With all of the talk about Micky Ward based off the movie “The Fighter”, it was hard to not think of Ward’s main nemesis, Arturo Gatti, last Saturday night. UFC Lightweight Champion Frankie Edgar was looking a lot like “Thunder” while getting pounded by Gray Maynard in the first round of their fight, but in true Gatti style, Edgar fought back and was able to keep his title when the fight was declared a draw. This was a great back and forth fight between two really tough guys, and was a nice start to 2011. You had to feel bad for Anthony Pettis who saw his shot at the lightweight title get pushed back when Dana White announced that Edgar-Maynard 3 will happen first.
Saturday night also reminded me that fights that don’t seem interesting on paper (Leben-Stann) can deliver some of the best moments of the night. I always liked Brian Stann, but I thought he would be no match for “The Crippler” based on Leben’s last two fights. Shockingly, I couldn’t have been more wrong as Stann walked right through Leben, knocking him out in the first round.
Maybe I was a little hard on Strikeforce last week when I questioned the decisions made for the January 29th card. I try to remember that MMA provides surprises and excitement on most cards, even if the biggest names are not involved. Who would have thought Billy Evangelista and Waachim Spirit Wolf would be as great a fight as it was? Not me.
Strikeforce also deserves credit because of fights expected to be finalized later this week. Fedor Emelianenko will return to the cage on February 12th to face Antonio “Big Foot” Silva, with Sergei Kharitonov taking on Andrei Arlovski in the co-main event. These will be the first two fights to launch the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix, which is an eight-man tournament that will unfold over the course of multiple events.
I still don’t get the decision to let Josh Thomson, Gegard Mousasi and Strikeforce Heavyweight Champion Allistair Overeem appear on the Dream card in Japan, while leaving your San Jose card thin, but I am happy to see there ARE big things on the horizon for the San Jose-based promotion. MMA will be much better if Strikeforce can continue to have nights like they had in St Louis–exciting fights that get people talking about match-ups they want to see in the future. The Heavyweight Grand Prix is a great way to do that.
As deep as the talent pool is in the UFC, their heavyweight division is somewhat shallow. The UFC has Cain Velasquez, Junior Dos Santos, Frank Mir, Shane Carwin, Brock Lesnar and Roy “Big Country” Nelson, and that’s about it. Compare those names to the ones in the Strikeforce tournament–Fedor, Silva, Barnett, Arlovski, Overeem, Kharitonov and Fabricio Werdum–and it’s easy to get excited about the Grand Prix.
There are always concerns when holding a tournament that winners may be too beat up to continue in a timely manner. yes, MMA is a brutal sport, and your body needs time to heal, but it’s an easy gamble for Scott Coker and Strikeforce to make. When quarterfinals feature high profile fights to go along with a solid line-up of smaller guys (Henderson, Lawler, Jacare, Diaz) healthy and ready to fight in the first part of 2011, it should make fans think there is a plan, and better yet a real chance for Strikeforce to take that next step in mainstream appeal.
I also like the fact the Fedor fight will take place in New Jersey, right across the river from New York City. This is a chance for Strikeforce to get major publicity, which in the past only went to the UFC. With the UFC’s stacked card on February 5th, Emelianenko back on the 12th, and the rumors of Dan Henderson getting a title shot in March, the first 3 months look good for the MMA fans. Happy New Year! JD