As the next Strikeforce event comes to a head this Saturday, a bevy of exciting fights will be featured both on Showtime and HdNet.
A middleweight championship bout pitting Luke Rockhold against titleholder Ronaldo Souza is one of the many gems on the card, but most of the attention will likely be on the remaining participants in the organization's inaugural heavyweight grand prix, which will feature Daniel Cormier against Antonio Silva and Sergei Kharitonov against Josh Barnett.
While the main card will air live on Showtime, the preliminary portion of the event will air on HdNet and will feature a slew of promising bouts: former champ Rafael "Feijao" will look to get back to his winning ways when he meets with Olympian Yoel Palacio, and contender Mike Kyle looks to move one step closer to the title when he faces newcomer Marcos Rogerio de Lima.
Each fight will hold an immediate impact to each fighter in their respective weight class, but how will everything shake out?
Few can make better first impressions than that of Amanda Nunes. At 23 years old, the muay thai specialist from Bahia, Brazil, has a lot of upside.
Upon her Strikeforce debut, Nunes scored a thunderous 14-second knockout win over fellow striker Julia Budd, making an emphatic statement as the next would-be contender for the middleweight title against pound-for-pound great Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos.
However, Amanda has since dropped down to the welterweight division (135 pounds) and will take on grizzled veteran Alexis Davis in just her second outing with the organization. Davis is well regarded as one of the better fighters in her class, having tussled with notables Sarah Kaufman, Tara La Rosa and Julie Kedzie, whom Alexis defeated in her last bout via decision.
Nunes has a lot of big fights ahead of her, and while she has been making strides teaming up with the AMA Fight Club—which hosts UFC vets Jim and Dan Miller—it's going to be too little too late, as the Brazilian is out-grappled and out-hustled by the well-traveled Davis, who will go 2-0 under the Zuffa umbrella this Saturday night.
Pick: Davis, decision.
For Mike Kyle, this is about as lose-lose as you can get. He's fighting a non-contender and a Strikeforce newbie. If he wins, it will be over a relative "nobody"; if he loses, it will set him back to the bottom of the heap of the light heavyweight class.
In his last outing, Kyle stepped up on short notice in order to take on Antonio Silva in a heavyweight bout. "MAK" showed his power, as he was able to knock down the big man with a swooping right hand. His speed and athleticism was evident, though Kyle was not able to finish the Brazilian, and he ultimately fatigued and succumbed to strikes midway through the bout.
He proved that on any given day, the American Kickboxing Academy product can finish a fight.
Such will be the case when he meets with fellow banger Marcos Rogerio de Lima.
Mike will use a combination of strikes to set up the takedown, using ground and pound before allowing his opponent to get back to his feet, confusing the less-experienced Marcos, who will eventually be the victim of a Kyle right hand, ending the bout in the second round in an impressive showing for the former WEC champion.
Pick: Kyle, Rd. 2 KO
Evangelista Santos, who is more affectionately known as simply "Cyborg," is an exciting fighter if anything else.
Of his 18 wins, 15 have been finishes, with 11 coming by way of knockout. However, for every good victory of his career, Santos has been equally disappointing. His record indicates that he shouldn't even belong in the Strikeforce cage, as he holds nearly as many wins as losses, with an overall mark of 18-14.
In his last outing, Evangelista was in a welterweight title tilt against Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Nick Diaz. Santos employed a strategic game plan early on, utilizing chopping leg kicks in order to stifle the pressing MMA bad boy, though eventually abandoned his plans once fatigue set in, which has been an ongoing story for the former Chute Boxe fighter.
Eventually, Diaz submitted Santos in the waning moments of the second round, after the Brazilian took down the grappling ace looking for a breather after 10 minutes of action settled in.
Santos will now meet with Jordan Mein, a Canadian prospect who recently outpointed former Strikeforce title challenger and current DREAM champ Marius Zaromskis for a decision win. At just 21 years old, Mein will be competing for his 30th time as a professional and is currently riding a five-fight win streak, which includes convincing victories over UFC vets Joe Riggs and Josh Burkman.
Young but matured as a fighter, Mein will continue to show the kind of promise that has brought him to the big stage, fatiguing Santos with clinches and takedowns before going in for the kill late in the bout, letting his hands go and finishing off the Brazilian in dominant fashion.
Pick: Jordan, Rd. 3 TKO
Rafael "Feijao" Cavalcante, a member of the famed Blackhouse faction, has a lot to prove against Yoel Palacio.
The recently dethroned light heavyweight champ was last seen inside the Hexagon when he suffered a third-round knockout loss to the mixed martial arts icon Dan Henderson. Rafael saw moments of success in the bout, knocking down the Olympian inside of the first round, though he eventually fell victim to the infamous Henderson right hand, putting a stop to his brief reign as king.
Now, Rafael meets newbie Palacio, who like Henderson has the kind of wrestling pedigree that will stifle most opponents in his way. The Cuban is undefeated, with a perfect 4-0 mark, and has finished all of his opponents with his high-octane style of fighting. Cavalcante has seen the type before in Antwain Britt and "King Mo"—neither could keep up with the Brazilian's pace, and though Muhammed managed to takedown Rafael in the early going, Feiajo found a way to win.
He'll do the same here.
Look for the the Brazilian to connect on a big overhand right on his less-experienced wrestling stalwart midway through the bout, and follow up with strikes for the win.
