octagon.

"Benson's a mixed martial artist,” Melendez said. “A lot of guys are Muay Thai guys that fight MMA. Or wrestlers that fight MMA. He uses all his tools. He's a good striker, good grappler, great submissions -- but he shines when he puts it all together. I'm also that guy, though. I'm not just a striker. I'm not just a wrestler. I'm not just a grappler. I'm an MMA fighter. I think we match up pretty evenly when it comes to that. He has some pretty good kicks but I think my hands are a lot better. Wrestling and grappling will be interesting.

“I've been thinking about this a long time. You want the respect. You want to brand yourself. You want to be be ranked. You want all that, but it's easy to put it aside. It doesn't matter: I got the opportunity.”

"Cyborg" Santos will fight anyone

April, 5, 2013
4/05/13
11:20
AM ET
Gross By Josh Gross
ESPN.com
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Cristiane SantosJosh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesCristiane "Cyborg" Santos is training hard for her debut with Invicta FC.

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. -- Cristiane Santos is an equal-opportunity butt-kicker.

The female featherweight star reaffirmed Wednesday, following a two-hour workout at the Punishment Training Center, that she'll fight anyone in a cage so long as they can get licensed by a commission. So Fallon Fox, the male-to-female transgender fighter making so much news lately, has at least one known woman willing to give her a shot.

"She wants to be a girl. I don't agree," said Santos, who for the first time in almost a year and half will return to fighting on April 5. "I think you're born a girl, you're a girl. You're born a guy, you're a guy. But I don't choose opponents. The commission needs to check and make sure she doesn't have testosterone.

"I'm not going to judge other people. If the commission says she can fight, why not?"

The 27-year-old Strikeforce champion tested positive for steroids following her 16-second demolition of Hiroko Yamanaka in December 2011, so that quote will inspire contempt in some people. But that's nothing new for Santos. Because of her muscular build and aggressive fighting style, she's been subjected to cruel, crude name calling throughout her career. She said she understands what Fox must be going through in a world in which everyone with an opinion can have access to the people they're opining about via social media.

"People tell me on Twitter: 'I think you have a d---.' A lot of bad things, they say. I think people have a small mind," Santos said.

"They don't think a girl can punch hard like a man. I think people are ignorant. People are stupid. I don't want to be the same as people who do that."

They don't think a girl can punch hard like a man. I think people are ignorant. People are stupid. I don't want to be the same as people who do that.

-- Cristiane Santos on the bad rap about women's fighting.
Santos, 27, said these sorts of comments, common as they may be, did not cut her down. She has nothing to prove, least of all to people who have never stepped in a cage to get punched in the face for a living.

This is an attitude she keeps about her career in general.

Ahead of April's debut in Invicta FC against Fiona Muxlow, a late replacement for an injured Ediane Gomes, Santos said she doesn’t “feel I need to prove anything. I think I need to do great work. I want to do a nice fight. Win or lose, there's consequences because all my fights I leave in the hands of God. I need only to train hard and do my best."

Based on Wednesday's session, the training hard part is covered.

Santos hit pads, worked on her wrestling, and benefited from an impromptu sparring session with an experienced amateur Muay Thai fighter visiting from Florida who wished to try her luck against the slugging Brazilian. "Cyborg" obliged, and at various points during their three rounds together made it clear to anyone watching that this could end whenever she wanted it to.

Finding suitable training partners has always been a challenging aspect of Cyborg’s fight preparation. There aren’t many women able or willing to put her through her paces. She’ll spar with men, but sometimes they feel like they need to hold back, even when she begs them not to.

Making weight has been a trying experience as well, and two weeks out from the fight with Muxlow, a 35-year-old Australian jiu-jitsu stylist, that process has already begun, making an already arduous routine “hard and stressful.”

"It's not nice when you change opponents, but when you train hard, injuries happen,” she said. “I understand. But I'm very happy because Invicta tried to get another girl. I'm ready to fight in a lot of situations.”

[+] EnlargeRonda Rousey
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports"Cyborg" Santos is not willing to cut weight to face UFC Bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey.
Santos weighed 155 pounds following training on Wednesday, and, already appearing strong and lean, reiterated that making 135 to fight UFC bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey just isn’t going to happen.

A month ago, days before Rousey tussled with Liz Carmouche, Santos announced she’d turned down a deal with Zuffa to take a three-fight stint with Invicta. She also had strong words for Rousey, who, it turned out, also excelled as a pay-per-view commodity. Santos watched Rousey-Carmouche from inside the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., and came away impressed with the Olympic judoka.

"I think Ronda was good. Liz Carmouche tried the choke and Ronda showed she can defend. She showed she wants to win,” Santos said. “She did a great job and showed spirit. I think both girls did good work.

"I think in this fight she proved a little bit more. I don't like to say anything about other people, but when you do talk you need to prove it inside the cage. I respect every person that steps in the cage because I know it's not easy."

Ronda Rousey wants 'to earn' her belt

February, 13, 2013
2/13/13
12:04
PM ET
McNeil By Franklin McNeil
ESPN.com
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Rhonda RouseyGreg Bartram/US PresswireRonda Rousey is bringing her patented armbar to the UFC women's bantamweight division.

She will walk into the Honda Center arena in Anaheim, Calif., on Feb. 23 to defend a title belt she neither asked for nor wanted.

Women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey makes her Octagon debut in the main event at UFC 157. She will face Liz Carmouche in the first women’s bout in UFC history.

Rousey is the defending champion. It’s a designation she isn’t yet comfortable embracing. And who can blame her? The title was practically thrust upon her.

“When they [UFC] brought in the guys from WEC they gave (featherweight champion) Jose Aldo and (bantamweight champion) Dominick Cruz their belts,” Rousey told ESPN.com. “They did that to me as well when they brought the women’s division over. But I don’t feel like I’ve really earned it.

“When [UFC president] Dana [White] gave me the belt, I told him I didn’t want it, I wanted to fight for it. But he said, ‘I’m going to give it to you anyway and you can think whatever you want.’”

When [UFC president] Dana [White] gave me the belt I told him I didn't want it, I wanted to fight for it. But he said, 'I'm going to give it to you anyway and you can think whatever you want.'

-- Ronda Rousey, on receiving the UFC belt
No disrespect to White or anyone else, but Rousey, who was the Strikeforce women’s bantamweight titleholder before that promotion officially folded in January, believes no one can be called UFC champion until they compete and win inside the Octagon.

But UFC is the largest and most successful promotion in mixed martial arts, so when White issues a directive, fighters usually go along with it. Rousey saw no need to engage White on this issue.

While Rousey remains uncomfortable with being labeled UFC champion now, she deals with it. Besides, she has a bigger matter to address on Feb. 23 -- beating Carmouche and keeping women’s mixed martial arts viable.

Unlike any other fighter, mixed martial artist or boxer, Rousey finds herself in a truly must-win situation. If she fails to defeat Carmouche, it’s very likely that every female mixed martial artist will suffer.

UFC created a women’s bantamweight division solely because of Rousey’s success and star power. There is no other women’s division in UFC, and there isn't any talk of creating others.

For now, the presence of women fighters in UFC depends on Rousey’s continued success. She needs to beat every fighter placed in front of her for the foreseeable future to ensure that women mixed martial artists remain employed by the promotion.

Carmouche, and every other female fighter, is determined to dethrone Rousey. But if they succeed, they do so at their own peril – and that of every woman on UFC’s roster.

It’s that simple.
Ronda Rousey
Esther Lin/Getty ImagesRonda Rousey is hoping a dominant display at UFC 157 will validate her status as UFC champion.

Rousey is very much aware of the precarious situation women’s MMA finds itself in at the moment. But she is up to the task of fighting to keep women’s MMA relevant in UFC -- even if it is just the 135-pound division.

“I don’t mind having that kind of pressure on me,” Rousey said. “I feel that the more pressure there is, the more I fight above myself.

“And I like to pretend like it’s going to be the end of the world, the end of the world depends on whether or not I win the fight, because it is the end of the world for me.

“I’m fighting to win, and I’m fighting to keep women in UFC. And I’m not entertaining the idea about what will happen if I lose because I’m not going to lose.”

Rousey’s confidence is infectious. Despite such a heavy burden on her shoulders, she accepts the ordeal with a big smile on her face. She will not be deterred.

How can anyone not support this fighter who carries the weight of so many others on her shoulders?

Confidence, however, isn’t the only thing Rousey that is relying on to get her pass Carmouche. She remains humble. Despite being a gifted athlete, Rousey never takes an opponent for granted. She isn’t looking past Carmouche (8-2).

