Monday, July 16, 2012
SF stable delivers -- to little fanfare
By Josh Gross ESPN.com
If you hadn't realized Strikeforce was in Portland, Ore., on Saturday, it's not your fault. The sadly -- though predictably -- low-rent and nearly forgotten sister promotion to the UFC returned with a solid lineup that deserved more attention than it received. Featuring two title fights following bouts peddling a spate of legitimate prospects, Zuffa matchmaker Sean Shelby had every reason to feel good about his efforts.
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The same should not be said for Zuffa's promotional efforts, which were dismal. Whether or not it cares to maintain a relationship with Showtime, whether or not Strikeforce is a brand that is earmarked for bigger things down the road, Zuffa has a responsibility to fighters under its umbrella. Thus far, it has not lived up to that responsibility. Instead, fighters, including headliners Luke Rockhold, Tim Kennedy and Tyron Woodley, were motivated to complain about their predicament prior to the event. Prospect Lorenz Larkin was motivated to literally get on his knees and beg UFC president Dana White for performance bonuses that fighters on the UFC side benefit from.
Such is the state of Strikeforce in the middle of 2012.
Some observations from a card you should have but probably didn't see:
• Refereeing and judging continue to influence outcomes in fights, and not in a good way. Referee Dave Hagen injected himself into the welterweight title contest between Woodley and Nate Marquardt with a third-round standup that was unnecessary and, more to the point, played in the outcome of the fight. Judge Andy Dinger apparently is clueless based on his scoring of the Pat Healy-Mizuto Hirota contest, and the fact that he didn't see a 10-8 round for Roger Gracie against Keith Jardine. Same old tune ...
• The consensus is Healy (28-16) got away with one against Hirota, who put together an excellent effort. He should feel fortunate: The win might set up a title showdown few care to see (I don't) against Gilbert Melendez.
• Ryan Couture (5-1) looks more confident in the cage each time he fights. Randy Couture's 29-year-old son squeaked by Joe Duarte, but he's starting to look like a reasonably interesting lightweight prospect.
• Jason High (16-3) joined Marquardt as the only two fighters on the card to win by something other than decision. I mention it because he's now won seven straight and didn't get any love on fight night.
Strikeforce: 'Rockhold versus Kennedy' grades
Nate "The Great" has, for as long as I've been watching him, fought with a poise that suggests he's not your ordinary fighter. Returning to action after a trying year and a half (that he brought upon himself), Marquardt (32-10-2) returned sans testosterone replacement therapy and looked vibrant at 170 pounds. Marquardt, 33, makes for a large yet mobile welterweight. His submission and striking techniques are on par with anyone in the division, and he's buoyed by a wealth of experience. These are the reasons he found success against Tyron Woodley, and finished his Strikeforce title-winning effort with one of the best finishing sequences so far this year.
Color me intrigued. With the chance, Roger Gracie will outgrapple any middleweight out there. The best submission artist in the sport is lanky for the division, perhaps overly so, but man is he a terror on the canvas. Mixing in a new arsenal of elbows, Gracie, 30, has begun to put things together in an MMA format. I believe if the 30-year-old Brazilian finds the desire to make the most of his skills, he can rise high in the middleweight class. We shall see. For now, whenever he's on a card, I want to see what he'll do.
Watch out for this guy. Lorenz Larkin, when comfortable, unleashes stinging combinations with the best of them. Questions remain over his ability to keep it standing against eager grapplers, but if he can, he's certainly good enough to strike at the highest levels of MMA. Cutting 20 pounds from light heavyweight will, I think, prove to be a great choice for the 25-year-old Californian, who moved to 13-0 (forgetting January's overturned loss against Mo Lawal) with a decision over Robbie Lawler.
Let's ease off any talk of Luke Rockhold (10-1) being the guy to take out Anderson Silva in the immediate future. He's not there yet. He's not close to being there yet. Still, there are positives to take away from the 27-year-old Strikeforce middleweight champion's effort against Tim Kennedy. His counter-wrestling continues to improve. He uses his length and range more effectively with each contest. He possesses more than enough stamina to maintain power, speed and reflexes over a 25-minute contest. Rockhold's striking needs work, though straight punches are coming along very well. (His jab and straight left worked all night.) He deserves to be regarded as a top-10 185-pounder, and will be tested by an interesting collection of middleweights in Strikeforce.
It was put up or shut up time for Tyron Woodley. Unbeaten coming into his title clash against Nate Marquardt, the 30-year-old former University of Missouri wrestler fought from his heels over the three-plus-round contest. Despite projections that heralded Woodley (10-1) as a serious up-and-comer at 170 pounds, he has regressed as the competition has improved. There's no question he possesses many of the tools you want to see in a fighter, yet Woodley's inability to fight at a high pace in a 15- or 25-minute contest is a serious issue. Marquardt took advantage after weathering a third-round storm that indicated just how dangerous Woodley can be when he's in the proper mindset. The test now is whether or not he'll learn lessons, make improvements, and come back stronger.
Where was the desire? Tim Kennedy, 32, mounted little in the way of meaningful offense against Rockhold. In military parlance, Kennedy, a green beret and Army Ranger sniper, failed to seize the initiative. That should eat away at him. Though he faced disadvantages in length, speed and athleticism, this was probably the best chance Kennedy (14-4) will have at winning a significant belt in MMA. I highly doubt he can matriculate down to welterweight, and even if he does he'll suffer against an even quicker class of fighter.
This was 36-year-old Keith Jardine at his wiliest -- few fighters would survive, battered and bloodied, with the best grappler in the world clung to their back like he did. He gets credit for hanging tough, but as has been mentioned many times in this space, that's not much of a compliment. I hasten to call the man washed up, but the reality is he's far removed from contendership. Jardine (17-11) is the embodiment of a gatekeeper in the middleweight division.
Oh, what could have been. I can't help but look at Robbie Lawler, 29, and see a talent that failed to live up to his potential -- which is no one's fault but his own. Lawler (19-9) long ago fell in love with his ample power and eschewed other vital areas of his game, and thus paid the price by turning into a predictable mixed martial artist. It's simple math with the middleweight: Unless he hits you square, he's utterly beatable.