Strikeforce comes to the Valley View Casino Center in San Diego, Calif., with a solid card featuring two championship bouts, including the return of top pound-for-pound female fighter Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos.
Lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez's title defense against top contender Jorge Masvidal will serve as the main attraction.
Currently on a five-fight win streak, Melendez looks to defend his title for a third consecutive time, but Masvidal, who is coming off back-to-back wins over K.J. Noons and Billy Evangelista, won't be an easy mark.
This bout could very well be Melendez's audition for a UFC contract. He would certainly be a major addition to the lightweight roster, considering most publications have him listed at No. 3 in the 155-pound rankings.
In the co-main event, Strikeforce women's featherweight champion Cyborg makes her long-awaited return against Japanese striker Hiroko Yamanaka.
A contractual dispute with Strikeforce has kept Cyborg out of action for well over a year. She'll have her work cut out for her against Yamanaka, who is typically listed at No. 2 in the female featherweight rankings.
Bleacher Report MMA featured columnists John Heinis, Dwight Wakabayashi, Brian Benchimol-Lopez and yours truly, Jordy McElroy, will break down and give our predictions on Saturday night's event.
The time has come once again for you to feast on some manly induced knowledge in preparation for the upcoming fights. Snatch a cold beverage out the fridge and get comfortable. It's prediction time.
Jordy: Former Strikeforce welterweight contender K.J. Noons and Billy Evangelista should provide early fireworks as the main card opener.
Coming off back-to-back losses to Nick Diaz and Jorge Masvidal, Noons finds himself in dire need of a victory to avoid a possible release from the Strikeforce promotion.
Against Evangelista, he faces a formidable striker who is also coming off a unanimous-decision loss to Masvidal.
The ground likely won't come into play in this bout, as both of these lightweights typically prefer to handle their business on the feet.
Regardless of his current skid, Noons remains one of the best pure boxers in the world at 155 pounds. He should be able to take advantage of Evangelista's defensive deficiencies in the pocket and coast to a unanimous decision.
K.J. Noons by Unanimous Decision
John: These two 155-pounders looked like they were well on their way to a title shot before Jorge Masvidal gave them a thorough beating.
Evangelista turned some heads when he beat now-UFC featherweight Nam Pham back at a June 2008 Strikeforce bout, while Noons saw his biggest win come at the expense of Nick Diaz back in November 2007.
That win was a controversial cut TKO, though, and considering that Diaz really battered Noons in their October 2010 rematch, Noons' sees his stock at an all-time low right now as Saturday night approaches.
With a loss here, it is quite feasible that Noons gets cut from Strikeforce (his most recent fights were the losses to Diaz and Masvidal).
Noons is basically a decent boxer with average takedown defense, while Evangelista is a Muay Thai guy with some BJJ skills on the ground.
This should be a quality fight that is closely contested, but I say Noons does just enough to keep his mainstream MMA career afloat.
KJ Noons via unanimous decision (29-28)
Dwight: Both of these fighters are coming off of losses to Jorge Masvidal in fights with serious title implications. Evangelista lost his chance in March and Noons lost his in June in a fight to see who would get a shot at Gilbert Melendez for the title.
With Masvidal set to fight Melendez on this very card, these two are left to fight as a consolation to see who remains in the mix at the top of the division. Noons brings an experienced game into the cage with a real strength in striking and movement and has been through some wars in his career.
He recently fought Nick Diaz for the welterweight title and lost a close five-round decision. At 29 years old, Noons is the younger fighter, and I believe his battle-tested experience will put him over the top in this one.
Evangelista is 31 years old and Noons is another big name opportunity for him to really get his career to where he wants it to be.
Noons via unanimous decision
Brian: While Evangelista was one of the top prospects produced by the San Jose-based organization, his 12-fight unbeaten streak was only indicative of one thing: he's never defeated a fighter worthy of title contention.
In his last outing, Evangelista was outgunned and outwitted by Jorge Masvidal. Though Noons doesn't have the same kind of wrestling pedigree as the American Top Team product, he can make things interesting in this bout by mixing the action on the feet and feinting to take the action to the ground.