“[Carmouche] is a very dangerous fighter,” Rousey said. “My last opponent, Sarah Kaufman, was also a former champion in Strikeforce. And was a very good striker, very disciplined. But she was very predictable and very easy to prepare for.

“Whereas with Liz, there are fights when she comes out with flying knees, or fights when she comes in with spinning back fists, or fights when she comes in throwing a right kick followed by a right hook right away. She’s very unorthodox and very unpredictable.

“There are girls who’ve underestimated her before. She fought for the Strikeforce title against Marloes Coenen and dominated [Coenen] for four rounds and made one mistake and got caught in a triangle sent from God and lost the fight.

“She is just the type of person you don’t underestimate, and I haven’t been in the least. I don’t care what people are saying or what oddsmakers are saying, I still consider myself an underdog in every single fight.”

That’s Rousey: never one to rest on her impressive laurels. No wonder she seems to become more dominant with each fight.

Rousey has won all six of her professional bouts by arm-bar submission. She also used the technique to finish all three of her amateur opponents in the opening round.

Her proficiency on the ground might cause some to question whether she is a one-trick pony. What will happen if Rousey finds herself in a standup battle or has to venture into the second round?

“I’m prepared for everything,” Rousey said. “I train to be a mixed martial artist, not to be an arm-bar specialist. I train to be prepared for the worst-case scenario.

“The first round actually was always my worst. I used to call it first-rounditis when I was doing judo.

“It’s so funny to hear all these girls say, ‘If I get her out of the first round, I’m going to see the defeat in her eyes.’ I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m just opening up. You don’t want to see what the second round looks like.’”

Maybe we’ll get to see the post-first-round Rousey on Feb. 23. But be prepared; it could get frightening.

Melendez the right choice for Henderson

January, 16, 2013
1/16/13
6:24
AM ET
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
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It’s always a good problem to have two (or three) contenders with strong cases to fight for a belt. That’s the perpetual state of the UFC’s always-bountiful lightweight division. Ever since Frankie Edgar clogged the top with his battery of rematches -- BJ Penn, Gray Maynard and Benson Henderson -- the challengers have been consistently two and three deep.

To be a 155-pound contender, all you need to have is continued patience and awesomeness.

And that is the ongoing norm for Anthony Pettis, particularly now that it’s been confirmed that Benson Henderson is fighting reigning Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez on April 20 at UFC on Fox 7. Pettis’s own fight with Donald Cerrone on Jan. 26 in Chicago is all about the sliding stakes. It’s for understudy purposes; for the right to be next next. In essence, Pettis needs to beat Cerrone to continue his holding pattern. That’s not entirely ideal.

Here’s the thing, though: Pettis-Henderson II has a nice, long shelf life. The attraction of that rematch will hold.

The same’s not necessarily the case for Melendez, who has been ranked on pound-for-pound lists since Henderson was fighting Diego Saraiva in Evolution. Until now, he was unavailable to UFC challenges, and we’ve been pining for just such a scenario as this. Now, in a twist of organized fate, he gets his shot at the UFC belt in San Jose, where Melendez has always been right at home. Strikeforce was headquartered in San Jose, where it did burst the seams of “regional.” Melendez was a big reason the thing grew like it did.

Now he gets Henderson and a chance at the UFC strap, and the selling point boils down to one vital thing: curiosity.
[+] EnlargeGilbert Melendez
Josh Hedges/Forza LLC/Getty ImagesWe'll find out soon enough if Strikeforce's best lightweight is also the best lightweight in the world.

Is he as good as we think he is? Melendez has won seven bouts in a row. He hasn't fought in anything other than title fights since 2008. All he does is beat the guy in front of him, even if you (or I) dub that guy a step down from the names he’d see in the UFC. Complaints towards the quality of his opposition don’t belong at his door. He’s always wanted to fight the best there is, even as he’s had to settle for the best available.

The bigger issue, though, is that Melendez only has this kind of unique timing on his side once. He’s coming to the UFC right when all the inter-promotional intrigue is still intriguing. If the UFC cuts a “champion versus champion” type promo for UFC on Fox 7 -- much like it attempted with Nick Diaz versus Georges St-Pierre for UFC 137 -- you’re catching these confluences at just the right time. Melendez, for so long sequestered in Strikeforce where he was dominant and under-challenged, against Henderson, who has lofty aims of one-upping whatever records Anderson Silva leaves behind.

If you stack Melendez against a Gray Maynard first, you run the risk of him being “Lombarded.” And if that seems like an exposure point to Melendez’s detractors, so be it. The truth is, the UFC operates on hype, in which strong hunches, one way or another, play as key of a role as documented fact.

For Henderson, it’s a title defense. For “El Nino,” this fight plays closer to justification.

Is Melendez the best lightweight going? That’s the question that makes him a polarizing figure for fans. He has apologists, and he has detractors, and he has haters. He has believers, too. Strong ones. Insistent ones. Is he as good as his believers say? There’s one way to find out.

And that happens, at long last, on April 20.

As for Pettis, he has history in his back pocket. If Pettis wins at UFC on FOX 6, the much-awaited rematch of WEC 53 looms in the shadows of UFC on Fox 7. There’s an active, deep-rooted vendetta in play for that bit of fence magic Pettis punctuated things with in the last fight with Henderson. He can be on hand in San Jose to challenge the winner.

In reality, nothing much changes other than Pettis -- presuming he beats Cerrone -- has three added months to let things play out. Three months isn’t that long for a guy so accustomed to waiting.

Cormier's future begins at Strikeforce finale

January, 10, 2013
1/10/13
1:10
PM ET
McNeil By Franklin McNeil
ESPN.com
Archive
It has to be fight week for highly ranked heavyweight Daniel Cormier, because no one will find a man more excited these days than him.

Nothing gets Cormier's juices flowing like a fight. He loves competition -- the tougher the opposition, the better.

Cormier faces a relative unknown in Dion Staring on Saturday night in Oklahoma City in what will be Strikeforce's final event. While a fight with Staring wouldn't normally push Cormier's excitement to peak levels, the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix winner hasn't been in the cage since May, when he claimed the tournament title with a lopsided unanimous decision over Josh Barnett.

An involuntary eight-month layoff is a long time for Cormier, so he is ready for the opportunity to again put his fists into another man's face.

"I'm a competitor. I love competition," the 10-0 Cormier told ESPN.com. "I want to get the rush of the emotions of going out there and fighting or wrestling. I want the rush of competition.

"It's the best gift that anyone can give me -- the ability to compete on a consistent basis. That's all I want."

It's also the reason Cormier can't wait for Saturday's bout. No disrespect to Staring -- he's the guy who said "yes" when Zuffa LLC officials offered him the fight.

Staring (28-7) isn't as high-profile as Cormier's original opponent, former two-time UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir, but he always comes to fight.

What Staring might lack in physical skill and level of competition he makes up for with determination and aggression and will come to fight. Cormier is looking forward to facing an opponent who doesn't back down.

While Cormier is giving Staring the high-profile-opponent treatment, he is extremely confident of victory. When the horn sounds to start the three-round bout, Cormier intends to put a vicious beating on Staring.

Cormier will attack the heavy-handed Staring as if he is trying to derail the personal goals Cormier has mapped out for his not-too-distant future. After helping to pull the curtain down on Strikeforce, Cormier will turn his full attention to becoming a UFC champion.

He’s a fight, maybe two at most, from landing a title shot; Cormier knows that much. What he can't say definitively is who will be opposite him in the Octagon on championship night, other than it won't be current UFC heavyweight titleholder and training partner Cain Velasquez, who enlists Cormier as his wrestling coach.

UFC can't put enough money on the table to persuade these two to square off in the cage. That just isn't going to happen.

But Cormier has a Plan B in place when UFC calls with a title-shot offer. He will drop to 205 to fight light heavyweight champion Jon Jones.

While it's a tentative plan, here’s how Plan B works: Cormier dismantles Staring -- as most expect he will -- before taking on Mir. Being that Cormier would like to fight every three or four months, the bout with Mir could take place sometime in April, with a source telling ESPN.com the fight could likely find its way to San Jose, Calif.

[+] EnlargeCain Velasquez
Daniel Herbertson/Sherdog.comDaniel Cormier would rather drop down to 205 pounds than challenge teammate Cain Velasquez, left, for his UFC heavyweight title.
Regardless of when or where the fight happens, a victory over Mir would put Cormier smack dab in the center of the heavyweight title picture. That's when Cormier will need to finalize his career path.

With former Strikeforce heavyweight champion and top UFC contender Alistair Overeem recently cleared to resume his fighting career, a win Feb. 2 over Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva is sure to earn him a title bout with Velasquez.

Cormier will be watching that bout closely with his next move hinging on the outcome.