Pick: Cavalcante, Rd. 2 TKO
If you don't already know who Maximo Blanco is, you will after Saturday night.
The exciting lightweight import is well known to hard-core fans, but he will make his debut under the big lights of Strikeforce, on the main card no less. He was originally scheduled to take on former champ Josh Thomson. However, the often injury-ridden fighter bowed out of the contest.
Now, Blanco meets journeyman Pat Healy, who for every big win of his career has been brought back down to reality by a disappointing loss.
While Blanco possesses a dynamic array of strikes that make him one of the most looked-after prospects in the lightweight class, it's his ability to dictate where the fight goes that makes him the most dangerous. Maximo is a touted freestyle wrestler, taking his ventures overseas when he competed for his native Venezuela for the Pan American Games in 2007, taking home the bronze medal.
Healy is as tested and accomplished as anyone in the top 10. He holds submission victories over notables Paul Daley, Dan Hardy and former WEC champion Carlos Condit, who is currently riding a four-fight win streak inside the UFC.
Healy's a great wrestler who poses a threat to everyone he faces, but his inconsistency has cost him in the past, and it will be no different this weekend.
Look for Blanco to blitz Healy early, rocking him with an aesthetically pleasing mix of strikes en route to a flashy finish.
Pick: Blanco, Rd. 1 KO
The "King" returns.
Muhammed Lawal will make his way back to the cage for the first time in more than a year when he meets the infamous Roger Gracie, who is regarded as arguably the best submission specialist in the game.
Lawal was last seen under the Strikeforce banner when he dropped the light heavyweight title to the aforementioned "Feijao," dominating the Brazilian in the first round before fatiguing midway through the bout, later falling victim to the dangerous knees from Cavalcante, succumbing to his first and so far only career defeat, via TKO.
Subsequent injuries have kept the Sengoku vet away from action longer than he would hope, but he now has the chance to come back in a big way—that is, if he can get past the grappling acumen of Gracie.
Roger is undefeated and is riding a wave of confidence heading into his match with Lawal. His first two bouts under the Strikeforce banner have opened up the Gracie fighter to a wider audience, as he has impressed most with his decisive finishes of UFC veterans Kevin Randleman and Trevor Prangley, both by way of rear-naked choke.
His striking has come leaps and bounds as well, and standing at a daunting 6'4", he is a handful for everyone he faces—but not Lawal.
Look for Mo to stuff the takedowns of the Gracie fighter early on, courtesy of his own world-class wrestling skills. Roger won't be opposed to pull guard against Lawal, though clinching with the powerhouse grappler is perhaps not the strongest of ideas.
Look for Muhammad to play cautious, using inside leg kicks, jabs and late-round takedowns in order to secure the victory in what will be a tooth-and-nail kind of bout throughout.
Pick: Lawal, decision.
Ronaldo Souza is perhaps the most accomplished jiu-jitsu practitioner who has since translated his accolades from the mat to the cage.
In 2008, "Jacare" made it to the finals for DREAM's first middleweight tournament, where sixteen of some of the best fighters and prospects assembled to determine the promotion's rightful champion.
Souza dominated Ian Murphy, Jason "Mayhem" Miller and Zelg Galesic before succumbing to a shocking knockout loss to future Strikeforce titleholder Gegard Mousasi.
Since then, Ronaldo is undefeated and is now a perfect 4-0 under the Zuffa umbrella. After submitting UFC veteran Matt Lindland and going the distance with Greg Jackson product Joey Villasenor, Souza vied for the promotion's vacant title, edging out the always-tough Tim Kennedy for five rounds, cinching the belt with the win.
In his last outing, Souza submitted the hard-hitting Robbie Lawler in the third round of a back-and-forth battle. However, as it stands, the Brazilian has little to no competition that can match his world class skills.
That's where Rockhold steps in. The American Kickboxing Academy product is on an incredible 6-0 streak inside the San Jose-based promotion, though he has not seen the inside of those six walls of chain-linked fence in some time. Subsequent injuries and bouts that failed to materialize bring Luke to the precipice of his career now, challenging for a major world title.
He's great in all areas and weak in few, but his lack of experience and time away from the cage are huge question marks leading into the bout. While Rockhold has looked outstanding against UFC vets Paul Bradley and Jesse Taylor, those bouts are hardly any indication that he is ready for a fighter of the acumen of Souza, a world-class grappler with great takedowns and a much-improved stand-up arsenal.
In reality, this is Ronaldo's fight to lose, but he won't allow the victory to leave his gator-like grip.
Pick: Souza, Rd. 3 Submission
Round two of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix is coming to a head.
Kharitonov, a K-1 and PRIDE veteran, will make his second appearance with the promotion as he takes on a fellow colleague in Josh Barnett, a former UFC world champion who remains one of the more dangerous fighters in the division.
The two mixed-martial arts notables headline the event, which takes place at the U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati, Ohio, this Saturday.
Supporting the Showtime headliner will be another heavyweight attraction featuring Daniel Cormier, a two-time Olympian who will take on his toughest challenge to date in Antonio "Big Foot" Silva.
Daniel has come a long way in his two years as a pro, relying on the strengths of his wrestling career in order to transition in what has become an unblemished and promising future. Silva, a former EliteXC world champion, is riding high on a dominant performance against the prolific Fedor Emelianenko and will transition that confidence back into the cage come later this week.
For a more in-depth look at the final four, jump to the detailed breakdown here.