Expect lots of level changes from the Hawaiian, who will pour on the action as the bout enters the later rounds. Though a finish will elude him, Noons will take home a clear-cut, workmanlike decision victory.
Noons defeats Evangelista by Decision (30-27 x3)
Jordy: Gegard Mousasi will find himself in a dangerous scrap on Saturday night against rising light heavyweight superstar Ovince St. Preux.
Former University of Tennessee linebacker OSP has taken the MMA world by storm with his freakish athleticism and all-around explosiveness.
Currently on an eight-fight win streak, the young lion could really make some noise in the 205-pound division by defeating Mousasi, a former Strikeforce world champion.
While OSP's bandwagon is growing by the day, fans should be mindful that this is a monumental step up in competition for the prospect.
Mousasi is still considered as one of the best light heavyweight fighters in the world. A couple of hiccups against Muhammad "King Mo" Lawal and Keith Jardine have pushed Mousasi out of the top-10 rankings, but he continuously rides the bubble of the world's elite at 205 pounds.
Mousasi's chin and technical boxing prowess should give him a nice advantage on the feet. The recipe for an upset comes in OSP's explosive takedowns and Mousasi's lackluster wrestling defense.
If OSP remains patient and uses his striking to set up takedowns, it could be a long night for Mousasi.
Stylistically, this bout has upset written all over it, but when in doubt, you should always go with the proven veteran.
Mousasi rallies late after a rough couple of rounds to take a third-round submission win.
Gegard Mousasi by Triangle Choke
John: After starting his career at a lackluster 3-4, the former University of Tennessee linebacker/defensive end Ovince St. Preux has opened some eyes by winning eight fights in a row.
OSP made a statement by knocking out Joe Cason in just over a minute this past July, prompting him to ask for a step up in competition in the form of Renato Sobral or Gegard Mousasi.
Obviously, he got his wish in the form of former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion Gegard Mousasi.
Since the absurdly bad judging error that called Mousasi's April showdown with Keith Jardine a draw, "The Dreamcatcher" effortlessly KO'ed Hiroshi Izumi in a July bout under the DREAM banner.
Mousasi has 31 wins to just three loses (plus the draw) in his career, with impressive victories over the likes of Hector Lombard, Evangelista Santos and Renato Sobral.
A former Netherlands boxing champion, it is no surprise that he has some power in his hands (18 career KOs), but his submission game is solid as well (10 in his career).
St. Preux is big, strong, explosive and hungry, but unless we have the same judges from the Keith Jardine fight, I think this is a competitive affair that Mousasi wins.
Gegard Mousasi via unanimous decision (29-28)
Dwight: Gegard Mousasi has fought some of the very best in his weight class in his career and he was once feared as the best 185 to 205 pounder in the game, but his level has declined recently. Mousasi lost his title to King Mo Lawal in 2010 but has bounced back with some wins over inferior competition.
He also fought a three-round draw with Keith Jardine in April. Mousasi will want to blend his quick, aggressive striking game with his takedowns to keep St. Preux guessing.
This is quite a big step up in competition for the 28-year-old Haitian American who has wins over Benji Radach and Jason Day on his resume. He is a big and powerful wrestler who is currently on an eight-fight winning streak, mostly in Strikeforce.
St. Preux will be looking to come out and overpower Mousasi and put him on his back early. If Mousasi is unable to stop the takedown, he could be in for a very long and boring fight on his back.
Mousasi via knockout in first round
Brian: The budding star in St-Preux is largely unproven against top flight competition, though his talents and sheer athleticsm have left many to believe that the light heavyweight spark plug is on the verge of stardom.
However, St-Preux will have unarguably his toughest challenge to date in the form of former Strikeforce champion Gegard Mousasi.
The Armenian has a solid chin and hails from a touted amateur boxing background, which his 2-0 run in the K-1 circuit would indicate. OSP is well-versed in all areas, plugging away with his wrestling while adding a devastating array of knees, kicks and punches to his repertoire, but it won't be enough.