"That's when I have to make my decision," Cormier said. "I have to sit there and watch Overeem fight Cain and hope with everything in my body that Cain can beat him. I'm hoping that Cain can keep his belt and I move down to 205 by the end of the year. I would love to just go fight for that [light heavyweight] belt."

Cormier has already begun weighing in lighter for his heavyweight bouts. He checked in for his fight against Barnett in May at a lean 238 pounds.

He says the weight cut for that fight wasn't difficult and that he'll continue preparing himself for a possible high-profile showdown with Jones. Expect him to tip the scale under 240 pounds for Saturday's fight against Staring before weighing even less if an April tilt with Mir materializes.

By the time he potentially meets Jones later this year, an excited Cormier said he expects to be faster, more agile and just as strong.

"[Cutting to 205 pounds] would be tough," Cormier said, "but I would cut a lot of weight for wrestling. I would weigh in at 5 p.m. and wrestle at 9 a.m. If I weigh in at 4 p.m. [for MMA] and have more than 30 hours to recover and get my body back to feeling good, I should be OK. Thirty hours is a really long time.

"If anything, it's going to help me athletically. As I lose weight, I get faster. I can only imagine that I will be faster as I keep going down. But with that being said, even if I was to go down there and get a championship fight, it's an uphill battle. It's not like I'm going down there to fight somebody easier than the champion in the heavier division. Jon Jones is a tough hill to climb. It will be a very tough fight, but I will be up for it."

Nothing gets Cormier more excited than thoughts of becoming a UFC champion. The final few steps toward achieving that goal start Saturday night in Oklahoma City.

Ten moments in Strikeforce history

January, 9, 2013
1/09/13
8:36
AM ET
Gross By Josh Gross
ESPN.com
Archive
Gina CaranoTerry Goodlad/Sherdog.comStrikeforce helped catapult the careers of female fighters like Gina Carano.

Saturday night in Oklahoma City marks the final chapter for Strikeforce mixed martial arts, ending a turbulent and groundbreaking period in the sport.

Moving from regional promotion to one of global significance, Strikeforce offered a compelling model for how organizations could rise to a place of national prominence during the Zuffa era. And, of course, the subsequent demise of Strikeforce produced a cautionary tale that indicated trying to put on big-boy pants in this business is a fool's errand.

Over his six years in the MMA business (following 20 as a kickboxing promoter), Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker took risks, made his vision come to life, then saw it come down like a house of cards. During that time, however, his promotion delivered many moments -- good and bad, in the cage and out.

10. Nick Diaz versus Paul Daley, Round 1


Regardless of the promotional brand, mixed martial arts delivers furious conflict. And under the Strikeforce banner, no two fighters delivered on that promise better than Nick Diaz and Paul Daley.

Headlining the first major Strikeforce card of the Zuffa era, Diaz and Daley, competing for the promotion's 170-pound title, unleashed a furious opening round that ended with three seconds left when Diaz put the Englishman down. Strikeforce often delivered action in part because the rules encouraged it (no elbow strikes on the ground) and the types of fighters Strikeforce looked to promote (it wasn't wrestler-heavy).

9. Heavyweight Grand Prix


Well-intentioned as it was, the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix -- a multi-stage tournament that in theory could have crowned the baddest man on the planet -- was a flop. From injuries to postponements to a reserve fighter winning the whole thing, the ambitious effort never delivered what it billed. Daniel Cormier, by all rights a terrific alternate, handled Josh Barnett in the finals. And Zuffa, which ceded control of Strikeforce shortly after the tournament's open round in February 2011, decided to move heavyweights out of the promotion entirely.

From what could have been to what was, the heavyweight GP proved to be many things, especially a great source of frustration for Strikeforce and Showtime.

8. Emelianenko loses to Werdum


There weren't many people that gave Fabricio Werdum a shot to upend Fedor Emelianenko. But lest you forget, MMA is sport. Anything can happen. And Werdum made it so, stunning the Russian in 69 seconds to win by triangle choke. Forgetting everything he'd accomplished over the previous nine years, the result gave all the ammunition Emelianenko deniers needed to chip away at the Pride champion's legacy. Emelianenko would go on to lose three straight before righting the ship and retiring in 2012 with a 35-4 record. Werdum, meanwhile, was propelled into the upper echelon of the heavyweight division, where he remains.

7. Brawling in Nashville


Of all the times to start an in-cage melee, doing so on network television will go down as one of the worst moments in the promotion's history. Following a card that featured three lopsided championship contests on CBS, Jake Shields and his team were confronted in the cage by Jason Miller. It was a combustible scene yielding punching and stomping and all sorts of nonsense that prompted play-by-play man Gus Johnson to utter the infamous line: "Sometimes these things happen in MMA." As it turned out, the event in Nashville marked the final time Strikeforce appeared on CBS.

6. Carano versus Cyborg and the rise of women’s MMA


To credit Strikeforce with the growth of women in MMA would require forgetting many passionate players that preceded its efforts. But there's no question that the promotion eagerly adopted women into the fold, and allowed them tremendous visibility. Such was the case when Gina Carano, whose stardom rose out of the ashes of EliteXC, met her match in Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos. A couple weeks after the announcement that Fedor Emelianenko would join the promotion's heavyweight division, Carano, who by then was an extremely marketable commodity, suffered a beating at the hands of the Brazilian mauler -- the first major event to feature headlining female combatants. 2013 could deliver Ronda Rousey against Cyborg in the UFC, a fight unquestionably forged under the Strikeforce banner.


5. Signing Fedor Emelianenko


On the upswing following its acquisition of EliteXC talent and a quality television platform, Coker took a risk on the Russian heavyweight star regarded at the time as the world's best heavyweight. This wasn't just any deal. With Fedor Emelianenko came his promoter, M-1 Global, and a bull's-eye on Strikeforce's back that signified a regional show had evolved into a global venture. That meant it would be perceived as a "competitor" to the UFC, which was rebuffed in its attempts to sign the Russian. Emelianenko provided a big boost, as his debut on CBS scored just under 5.5 million viewers. In the end, despite the interest he generated, the deal for Fedor forced a relatively frugal promotion to accrue debt and that ultimately led investors to bail.


4. Strikeforce purchases ProElite assets, partners with Showtime


Strikeforce was already making waves in 2008 when it signed a broadcast deal with NBC to air taped programming, but the promotion didn't mature until the following year. Gobbling up assets from ProElite, including fighter contracts that included Nick Diaz, Jake Shields and Robbie Lawler, Strikeforce was now capable of producing enough content to fill a regular series of live fights. Thus the relationship with Showtime, which previously aired ProElite, was born. In addition to the deal with Showtime, Strikeforce also signed on to deliver live fights to CBS.

3. The talent


From the start of its venture into MMA, Strikeforce's small band of scouts and matchmakers pulled a wealth of talent from West Coast gyms, making the most of local relationships, particularly with American Kickboxing Academy and Cesar Gracie jiu-jitsu. Soon enough Strikeforce had signed internationally recognized fighters and lived as one of the few viable alternatives to the UFC. There's no question that history will be kind to Coker and his team when it comes to their ability to identify, showcase and develop fighters, all the while agreeing to more flexible partnerships that gave talent the option to compete in other venues.

2. First regulated event in California draws record turnout


California cleared the path toward MMA regulation, yet it took six years for the Golden State to actually oversee an event. On March 10, 2006, Strikeforce promoted the state's first MMA card, packing the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif., with 18,265 eager fight fans -- then a record in North America. Frank Shamrock returned to the cage for the first time in three years and in the headliner knocked out Cesar Gracie. His effort, along with fighters who became Strikeforce and UFC mainstays, made a memorable night for Strikeforce, and more broadly the sport in the U.S.


1. Zuffa purchases Strikeforce


Just as it appeared Strikeforce was set to be a true competitor to the UFC, Zuffa swooped in and rattled the landscape. The move, announced in March 2011, was monumental for several reasons. Though Zuffa said it planned for Strikeforce to operate independently, that never happened. Much of the promotion's staff was ousted in favor of Zuffa employees. Strikeforce fighters began matriculating to the Octagon.

Hope of Zuffa's promotional prowess augmenting what Strikeforce already had in place was dashed. Insiders took to calling Strikeforce a "zombie promotion," and as with the other organizations Zuffa purchased during its rise to the top of MMA, Strikeforce was eventually assigned to the dustbin of history.

Marquardt's career on the upswing at 170

January, 8, 2013
1/08/13
11:55
AM ET
McNeil By Franklin McNeil
ESPN.com
Archive
Nate MarquardtEsther Lin/Getty ImagesNate Marquardt, left, knocked out Tyron Woodley in July to win the Strikeforce welterweight title.
One element to being a successful professional athlete is learning how to handle the ups and the downs that periodically occur throughout one's career.

