San Jose-based Strikeforce will always have an uphill battle in establishing its brand under the omnipresent shadow of the UFC. Though, the 800-pound gorilla in the room is arguably the reason why mixed martial arts is enjoying the level of popularity never before experienced, Strikeforce has done a commendable job of becoming a household name in their own right.
Saturday night, Strikeforce put on promotion that on paper looked to be a great night of fights. Headlining the card taking place at the Toyota Center in Houston, were a pair of title fights featuring some of the promotion’s most recognizable, and marketable, names. Tim Kennedy and Muhammad “King Mo” Lawal are arguably two of Strikeforce’s most recognizable names. In a cruel twist of fate, both Kennedy and Lawal would fall in their title fights. But while Brazilians Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and Rafael Cavalcante upset the apple cart in ways that Strikeforce would never admit, in the long run, these victories may do more for the global identity of Strikeforce than had the two popular Americans emerged victorious.
In terms of pure enjoyment, Strikeforce: Houston did not disappoint. As an MMA fan, I found myself thoroughly engaged in the action on the screen. But, with that enjoyment comes four key questions asked by yours truly. Why four? Why not.
1.) Does Bobby Lashley lack the heart to be a champion?
With a body that seems to have been pulled out of the pages of a comic book action hero, former professional wrestler Lashley certainly looks like a force to be reckoned with in the heavyweight division. But as the sport of MMA will quickly bring to light, Adonis bodies don’t necessarily translate to great fighters. Many extolled the talents of Lashley and pointed to the fact that UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar made a similar transition from pro wrestling to MMA prominence. But for all the similarities, Lesnar clearly posses an internal fortitude that prevents him from even entertaining the thought of defeat. Lashley, well, not so much. In his fight against Chad Griggs Saturday night, Lashley was in control early on, but when things got violent, a nasty cut on Lashley’s head, well the former WWE star seemed to mentally pack it up. Griggs is a tough SOB, but he’s no world beater, and it appeared that once Lashley felt he couldn’t dominate him, his desire to win evaporated.
I’m not saying that Lashley isn’t a viable contender in the sport. In fact, I believe with more experience we will see a much more dangerous Lashley. But, that stone-cold desire to win at all costs seems to be missing from the DNA of Lashley.
2.) Should K.J. Noons have been DQ’d for the illegal knee at the end of the fight?
When it was announced that K.J. Noons and Jorge Gurgel would fight this card you just knew that this match had fireworks written all over it. Noons is a fighter who absolutely loves the stand up game, and despite Gurgel’s black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, he too loves to stand and slug it out. When these two fighters entered the cage on Saturday night the fireworks were immediate. But while Gurgel’s game plan of trying to out box Noons was ill-fated, it definitely made for an exciting fight. However, controversy would not be avoided after Grugel was rocked senseless by a straight right-left hook combo.
While Noons finished the fight in impressive fashion, controversy arose as Noons landed a knee to the downed Gurgel as the referee was slow to step in and waive a halt to the bout. Replays of the incident clearly showed that Noons knee landed after the fight had been waived off, but only by a fraction of a second. Further fueling the controversy is the fact that Noons was imploring the referee to stop following his blistering combo that put Grugel’s lights out. Referee Kerry Hatley was way too slow in reacting to Gurgel’s plight and had he jumped in with some authority, the illegal knee may not have been thrown. Though, let us not loose sight of the fact that Noons launched the illegal knee in the first place. Noons knew the rules, and even in the heat of battle, an illegal blow has no place in the cage. Noons infraction Saturday night was wrong, but disqualifying him would also be unjust as his legal blows had already prompted the fight to be stopped.
3.) Does “Jacare’s” new standup make him a beast at middleweight?
You're damn right it does. What we already knew about Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza was that he was a tenacious grappler and a fighter with no perceivable ceiling. However, what we didn’t know was how good his stand up game was. Saturday night, against the hard-charging Tim Kennedy, “Jacare” exhibited an exemplary striking acumen.
With world-class jiu-jitsu skills now complemented by some seriously dangerous striking techniques, Souza could very well be a dominant force in the relatively deep Strikeforce middleweight division. Souza’s still young, but you can see his game evolving and his attack becoming more cerebral. This does not bode well for contenders in the division.
4.) Is “King Mo’s” lack of a stand up game his Achilles Heel?
Heading into Saturday’s card, much of the promotion centered on the skills and exploits of then light heavyweight champion Muhammad “King Mo” Lawal. It was hard not to get caught up in the hype given that in relative short order Lawal has come out to establish himself as one of the best 205-pounders in the game right now. Many predicted that his fight against unheralded Rafael Cavalcante would simply be a showcase of Lawal’s wrestling-based ground and pound style.
Unfortunately for Lawal, what many predicted to be a showcase fight for him turned into a highlight reel exhibit for Cavalcante. Try as he might, Lawal could not take Cavalcante to the ground. With his bread and butter tactic continually being stuffed, Lawal tried to get the better of Cavalcante on their feet. However, this tactic played right into Cavalcante’s hands as he repeatedly landed punch after punch on Lawal’s head. Lawal, it appeared, was trying to utilize the infamous shoulder roll made popular by boxers like Floyd Mayweather Jr., and James Toney. The latter has been working with Lawal in preparation for his showdown with Randy Couture. But while Lawal may have picked up a few boxing moves from Toney, Cavalcante simply brought the pain into the cage. Lawal never seemed all too comfortable on his feet and, in exchanges, it was Cavalcante who landed the harder, more telling shots. Lawal has the freak athletic ability to become a dangerous striker but right now his stand up game seems to be sorely lacking any semblance of dexterity.