Mousasi will stifle the relatively inexperienced St-Preux with his long jab and though he may find himself in a few hairy positions as the former football star works the DREAM champ to the ground, where the world renowned fighter will attack off of his back, keeping St-Preux honest.
Expect Mousasi to snatch a hold of an arm or work for a triangle choke in the waning moments of the fight.
Mousasi defeats St-Preux by Submission in Round 3
Jordy: Female wrecking machine Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos puts forth her third featherweight title defense against top contender Hiroko Yamanaka.
While most fans are aware of Cyborg's fierce and brutish fighting style, the vast majority aren't familiar with Yamanaka, a world-class featherweight with a lanky frame and well-rounded skill set.
Most MMA rankings have Yamanaka listed right behind Cyborg in the featherweight division, but considering the champ's otherworldly skills, that gap is about as wide as the Grand Canyon.
Cyborg's physical prowess and athleticism typically eats opposition for breakfast, and while Yamanaka may be able to use her reach to land from a distance, it's tough to see any female matching the intensity Cyborg brings every time she steps inside the cage.
With such a long layoff, ring rust could be something to watch in this fight.
If Yamanaka can survive and drag the bout into later rounds, she will have better chance to pull off the upset, but this journalist is banking on another violent showing from the best female fighter on the planet.
Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos by Round 2 TKO
John: "Cyborg" has looked untouchable since getting knee-barred in her professional debut six-and-a-half years ago and I don't think anyone expects that to change here.
Santos' otherworldly striking is enough to make you believe she could defeat quite a few of her male counterparts, but throw in her purple belt in BJJ and it seems safe to say the only way she loses her Strikeforce featherweight title is if the promotion goes under.
While Yamanaka does train Muay Thai, she is basically a pure wrestler with some submission know-how, so I can't envision anyway this fight ends well for her.
Christine Santos via first round TKO
Dwight: Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos is a seemingly unbeatable women's champion. She is pound-for-pound the most feared female fighter in the world and I see no way of her losing on Saturday night.
Santos is 10-1 and has not lost a fight since 2005. destroying Gina Carano, Marloes Coenen and Jan Finney in the process.
Hiroko Yamanaka is a 33-year old veteran MMA fighter from Japan and is currently ranked the No. 2 featherweight female fighter in the world. She is on an eight-fight win streak of her own and packs some power in her game, but this is a huge step up for her and I don't see it lasting very long.
Cyborg via submission in first round
Brian: The return of the premier female fighter will be a triumphant one.
Yamanaka is far and above the second best female fighter in the 145-pound class, as her record would indicate, avenging her only career defeat by deftly defeating Strikeforce vet Hitomi Akano.
However, of her 12 career victories, 8 have gone to a decision. The longer Yamanaka remains in the cage with Santos and as her streak of decisions would indicate, Yamanaka has proven her inability to finish fights more often than not.
Expect to see a motivated and frustrated Santos, who is looking to make a statement upon her return, using the touted Japanese fighter as the victim of her own personal vendetta against the organization, securing an emphatic knockout victory come this Saturday.
Cyborg defeats Yamanaka by KO, Round 2
Jordy: Gilbert Melendez will enter this bout a heavy favorite, but Jorge Masvidal is far from a pushover.
In June, Masvidal put a Muay Thai clinic on former EliteXC lightweight champion K.J. Noons. Melendez has cleaned up his boxing, but he could find himself in trouble should he opt to engage in unnecessary standup exchanges.
The outcome of this bout will depend heavily on Masvidal's ability to land on the feet and fend off takedowns.
Melendez will try to push forward with simple one-twos and feints to set up opportunities to change levels and sniff out takedowns in the open.
It's foreseeable that Masvidal lands a big punch early and steals a round, but it's hard to bet against the tenacity and world-class grappling skills of "El Nino."
Masvidal's superior striking will prompt Melendez to take the fight to the floor. Despite Melendez's strong top game, Masvidal will utilize a good defensive guard to avoid taking any serious damage on bottom.