No mixed martial artist is more adept at placing the good in proper perspective and overcoming the bad than Nate Marquardt.

He has been to the mountaintop as the King of Pancrase middleweight champion. On the flip side, Marquardt has come up short several times in his attempt to claim the 185-pound belt in the UFC, whether in title bouts or eliminators.

He has also experienced shortcomings outside the cage -- testing positive for a banned substance after his UFC debut in 2005. In June 2011, Marquardt was removed from a UFC event that he was scheduled to headline after failing to receive medical clearance by the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission when his testosterone levels exceeded the required limit.

Marquardt was released by UFC shortly thereafter. It marked the lowest point of his career.

But the 33-year-old Marquardt is a resilient man. He refused to give up on himself and began focusing on redemption.

It didn't take him long to accomplish his goal.

Marquardt rededicated himself in the gym and made the move from middleweight to welterweight. In July 2012, in his first appearance at 170 pounds, Marquardt knocked out Tyron Woodley to claim the vacant Strikeforce welterweight title.

It was the most impressive performance of Marquardt's pro career. At 170, he looked sharper, faster and stronger. While Marquardt has had solid performances at middleweight, against Woodley he looked unbeatable.

On that night, Marquardt put all his demons to rest. Regardless of any lingering negative feelings some people have of him, Marquardt likes the image he sees in the mirror each morning.

Now Marquardt is focused on taking his career to higher levels, starting Saturday night when he makes the first defense of his welterweight title against Tarec Saffiedine in Oklahoma City.

"I feel that happened in my last fight -- that was kind of like my redemption," Marquardt told ESPN.com. "So I'm not really holding on to that stuff. I'm moving forward and looking at getting bigger and better fights. I want to be the best that I can be in this sport, and I haven't had the opportunity to do that yet.

"So I can't wait for this upcoming fight and the one after that and the one after that."

With Saturday night's event marking the end of Strikeforce, Marquardt will be among those fighters moving to UFC. He knows that beating Saffiedine will place him one step closer to achieving his ultimate goal of becoming a UFC champion.

Despite his close relationship with UFC 170-pound champion Georges St-Pierre, Marquardt doesn't pull any punches when the topic of facing his friend for the belt comes up.

"I've trained with Georges since before he got the UFC welterweight title," Marquardt said. "I've trained with him for every one of his fights, and he's trained with me for every one of my fights. There's definitely a bond there."

Marquardt (32-10-2) wants to be UFC champion and won't let anything -- or anyone -- stand in his way.

"That's my goal [becoming UFC welterweight champion]," he said. "I'm not in position to turn down a fight, so I guess I'd have to fight whoever they put in front of me to fight for that belt."

If that fight were to materialize, it could mark the toughest of St-Pierre's career. In addition to the familiarity between the fighters, Marquardt might be in the best physical condition of his career.

Nate Marquardt
Dave Mandel/Sherdog.comNate Marquardt has no problem potentially challenging longtime training partner Georges St-Pierre for his UFC welterweight title.
"[Fighting at 170] is just better for my body, my build," said Marquardt, who has added gymnastics to his workout routine. "When my walking-around weight gets below 190, I just feel like I can perform a lot better. I have a lot more cardio, and my strength doesn't suffer and my explosiveness goes up. And my endurance just goes through the roof, and that's the biggest difference. I feel like a better athlete at 170."

Being in supreme physical condition with thoughts of winning a UFC title are all well and good, but it will fall by the wayside if Marquardt doesn't defeat Saffiedine on Saturday night.

Marquardt is confident heading into the fight, but he is wise enough not to take Saffiedine (13-3) for granted and expects a much different fight than the one he had against Woodley.

"The Woodley fight -- stylistically it's pretty much the opposite of Tarec," Marquardt said. "Tyron is more of a wrestler. Tyron is more explosive and quicker; Saffiedine is more of a setup guy who likes striking more than Tyron. Tarec's not as good on his offensive wrestling.

"But [Saffiedine] looks very tough. He looks resilient. He looks tough to hold down. Even Tyron couldn't hold him down. I think he's a very tough guy, a very skilled fighter. I really feel like anywhere the fight goes I have my own attacks that I can use and I can defeat him in certain areas. My thing is, wherever the fight goes, I am prepared to do damage.”

Saturday night will serve as the latest example that Marquardt's career is back on the upswing.

Five wave-makers moving from Strikeforce

January, 7, 2013
1/07/13
12:01
PM ET
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
Archive


It’s fight week, and it’s flight week. No more Strikeforce after Saturday night. No more wondering if and when we’ll be sold on Josh Thomson-Gilbert Melendez IV. No more decagon, and no more second-class citizenry.

At long last, the long road ends. Hey, we’ll always have Frank Shamrock’s cosmetic dental braces.

Since it was a slow, awkward demise, Strikeforce’s last show comes as a relief. Bittersweet? A little. But this wasn’t like the cult of Pride. San Jose wasn’t far-off Japan. Lenne Hardt wasn’t involved, even if Fedor Emelianenko was. Some of Pride’s vital pieces were re-imagined as Strikeforcers (after stints, in some cases, as Afflictioners). In many cases, their myths came down long before the curtain.

And even still, there are some big names coming over to the UFC, fighters who will deepen the divisions. While Sean Shelby was struggling in 2012 to make fights out of whatever he could find in the nearly bare cupboards on Strikeforce’s roster, Joe Silva in 2013 has more pieces than he knows what to do with.

Here’s a look at five impact fighters who, as of Jan. 13, become the latest UFC intrigues.

Daniel Cormier
The late-bloomer Cormier comes over with momentum. For starters, his gradual ascension from wrestler to professional MMA fighter got a boost when Alistair Overeem was plucked from the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix. In went Cormier (the third alternate), who’d handled Jeff Monson in an understudy bout to stay loose. What did he do in the tournament? He destroyed Antonio Silva in the semis, for starters, with speed and power on the feet. Then he dominated Josh Barnett to cap things off. He’s part of the Strikeforce swan song this weekend, and still needs to get by Dion Staring, but it’s generally believed that Cormier is a threat to win the UFC title. The problem is a familial one: His AKA training partner Cain Velasquez currently holds the belt, and Cormier doesn’t want to trade punches with his friend. Conditions, conditions, always conditions.

Impact factor: High. The UFC’s heavyweight division isn’t as deep as some of the others, and with his tool set -- wrestling, hands, surprising agility for a hydrant -- Cormier feels like storm clouds gathering overhead.

Nate Marquardt
Current welterweight champion Nate Marquardt will be back in the UFC, where he never got the chance to debut at 170 pounds. How will he look there? That’s a good question. For one thing, Marquardt has barely fought in the past three years (elevated testosterone, injuries, the never christened BAMMA promotion thing), and has competed only once as a welterweight (his title-clinching win over Tyron Woodley in July). He’s 33 years old, and he’s won three of four fights. But he is coming into a weight class that is so congested at the top that UFC 158 was created just to sort it all out. Remember, Marquardt fought for the middleweight title back in mid-2007, and six years later he’s vying for another chance. Six. Years. Later. And this time he’s doing it as a welterweight, where Georges St-Pierre rules.

Impact factor: Moderate. After a 16-month absence, Marquardt looked great in his title fight with Woodley. But he has looked great in spots throughout his career, only to come up short. Maybe he’ll be revitalized as a welterweight and make a historic run, but the only thing he’s sustained in the past half-decade is inconsistency.

Gilbert Melendez
Oh yes, ol’ Gil. Melendez quickly became a martyr figure in the spiraling Strikeforce ordeal. Remember, UFC president Dana White promised that Melendez would be happy as a clam with the types of elite opponents they’d dredge up for him in Strikeforce. That was right after he signed his deal. Turns out that was a bit of unfounded optimism (though Thomson III was fun). Now the partition comes down between Melendez and that brooding cast of elite 155ers in the UFC. Stick Melendez in there against any of the top names and it’s instant drama. Gray Maynard? Cool. Donald Cerrone? Sick fight. Anthony Pettis? That barn will burn. Benson Henderson? Let’s see who’s the best in the world. Face it: Melendez is the one guy everybody wanted to see fighting in the UFC. Now it’s a reality.

Impact factor: High. Melendez’s knock is that he hasn’t fought the best guys on the planet. But he’s beaten the guys who have stood in front of him, and is ranked as one of the best pound-for-pound in the world. He carries a seven-fight win streak into the UFC. No reason to believe he can’t compete for (and win) the UFC gold.

