Santos is MMA's most vicious fighter
Following Strikeforce's final card of 2010, Scott Coker caught his breath inside an empty press room. He'd just wrapped the busiest year of his promotional life and was well within his rights to take a moment.
Reflecting on what was and predicting what would be, Coker declared Strikeforce, then the closest thing resembling a competitor to the Ultimate Fighting Championship since Pride disappeared, ready to move beyond the "building block" stage.
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It was, he said, time for "Phase 2."
As it happened, Coker was correct. Only partially and briefly, but there's no denying he was on to something in St. Louis.
Twelve months later, Strikeforce chugs headfirst into yet another incarnation, one that hardly resembles what its founder and CEO touted at the time. That buzz-worthy heavyweight division? It's all but been dismantled. (The final chapter comes sometime in 2012, when the promotion is set to hand over its heavyweights altogether.) Promotable names like Alistair Overeem, Nick Diaz and Jason Miller are gone. There was a sense among some fans that Strikeforce represented an option for MMA outside the Zuffa frontier, a sort of Americanized Pride, which engendered a sense that this upstart was worth supporting. That's all gone. In its place exists an unsettled road, one paved in the wake of Strikeforce's sale to Zuffa and a pared-down broadcasting deal with Showtime.
A year after Coker sounded so energized, so eager to move forward, his baby, for which he was handsomely paid to relinquish, seems more likely headed to purgatory than the promised land. Building blocks, it seems, all over again. Except he's not the one tasked with building it anymore. And those who are might have something better to do.
Strikeforce's new shot-callers -- UFC president Dana White and Showtime Sports boss Stephen Espinoza -- have touted the promotion as a legitimate home for the sport's best fighters. It's a hard sell. Does anyone really believe Strikeforce and UFC are going to bid against one another for prospects, contenders or champions? Of course not. The same people are cutting the checks. So questions surrounding Strikeforce's role clearly won't center on its potential status as a competitor to the UFC.
If history is our guide, Strikeforce is in for a rough ride.
For as much as Zuffa has excelled by promoting the UFC, it has equally failed to build other properties. World Extreme Cagefighting, for example, featured far more talent than Strikeforce does today, and that show was eventually chopped down before getting folded into its money-generating big brother. If Zuffa couldn't turn Jose Aldo, Dominick Cruz, Urijah Faber and many others into consistent rating and pay-per-view draws without attaching "UFC" alongside their names on the poster, what hope do Gilbert Melendez or Luke Rockhold have when they're tied at the hip to "Strikeforce"?
While some fighters should benefit from Strikeforce's new lease on life -- solid paydays and televised roster spots exist where they wouldn't otherwise -- that won't come without a price, namely MMA's Zuffa-dominated purse structure. So what is Strikeforce's purpose exactly? A feeder league for the UFC? A world-class promoter of mixed martial arts? A cultivator of top talent? A mechanism to maintain control over the vast majority of top mixed martial artists?
Only time will tell.
In the end it comes down to the fights. Can Zuffa find opponents for Melendez or Rockhold that will inspire fans to pony up for the product on Showtime? And if so, for how long?
Whether the conversation takes place today or a year from now, eventually it will lead to the same place: Let these guys fight against the best in the UFC.
Look no further than Melendez's escapades leading up to his Strikeforce lightweight title defense against Jorge Masvidal on Saturday. Few people considered the challenger a legit threat. That was the storyline leading up to the fight. Masvidal's performance did little to change anyone's opinion. And afterward, Melendez was forced to defend his performance and status. That's how it will be with this deal.
On to the action in the cage. From A to F, here's how fighters on the last Strikeforce event of 2011 fared.
Strikeforce: Melendez versus Masvidal grades
Get this lady back in the cage as soon as possible. That is if Strikeforce can find someone willing to join her. After an 18-month hiatus, it was with an urgent sense of violence, like a testy volcano, that Cristiane Santos smashed unheralded Hiroko Yamanaka in 16 seconds. The fight was no fight at all. "Cyborg," 26, was a heavy favorite and she handled Yamanaka accordingly. The talent pool is limited for women at 145 pounds, and as a result, Cyborg might not get the credit she deserves. There's a Tyson-esque quality to Cyborg, so it may not matter one way or the other who steps in the cage with her. Regardless of gender, Santos (11-1) is currently the most vicious fighter in MMA.
If Santos met expectations, Gilbert Melendez just missed them. The second-ranked lightweight put on a professional 25-minute display. He moved forward and was much busier than his challenger, yet he failed to force himself on Masvidal. It would be wrong to classify Melendez's effort as cautious. He wasn't. He stood in the pocket against a better striker and beat Masvidal at his own game. Yet that alone won't be enough to impress fans who think he's overrated. Melendez, 29, deserves his ranking, no question about it. However, if he faces more "no-win" situations and he doesn't dominate, it could put a damper on his profile. Melendez (20-2) is correct: Styles make fights. Here's hoping Zuffa books opponents who are worthy of his talents.
Noons (11-4) engineered a confused effort against Billy Evangelista, so he's fortunate to leave the cage a winner and avoid his third loss in a row. To his credit, he remained patient until finding his range and rhythm later in the fight. But early on, it appeared as if he was caught between wanting to wrestle and strike, and so he did neither well. Noons' talent is obvious and he's best when aggressive. So long as Noons, 29, trains properly, gets his sparring in and focuses on MMA, the guy can put together some positive results in the cage. How bad does he want it, though? That's always the question.
Very little separated Evangelista and Noons over the course of 15 minutes. On my card, Evangelista came out slightly ahead in the end, however not by enough to call out the judges. Evangelista, a grinder, didn't spend enough time chipping away at Noons and it cost him. He deserves credit for absorbing punishment and moving forward. That's about it, though. He's lost his last two bouts after starting out 11-0.
My major issue with Masvidal: his inconsistency. Apparently, he was injured prior to fighting Melendez, and was hampered from using his right hand the way he wanted. If true, that's unfortunate, because title opportunities are all too rare. That said, I've seen enough of Masvidal (22-7) to know that even when he's 100 percent, he can fail to meet the moment. He's a dangerous striker and a better than average wrestler. The talent is certainly there. But that's not enough against an opponent as good as Melendez, and over five rounds it was clear who was the better fighter. He's only 27 years old and appears to have more talent than he makes good on. Masvidal is capable of returning to this stratosphere.
What's his deal? Gegard Mousasi's last two fights have been maddeningly inconsistent. It was obvious from the outset that he completely outclassed Ovince St. Preux, yet the 26-year-old veteran -- can you believe he's only 26? -- faltered as the fight moved into Rounds 2 and 3. He ceded dominant positions. Had no pep behind his punches. Showed no finishing instinct. Mousasi (32-3-2) is regressing, and there's no way that should be happening. He says he has no one to train with, and will take steps to change that when he travels to the U.S. for his next camp. We'll see.
Ovince St. Preux
Ovince St. Preux (11-5) did not have the experience or skills to hang with Mousasi, but somehow managed to go the distance and he actually gained strength as the fight headed to the third round. He was timid at the start, and was extremely fortunate not to pay a heavy price. OSP, 28, possesses more than enough talent to do something in this sport. He should learn valuable lessons from his 15 minutes against Mousasi, and one would think, return to the cage next time as a better fight. Things to work on: wrestling, taking a punch and maintaining position on the ground.
What's there to say? Hiroko Yamanaka (12-2) stepped in the cage against the most violent fighter in MMA unprepared and ill-equipped. Sixteen seconds later, her day was done. The 33-year-old Japanese fighter brought a nice record into the fight. Too bad that was her best asset.
Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.
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