A grinding effort will eventually come to a climax towards the end of the third round when Melendez capitalizes on a ground mistake and latches on the submission that sends the challenger packing.
Gilbert Melendez by Rear Naked Choke
John: The fighter who most people consider the No. 2 fighter in the world, Gilbert Melendez, is looking to punch his ticket into the UFC with a win here.
However, Jorge "Gamebred" Masvidal is not an easy match up for anyone at 155 pounds and he certainly has a realistic chance of winning this fight.
While Masvidal has been a tad bit inconsistent recently (he's 3-2 in his past five fights), he does own quality back-to-back wins over Billy Evangelista and KJ Noons.
Despite being an underdog going into the cage with Noons, Masvidal thoroughly bloodied and battered his opponent with precise striking and superior grappling.
The easiest criticism of Masvidal is the level of competition he's faced, with his biggest win being a knockout over Joe Lauzon back in April 2005.
His striking is very good, but not elite, as we saw in a Shark Fights bout with Paul Daley last year.
However, his grappling is highly underrated, so opponents who expected to face off against a pure boxer suffered a rude awakening.
Of course, "El Nino" is the champion for a reason, boasting a super-aggressive style that opponents have found impossible to overcome a midst Melendez's five-fight win streak.
Whether it's defending the takedown or raining down some vicious ground-and-pound, the bottom line is that Melendez knows how to hurt you wherever the fight goes.
The Cesar Gracie brown belt may have some difficulty with Masvidal on the feet, but once this fight goes to the ground, there is no question who has the advantage and that will be the difference maker in this fight.
Gilbert Melendez via 4th round TKO
Dwight: Gilbert Melendez is not only defending his lightweight title on the weekend he is also looking to stamp his ticket into the UFC with a win over Jorge Masvidal. Melendez is a lightning-fast and very powerful fighter and many feel he is the best lightweight fighter in the world.
He is currently 19-2 in his career and on a five-fight win streak but in my opinion, he has not faced any of the best lightweights in the world to date.
Masvidal is a 27-year old rising star in mixed martial arts who earned his way to this shot with wins over Billy Evangelista and KJ Noons this year. He is 22-6 overall in his career and this is the perfect time for him to get his shot at Melendez.
Masvidal will look to keep this fight standing and pick him apart with boxing, but Melendez is a tough fighter to stop when he wants to put you on your back.
I see this fight taking place in Melendez' world and Masvidal will have a very tough time scoring from his back.
Melendez via unanimous decision
Brian: The American Top Team product in Masvidal is arguably the best lightweight fighter who isn't recognized as a legitimate top-10 stud. It's not because his talents wouldn't indicate his potential as a world renowned fighter, it's because he has yet to record a signature victory, though a win over a well-regarded fighter like Gilbert Melendez would certainly be a step in the right direction.
Too bad "El Nino" won't roll over so easily.
There's a reason that Melendez is recognized as one the best in his class. Not because he's the best wrestler or the best striker, but he's one of the best at mixing it all up. Expect Masvidal to stick and move, though Melendez will continue to cut him off and change levels when need be.
Melendez will be aggressive and relentless, chasing down Masvidal, keeping up a torrid pace that will begin to wilt the Miami fighter.
Some takedowns here and there coupled with some hard ground and pound blows will eventually call a halt to the battle in the championship rounds, where Melendez defends his belt for a fourth time and makes the case as the next guy to be in line for a shot at UFC gold.
Melendez defeats Masvidal by TKO in Round 4
Jordy: Fight of the Night: K.J. Noons vs. Billy Evangelista
Submission of the Night: Gegard Mousasi
Knockout of the Night: Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos
John: Fight of the Night - Melendez vs. Masvidal
Submission of the Night - Gabriel Salinas-Jones
KO of the Night - Christine Santos
Dwight: Fight Of the Night: Noons vs. Evangelista
KO Of the Night: Mousasi
Sub of The Night: Santos
Brian: Knockout of the Night: Cristiane Santos
Submission of the Night: Gegard Mousasi
Fight of the Night: Gilbert Melendez vs. Jorge Masvidal