Ronaldo Souza
Jacare, the former Strikeforce middleweight champion, is a quiet, sudden menace (much like his cousin, the alligator). He does work on the ground like nobody’s business. Yet in spot duty in 2012, he took care of Derek Brunson in 41 no-nonsense seconds with punches -- 41 seconds that Chris Leben likely studied in building up optimism toward his own fight with Brunson. Is standing with “Jacare” a little like playing with a grenade? Wouldn’t that be fun for one of the world’s best jiu-jitsu practitioners. Souza’s stock could soar if he gets by Ed Herman similarly in the final Strikeforce card. Do that and he enters the UFC as a top-10 middleweight. And the UFC’s 185-pound division, if you haven’t noticed, lacks challengers.

Impact factor: Moderate to high. Granted, Souza is 33 years old, but he will be trouble for anybody he faces. He didn’t get a second fight with Luke Rockhold in Strikeforce, but that possibility opens up for him in the UFC. He’s won six of seven fights, and really, since 2004, his only other loss was to Gegard Mousasi (via upkick).

Luke Rockhold
Somebody had better call up Tony Rubalcava and ask how he solved Rockhold back in 2007, Rockhold’s only loss to date. Not that it would do you any good. Rockhold has steadily progressed for the past five years in all areas; he’s become more precise, he’s stronger, he’s good in a scramble, his striking has become more formidable, his ground game solid, his head cool at all times. Along the way he won a title over Ronaldo Souza, treated a recharged Keith Jardine as a has-been and worked Tim Kennedy for five punishing rounds. Can he compete with Anderson Silva? It’s time to find out. But that’s my attitude. ESPN’s Brett Okamoto has Rockhold pegged as the next middleweight champion in the UFC, and Okamoto isn’t one for going out on foolhardy ledges.

Impact factor: High. Rockhold has only gotten better over the course of his career, a testament to training with the talent-rich cast at AKA. He’s a sinewy 6-foot-3, and he blends up violence and smarts. Bottom line is he’s a live wire at middleweight and that just happens to be a division in need of live wires.

2012 submission of the year: Rousey-Tate

January, 3, 2013
1/03/13
11:31
AM ET
Gross By Josh Gross
ESPN.com
Archive
Rhonda RouseyGreg Bartram/US PresswireRonda Rousey is bringing her patented armbar to the UFC women's bantamweight division.

There were more exotic finishes in 2012, but none as memorable as Ronda Rousey's armbar over Miesha Tate in March, and for that reason fans voted it their favorite submission of the year.

Armbars, if you’re not aware, are Rousey's thing. She's fought nine times (six as a professional) and ended each contest with an opening-round hyperextension.

So what makes the effort over Tate more impressive than her 54-second tapout of Sarah Kaufman in August, or any of the tremendous (and numerous) joint locks or chokes that came from the men’s side?

Rousey and Tate despised one another and that permeated everything they did prior to, during, and after their Strikeforce 135-pound title fight in Columbus, Ohio. Rousey would have ripped Tate's left arm from the socket if she could, and she certainly tried, bending the appendage in a gruesome direction during an early first attempt.

Tate's defense allowed drama to intensify; meanwhile, her limb had been contorted during several excruciating sequences and, eventually, was injured, though never to the point of breaking.

We learned later that Ronda’s mother, like her daughter an Olympic judoka, roused Rousey when she was a kid with commands like “always be ready, armbar now!” Talk about taking something to heart. Understandably, Rousey and the armbar now seem perpetually linked.

Nature. Nuture. Whatever the case, Rousey is a force to be reckoned with, and the finish of Tate exemplified that as well as anything she did all year.

Rousey’s athleticism, skill, competitive spirit and grittiness, combined with the ability to execute a signature submission, propelled the 25-year-old blonde Californian into the UFC and onto the cover of ESPN The Magazine, and delivered more opportunities in 2012 than even her most loyal supporters might have thought possible.

Fifty reasons to love mixed martial arts

January, 1, 2013
1/01/13
2:58
PM ET
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
Archive
OctagonEd Mulholland for ESPN.comThe primitive nature of two gladiators locked inside a cage is just part of what makes MMA so great.
The year 2012 was supposed to be a christening in MMA.

The UFC was in the first year of a long-coveted broadcast deal, which meant something like the first (big) step toward something like (actual) legitimization. Smaller fighter molds were created to ensure Octagon hijinks (those flyweights). Chael Sonnen was going to be dropped into Brazil and left to stand trial for his actions against Anderson Silva (this was Ali-Frazier in Manila, remember?). The real Brandon Vera was still just around the corner coming back.

It was a year of tough luck.

Alistair Overeem put epitestosterone into the collective consciousness, and Nick Diaz did the same for metabolytes. (And we thought we'd seen it all with Thiago Silva's inhuman urine.) Jose Aldo rode motorcycles. Cristiane Santos, Stephan Bonnar and Muhammed Lawal taught us the important differences between drostanolone and stanozolol. The cage too often became a lab experiment (or the experiments were too often caught).

And then there were injuries and venue problems and wild tales and the prolonged demise of Strikeforce. Cards were put together with hopes and whims and good intentions, but rarely resembled the original draft come fight night. UFC 147 was going to be historic. Instead, a footnote. UFC 149 perhaps scared Calgary from MMA all together. UFC 151 became as mysterious as Area 51 -- it just disappeared (and Greg Jackson became a person of interest in the attempted murder of the sport).

In 2012 there was Jon Jones and his smashed Bentley. There was Dominick Cruz and his ACL and all the information you could ever want about rejected cadaver tendons. There was Georges St-Pierre, who fought once. Interim titles were made and stored in closets and never defended. For Dan Henderson, there was no 2012. There was only Sokoudjou.

But you know what? For all the ills of 2012, there's a reason that die-hard fans are so protective of their niche sport. It perseveres, and will bounce back, and in fact is as strong as ever. After a tumultuous year, it's good to look back at the reasons we love it.

Here are 50 such reasons, in no real order:

50. Because all talk leads to a fight: You know what's not satisfying? A lot of smack talk that goes unresolved. That's where ball and puck sports come up short. In MMA everything's leading to the flagpole. It's the ultimate ultimate. There are times that are so meta in MMA as to boggle the spectator's mind. You know the moments. Where somebody talks a bunch of rot and gets in another guy's face and for a brief moment the worry is that a fight will break out. Then it re-dawns on you -- a fight will break out. That's the point of it all. No need to subdue a thing. Hype has never had such an easy time coexisting with a sport.

49. Matt Brown: Matt Brown, yo.

48. They show up: Fighters are usually masochists. Matt Wiman has said that he gets so nervous before a fight, he'll envision a friend pulling up at the back door in a getaway car to whisk him away. St-Pierre has similar nerves before a fight. Vera usually pukes. They happily put themselves in these situations. They arrive at that moment, after weight cuts and media and training and travel and diets, and they have to ignore the ludicrous nature of the thing (that they are going out, essentially, to be punched in the face for public amusement) in order to put one foot in front of the other toward the cage. And they do. They show up. They go through with it. Fighters beat the notion of cowardice back for all of us.

47. The bro culture: There are more "bros" per capita in MMA than all other sports combined. You know bros. The loud T-shirts with sadistic clowns or skulls or daggers. The red Mohawks, the untold piercings, the shaved domes and hats with wide flat brims and energy drinks. Oh, and …

[+] EnlargeEddie Wineland
Josh Hedges/Getty ImagesScott Jorgensen and Eddie Wineland provided the perfect showcase for the sport's love affair with ink.
46. Tattoos: Scott Jorgensen might well have been modeled after Ron Athey. Ian Loveland has a rainbow trout on his back that would tempt any sportsman into flicking a caddis fly at it. Alan Belcher has the abomination of Johnny Cash. Brock Lesnar? The sworded thorax. There is more ink in a cage at any given moment than at most print presses. In fact, the odd fighter who isn't tattooed stands out conspicuously as a blank canvas (looking at you, Matt Hughes).

45. Dan Henderson: He'll fight anybody, at any weight. That's old school. Henderson can't out-talk anybody, yet he has that loud "H-Bomb" that doubles as a mute button. You ever seen Henderson without his teeth? He’s a throwback to the bare-knucklers who went 50 rounds.

44. Fists aren't metaphors: They are the enforcement of a man's literal will. A football player works in concert with 10 other players. A fighter works in concert with his own body and mind, his instincts and the profound knowledge of his own limitations. There's not a purer, more harrowing exercise in getting to the bottom of your net worth.

43. They latch the gate: In the early days they wanted a moat, with live alligators circling in craven hunger. In retrospect, that's hammy (and a nightmare for the UFC's traveling production crew). But it's still a cage, and have you ever seen Bruce Buffer hustle himself out of there after the introductions? He scoots like a man getting out of harm's way. They lock two people in, and, make no mistake, it's meant to simulate those grim do-or-die games of Rome. (If "simulate" isn't too trivial a word).

42. Human origami: Demian Maia loves himself some floor. And jiu-jitsu is big. There's Jake Shields' American variety, Eddie Bravo's interstellar concepts (which are aided by gymnast flexibility), all the way down to Cody McKenzie's gangly limbs slithering around the necks of opponents like vines alive.

41. It gives voice to writers: This thing is new, and as a fringe sport it opens up an opportunity for writers. But the game itself, and the idea, is old. Conflict is a tireless muse.

40. Because of human error: Bad scorecards are a dime a dozen, and Steve Mazzagatti has become the Steve Mazzagatti of referees. You know what, though? It’s human. Judges are interpreting a fight. Referees are tending rules and safety as arbiters. They get things wrong. You know what's cold, ruthless and boring, though? Perfect. That's what. Flaws are part of the game's character. And judges mean …

39. It's a trial: Take sentencing into your own hands, cautions Dana White. Don't leave it to the judge's scorecards. Don't wait on third-party verdicts. But it's beyond that; every time a fighter steps in that cage it's a trial. His future is always 100 percent in the hands of his present, and therefore his past has little bearing on things, either (just look at Jamie Varner). This sport has a big sense of right now (and cornermen have struggled to convey that bit of gravity throughout the ages).

[+] EnlargeRonda Rousey
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US PresswireRonda Rousey's "take no prisoners" attitude has been a welcome addition to the world of MMA.
38. Ronda Rousey: There was a brief second in the Miesha Tate fight, just as Tate's arm was torqueing the wrong way, that somebody in the Ohio crowd yelled "take that arm home!" This is acceptable. Rousey has a (figurative) collection of such souvenirs, and it's one of the reasons she's the game's fastest-rising star.

37. Because PC doesn't get free admission: Part of the culture of MMA thrives because it's not politically correct. In fact, it’s the anti-PC. White is a big reason for that. He sticks his foot in his mouth plenty, but he doesn't issue apologies. He calls it like it is. In that way, he's right down on the ground level with the demographic. He has a secret handshake, so to speak, with his fan boys. With all the PC nature of other sports, this can feel like being pulled back on a bowstring and then let go. Which is to say it's refreshing.

36. Bruce Buffer: The silvery in-cage playboy will do a phone message of his famous "It's Time" for a fee. He also does weddings.

35. Every fight is the playoffs: There are no seasons in MMA. Every fight is, theoretically, make or break. Every fight could be, very realistically, the last. Each fighter controls his own destiny. The possibility of injury is always great. The possibility of "losing your edge," is also great. (Just look at Jonathan Brookins).

34. Gladiators: Remember when Chris Leben had just fought Michael Bisping in England and he was all purple and bloody and beat up, and he grabbed the microphone from Joe Rogan and yelled, "Are you not entertained?" Ha. That was cool. Why yes, "Crippler," we are.

33. Hope: If you're not afraid of losing, particularly vicariously, you're allowed to get your hopes up. So many people are fair-weather fans in other sports because they don't like the formality of losing. In MMA, fair-weather fans are rare. People deal in raw emotion because they like jangling their own raw nerves.

32. Degrees of separation: A.J. Liebling traced the history of boxing to himself via a series of punches in his book "The Sweet Science." It's less dramatic, but this can be done in MMA, too. For instance, Jorge Rivera once punched me (without total malice), and Rivera was punched by the great Anderson Silva. Silva was nicked by Dan Henderson, who was punched by Allan Goes, who was punched by Frank Shamrock. Frank was punched by his brother Ken Shamrock, who has been punched by Royce Gracie. Royce by Helio, Helio by Carlos and Carlos by Otavio Mitsuyo Maeda and Maeda from the godfather of judo himself, Kano Jigoro. We are connected by a series of punches.

31. Bellator tournaments: You hate them. But you love them. You know? Attrition is a love/hate concept.

[+] EnlargeNick Diaz
Kari Hubert/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesIs there anything in the sport more exciting and unpredictable than a Diaz brother inside the cage or behind a microphone?
30. The Diaz Brothers: What can you say? The brothers of "Stalkton" are a breed unto themselves. One time I asked Nate Diaz how his older brother Nick Diaz was as a cornerman. He recalled some different mentoring tips that Nick had passed down, and reached into his grab bag of experience to provide me examples, one of which was, "Don’t get no girl pregnant." Quintessential Diaz. In fact, we now have a word for such raw 209 parables -- we call them "Diazisms." And they fight. A forward-moving, flow-striking, patter-to-power style that is at turns boxing, brawling and hood.

29. The sordid past: The cage is a canvas of past brutality. The sport was originally called No Holds Barred, a Mesozoic era when fish-hooking and head-butting were cool. Don Frye roamed those lands. There were artifacts. Teila Tuli’s tooth was extracted from press row, traced back they think to a Gerard Gordeau kick. The sport has cleaned up over the years, has been sanctioned, is legal in most states and is as safe as anything under the banner of "Ultimate Fighting Championship" can be.

28. Yet, there's lunacy: New Yorkers have to travel to New Jersey to watch MMA. Taken piecemeal, all the disciplines are legal in New York -- boxing, wrestling, Muay Thai, jiu-jitsu, judo. Put together as a stew, it becomes a culinary mess.

27. Infiltration: It may not be "mainstream" in the mainstream sense, but we all remember Joe Lozito, who used his MMA knowledge to stop a killer on the subway. MMA is everywhere. Anthony Bourdain knows. He's seen his wife, Ottavia, come home from Renzo Gracie's with bruises that look like eggplant tattoos. He says she sometimes will be giving him a sweet look, or what he mistakes as a sweet look, before realizing she is looking at him as a perfect dummy for an omoplata.

26. Omoplatas: And speaking of omoplatas, the cousin of the high-minded gogo, they never work. Yet how excited they make Joe Rogan when they are attempted in the cage. And how often they lead to more practical submissions (or escapes). Omoplatas are the white whale of subs. Somewhere right now a crazed jitz practitioner is dreaming of being the guy who ushers in the Viable Omoplata Era.

25. Four-ounce gloves: Let's get one thing straight here: The gloves are meant to protect the knuckle more than they are the cheekbone. Got it? Alright. Proceed.

24. Cauliflower ears: You know what the vegetation on a man's ears is? A biography. It means ruthless gnashing, that he's a grinder, and is so crazy and futureless that he couldn't be bothered to use headgear. Fighters are vain about these ears, even if the outward appearance of chewed-up Randy Couture ears is an offense to our concept of vanity.

23. Dana F. White: MMA wouldn't be where it is without the world's greatest circus barker. Deal with it. At the end of the day, it is what it is.

22. Because the fight game is innate: Joyce Carol Oates, one of the unlikely historians of boxing, once wrote about the taboo of fighting in a society with "pretensions of humanitarianism." This is especially true of MMA. At root, what we suspect is that most people can't take their eyes off a fight -- that if we can get past that false coat of civility, well, then we get to something more toward the truth about our interests. MMA fans suspect detractors are really just in denial (and that's a fun secret).

21. Jeremy Horn: This person exists.

20. Brotherhood: Fighters may despise one another, they may rake each other over the coals in the media for eight straight weeks, but there is a solidarity at the end of it all. There is a handshake; sometimes a hug. What is the communication? That they went to war, in a sport they both are fraternity brothers in.

19. Sport, but not a game: St-Pierre has said that MMA is a sport, but it's not a game. This is true. Games carry an air of the frivolous, of friendly competition. A fight is real. In fact, it's as real as it gets. They have smelling salts cageside. And they use those smelling salts a lot.

[+] EnlargeHenderson
Esther Lin/Getty ImagesIf fighter walkouts, including some from Dan Henderson's collection, don't get you fired up, nothing will.
18. Walkouts: When Dan Henderson walked out to Red Rider's "Lunatic Fringe" in Columbus at UFC 82, it was goose flesh. The old wrestler giving the nod to his wrestling roots, about to fight the single scariest man on the planet, with Heath Sims and Darrell Gholar pumping their fists behind him in convoy. That was awesome. (Note: Hendo was choked out a short time later).

17. Duke Roufus: Anthony Pettis is Duke Roufus’ real life comic book action hero. Think Roufus drew up that little fence-walking ricochet kick that will haunt Benson Henderson forever? Probably. His favorite movie is "Ong Bak," and he wants to get the essential Ong Bak out of his fighters.

16. Burt Watson: They call him the "babysitter of the stars," and that's true. But Watson is the "spirit of the thing." If you listen closely, toward the light coming out of the tunnel, you'll hear him. The UFC site coordinator's voice emanates not just from the bowels of the arena, but down the ages of the fight game (he used to work with Joe Frazier). "Let’s roll to the hole, baby," he screams. And sometimes he just screams. Long after many of these UFC fighters come and go, Watson's voice will still be echoing down the corridors.

15. No standing eight count: And thank goodness.

14. The matchmakers: Sean Shelby and Joe Silva get to play god. We love to praise them when they make the fight we want -- or the fight we didn't know we wanted (such as any Cub Swanson fight) -- just as we like to call them crazy. But they do a consistently great job of handling the spectrum. They want to book the guy who can beat the champion. They want to match heads of momentum. They match tailspins with tailspins. And sometimes they throw darts at pictures on a wall to determine who's next for whom (or at least so we imagine).

13. Flyweights: If you don't like the idea of two 125-pound fighters flying around like electrons, then you don't like verbs. These are action men.

12. Greg Jackson: Remember when Jackson once said, "When you look at the dark side, careful you must be ... for the dark side looks back." What? That was Yoda? Thought that was Jackson.

11. Style versus style: You have a Jeet Kune Do master who just front kicked a jiu-jitsu player into oblivion, right after beating a big counterpunching boxer with a spinning backfist? Great. Ben Askren is still at the end of it, in his singlet, waiting to grind all your martial arts into a fine powder.

10. Mike Dolce: He is the modern day Alberto Giacometti. Did you see what he did with Thiago Alves? Plus, the war on Teflon is only beginning to heat up.

9. It's a circus: When you see Yves Lavigne, Reed Harris, Herb Dean, Stitch, Brittany Palmer, Joe Silva and Urijah Faber -- always Urijah Faber -- posing for pictures up and down the aisles of your town's sports facility, you know the circus is in town.

8. Las Vegas: It's not unreasonable to imagine the UFC brass at the headquarters in Las Vegas sitting around a table like the Justice League. (Legion of Doom?) The UFC is a show, a roll of the dice, a skill game, a spectacle, a night activity. It is hubbed right where it should be.

7. The others: Ray Sefo's World Series of Fighting is cool, so is Bellator and OneFC, King of the Cage and RUFF. You know why they're cool? Because they exist. There are multiple platforms to be a professional mixed martial artist. Invicta might be the coolest story of 2012.

6. Art of eight limbs: MMA is in love with eights. There are eight sides to the patented UFC Octagon, and eight limbs in Muay Thai. UFC 8 played up the classic motif of "David versus Goliath," and UFC 88 effectively signaled the end for Chuck Liddell. When Dan Henderson decisioned Carlos Newton at UFC 17, Rory MacDonald was 8 years old. Eights are wild!

[+] EnlargeAnderson Silva
AP Photo/Felipe DanaHaving a hard time locating the aesthetic beauty of the sport within its violent shell? Look no further than an Anderson Silva fight.
5. Polyglot: MMA is a true melting pot. There are fighters from America, Canada, Mexico, Japan, China, Korea, Brazil, England, Ireland, Sweden, The Netherlands, Russia, the state of Montana and Cuba (Hector Lombard).

4. Violence as aesthetics: Upon catching his first good look at Anderson Silva, Joe Rogan coined the "ballet of violence" thing. This makes sense to me. It doesn't take a nuanced eye to see the grace within the maelstrom of a fight. Set Edson Barboza's spinning wheel kick on Terry Etim at half speed to "Bolero" and tell me I'm lying.

3. The "Puncher's Chance": In every fight, no matter how much the odds stack against one man in favor of another, there is one great equalizer: the black spot. There's a place, on the side of the chin, that if touched just right, shuts the whole program down. Any man can be knocked out. When promoters are selling a mismatch, they are selling the optimism in the form of a "puncher's chance."

2. Traditions are being constructed: While boxing's history is long and rich and storied, MMA's is still in its infancy. If you're in MMA right now, you are a part of its scaffolding. There are a million firsts still out there for the taking.

1. Barefoot: Mike Tyson used to keep things as primitive by not wearing socks; in MMA they don't wear shoes. In this way it's not only animalistic, it's everybody's worst nightmare -- to appear in public, in a trial-like atmosphere, wearing only underwear.

Predicting SF champs' success in the UFC

November, 12, 2012
11/12/12
4:38
PM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
Archive
During this entire Strikeforce mess that’s consumed the past 20 months, we still haven’t seen one of its champions fight for a UFC belt.

That’s kind of crazy, isn’t it? Remember when Zuffa purchased Strikeforce last year and we were all like, "Yay, now we get to see all the fights we want"? Those were happy times.

Some strange and frustrating events have taken place since. You can’t make up what’s happened with Strikeforce champions in the UFC so far.

Nick Diaz beat up a lightweight, lost to a welterweight, awkwardly retired, failed a drug test and was suspended. Alistair Overeem beat up a semi-retired Brock Lesnar, literally ran away from a random drug test in Nevada, failed it and was suspended.

Dana White went from expecting a large role in Strikeforce to completely washing his hands of it, seemingly overnight. Rumors of a dreaded "List" swirled, which contained names of Strikeforce fighters the UFC couldn’t legally touch.

In the meantime you, the fan, were like Jonah Hill in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," -- told there were legitimate reasons why things could not be a certain way, but not feeling any better about it. You just wanted to buy the shoes.

With Strikeforce reportedly closing its doors following a final event in January, the sun is finally shining on these matchups again. Everyone, it seems, is about to be under one roof.

So, let the fantasy matchmaking recommence. Here’s a guess as to how each Strikeforce champ will fare in the UFC.

Lightweight: Gilbert Melendez (21-2)
[+] EnlargeGilbert Melendez and Josh Thomson
Kyle Terada/US PresswireFor years, fight fans have speculated how Gilbert Melendez would fare in the UFC.

I asked the Twittersphere which Strikeforce fighter it was most amped about and Melendez is still No. 1, although not by much. Opinions on Melendez range from a definite UFC champ to most overrated lightweight in the world.

I’m somewhere in the middle. He looked ordinary in wins over Jorge Masvidal and Josh Thomson, but I attended both, and competing in front of low-energy, small-sized crowds in everything-to-lose situations had to be tough.

Melendez is entering the UFC’s deepest division, so it definitely pays off being as well-rounded as he is. He can stand with a Muay Thai specialist and go to the ground with a Division I wrestler.

Prediction: "El Nino" will be a constant in the top-10 ranks, but will come up short of UFC gold.

Welterweight: Nate Marquardt (32-10-2)
[+] EnlargeNate Marquardt
Ed Mulholland for ESPN.comNate Marquardt's return to the UFC would have an immediate impact on the welterweight ranks.

Ask yourself a question: Would you pick Marquardt in fights over Johny Hendricks and Martin Kampmann? Even if you say no, you had to at least think about it, right? Those two are at the top of the welterweight heap right now, and I’d be tempted to favor Marquardt over either of them.

There’s less mystique around Marquardt because he’s more of a UFC fighter serving detention than a true member of the Strikeforce family. He’s a scary addition to 170, though, which has gotten deeper but is still wide open to a fighter who can string a few wins together.

Prediction: Marquardt beats Tarec Saffiedine in January, then fights a rejuvenated Dan Hardy later in 2013.

Middleweight: Luke Rockhold (10-1)
[+] EnlargeLuke Rockhold
Esther Lin/Getty ImagesLuke Rockhold has the right mix of size and strength to make things interesting in the UFC.

Look at the theme going on with UFC champions. With the exception of flyweight and heavyweight, every division has a physically imposing title-holder. Jose Aldo has a tough cut. Ben Henderson is enormous. Look at the length of Anderson Silva, Jon Jones.

Rockhold brings that type of size and athleticism to the cage. It helps him dictate range, defend takedowns and neutralize submission specialists on the ground. He’s got a good work ethic and time on his side (he's only 28). There’s a lot to like here.

Prediction: If Rockhold were in the UFC, he’d be getting the same attention of a Chris Weidman. He’s still raw right now, but unless Anderson Silva fights until he’s 50 (probably not, but who knows?) Rockhold will win a UFC belt in his career.

Heavyweight: Daniel Cormier (10-0)
[+] EnlargeDaniel Cormier
Rod Mar for ESPN.comTall order: Daniel Cormier might have a tough time handling the taller UFC heavyweights.

Until the win over Josh Barnett, it was still too early for me to jump on the Cormier bandwagon. He had knocked out Antonio Silva, but Silva gets hit a lot. He’s got the Olympic wrestling pedigree, but he’s undersized and got into the game so late.

The win over Barnett infected me with DC fever just like everyone else. His wrestling is second to none and he’s incorporated it well into his new sport. He’s an even better athlete than you expect with surprising speed and he’s proved he has sufficient knockout power one needs in the heavyweight division.

Prediction: As good as Cormier is, I still don’t see him beating Junior dos Santos and he won’t fight teammate Cain Velasquez. Those two things significantly lower his chances at the heavyweight belt. He’s talked of a move to 205, but that gets to be dicey as we don’t know how the weight cut would go, and Jon Jones is a tough matchup.

The bittersweet demise of Strikeforce

November, 9, 2012
11/09/12
5:27
PM ET
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
Archive
Strikeforce HeavyweightsEd Mulholland for ESPN.comThe ambitious Heavyweight Grand Prix marked the last big enterprise for the Strikeforce brand.
As a still nascent sport, the landscape in MMA can change rapidly. The only constant in a sport like this is there are no constants.

Not quite two years ago, in January 2011, Strikeforce rolled out eight of the fiercest heavyweights in the land to partake in a grand prix tournament. This was the "biggest heavyweight tournament ever," we were assured.

All eight participants crowded onto a stage on Manhattan's west side and it was a spectacle -- Andrei Arlovski, Fedor Emelianenko, Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva, Josh Barnett, Alistair Overeem, Fabricio Werdum, Sergei Kharitonov, Brett Rogers. Somewhere in the wings, an alternate named Daniel Cormier.

Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker had the heavyweights -- the remnants of Affliction, the banished from the UFC, the coveted Russian G.O.A.T., and the colossus of Pride.

Later, that same collective went to the top of the Empire State Building for photo ops -- perhaps a symbol of Strikeforce's great heights.

Turns out that was the last big enterprise for Strikeforce, the little "regional" that had played so well at second place that it appeared at times to be gunning for first. By March 2011, Zuffa bought the San Jose-based promotion. The heavyweights on display were undoubtedly a big part of that. It was the one division on which the UFC didn't have the market cornered.

(Well, that and women's MMA, which was still a revival in the making.)

From the point of the Zuffa purchase, it's been a matter of time and of constant speculation. When will it end?

It's been a matter of respirators and promises and flickering glimmers of hope. It's been neglected, sifted, picked over and left for dead. Nick Diaz came over, and Dan Henderson and Overeem and Cung Le. It's been charades. The belts began disappearing, and then whole cards. There were two forces pulling at Strikeforce from behind big oak desk: Zuffa and Showtime. At times, they were friendly. At other times (most of the time), cold. Strikeforce, in the middle, a loud sort of mute.

What was going on behind the scenes? Scott Coker was forever circling back around to it, trying to find those answers.

Turns out the answer is "good riddance." Reports broke on Thursday night via TMZ that the promotion will finally come to an end. In January 2013, just two years from that ill-fated heavyweight tournament, the whole thing's gone belly-up. This came to the surprise of nobody (and as a relief to most), but it's still a bittersweet moment.

Why? Because Strikeforce, for all of its uncertainty and guessing games, was a lot of things.

It was leverage, for starters, before Zuffa purchased it. It was an alternative (to fighters). It was variation (to spectators). It was a partition that sparked debate (for message boards). It was cable, not pay-per-view. It was CBS for a bold minute. It was all about Frank Shamrock's forever braces.

And yet, it's been a purgatory for Gilbert Melendez. A salvation for Keith Jardine and Nate Marquardt and Paul Daley. A platform for Ronda Rousey, who unexpectedly became the star of the promotion. In fact, Strikeforce was the center of women's MMA -- it was Gina Carano and Cris "Cyborg" Santos and Miesha Tate. It was prospects. Cormier was on the Strikeforce challenger's cards back when farming talent was in vogue. Ditto for middleweight champion Luke Rockhold and Lorenz Larkin.

It was local, too. Those pre-Zuffa cards always had a bunch of fighters from whichever state in which they were fighting on the undercard. In that way, it was a chance. It was a circus on national television (the brawl in Nashville) and at times a little loose in matchmaking (remember the Brandon Saling incident?). It was Mauro Ranallo, the "bi-polar rock and roller," and Pat Miletich. It was all the single-word identities -- "Jacare" and "Feijao" and "Mayhem." For a while there, it was like the ABA in the mid-1970s.

Now it's dissolving, and at this point it's for the better. This thing's gone on as a wounded animal as far as it can. The bright side is that Showtime can get back to being untampered with MMA, and all the good, viable pieces from Strikeforce will now be integrated into the UFC. That means Melendez, so high on media pound-for-pound polls, can get on with proving it. It means Gegard Mousasi might be motivated and Rockhold will be thrown to the wolves at 185 pounds. It means Cormier, too, against not just Frank Mir, but anybody. These guys are (seemingly) wading into an infinity pool.

In these ways, it's good. Strikeforce's best fighters will be working again regularly. There will be women's divisions in the UFC, which is an added component. Rousey, what's not to like? And Strikeforce's journeymen ... well, those journeymen will be like jacks hitting the linoleum. Probably time to journey elsewhere.

But that's just business. This is all just business. And in 2013 in the ever-expanding UFC, business should be good.

Alvarez keen on growing career, paychecks

October, 20, 2012
10/20/12
7:31
PM ET
McNeil By Franklin McNeil
ESPN.com
Archive
Eddie Alvarezwww.sherdog.comEddie Alvarez has one eye on bigger paydays, and the other on building his brand.
This is a great time to be former Bellator lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez.

In his most recent fight, on Oct. 12 at Bellator 76, Alvarez knocked out Patricky Freire in the first round with a picture-perfect head-kick.

It was the latest in a long line of exciting fights put forth by Alvarez. Delivering exciting fights has become an Alvarez trademark. But the timing of the Freire knockout makes that performance extra special. Alvarez left the cage that evening a free man -- contractually, at least. The 28-year-old Philadelphia native is now a free agent. And for the next several months, Alvarez will be negotiating with several promotions in an attempt to secure the most lucrative deal of his mixed martial arts career.

“The idea of free agency is good if you can leave your contract with a win,” Alvarez told ESPN.com. “But if you can leave your contract with an exciting head-kick knockout, then it’s even better.

“So I’m enjoying myself and enjoying my family. I feel that I did my job; I put forth the sacrifices that I needed to put forth and the performance; now it’s up to my management and up to the promoters to do their jobs.

“It’s out of my hands; I clocked out on [Oct. 12].”

This is a great time to be Alvarez. He is in his fighting prime and is highly sought after. It feels good to be wanted, but Alvarez refuses to get emotionally lost in all the love that is being showered upon him.

For Alvarez, this free-agency process comes down to securing his family’s financial future. And if that means staying in Bellator or competing in UFC, so be it -- in the end, Alvarez intends to be comfortable.

But if Alvarez, who is ranked ninth among lightweights by ESPN.com, picks Bellator over UFC, he can expect to be accused of ducking stiffer competition.

Alvarez, who isn’t close to deciding which promotion he will fight in next, knows some will question his heart if UFC isn’t in his future. That type of criticism doesn’t concern Alvarez one bit.

Still, he took the time to set the record straight.

“Fans have a misconception that if you’re not fighting in UFC, then you’re afraid of the UFC or afraid of the guys in UFC,” Alvarez said. “But if you know who I am and you know MMA, then you have to know that I will fight anyone on any given night.

Fans have a misconception that if you're not fighting in UFC then you're afraid of the UFC or afraid of the guys in UFC. But if you know who I am and you know MMA, then you have to know that I will fight anyone on any given night.

-- Eddie Alvarez

“I’m not that fighter who picks and chooses and goes here and goes there and says ‘no’ to this guy and ‘yes’ to that guy. I’ve never ever been like that, from the beginning of my career I’ve never been like that. And I never will.”

For the next three months or so, Bellator has the legal right to negotiate exclusively with Alvarez. He already has had conversations with that promotion’s top representatives and expects talks to continue.

When Bellator’s exclusivity period concludes, Alvarez and his reps will begin having discussions with other promotions, including UFC. That’s when things should get interesting for the man with a 24-3 professional record.

The more zeroes a promotion is willing to put on paper will go a long way in getting Alvarez to give it the thumbs-up. But a paycheck alone won’t seal the deal.

Alvarez is seeking more than an immediate paycheck; he has long-term goals as well.

“There are two factors involved: financial and growth,” Alvarez said. “The money has to be correct, and I have to have the ability to grow. I have to have the ability to grow my career.

“By growth I mean the company I’m with, will I be able to grow my name, my brand? I want to be able to expand, I want to be able to reach millions of people and I want people to be able to see my fights.

“Bellator is going to be able to have that ability in 2013. Everyone knows UFC has the ability to do that, but Bellator is up and coming, and they are able to do that now.

“It’s important for me to grow, fight some of the best guys on the planet and also to get paid well.”

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