Strikeforce: 'Challengers' report card
Strikeforce began its 2011 campaign Friday in Nashville, Tenn., with a prospect-level event featuring several fighters who, through good fortune and hard work, could impact mixed martial arts this year and beyond.
When grading inexperienced fighters, it's best to do so against the weight of expectations and the realities of their performances. So this is the prism through which the weekend's results are viewed.
Is Tyron Woodley still the future? Can Amanda Nunes overthrow her Brazilian contemporary, Cristiane Santos? What are the chances that Daniel Cormier or Rhadi Ferguson morph from Olympians to champion mixed martial artists?
While Friday's results alone can't provide complete answers to those questions, they do advance the discussion on prospects off to an early start in the new year.
From A to a D, the evening's report card:
Strikeforce: "Challengers" report card
There's no other way to grade the 22-year-old Brazilian's 14-second old-school brutalization of Julia Budd. This was like watching Wanderlei Silva at his peak. The only things missing were soccer kicks and head stomps. Because of the lack of contenders for Strikeforce champion Santos, Nunes (6-1) may get the call to fight for a title this year.
The 31-year-old two-time Olympian went the distance for the first time in his short MMA career against veteran Devin Cole (18-9-1). Cormier, who doubles as Cain Velasquez's wrestling coach at American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif., fought well on the inside. Built like a nose tackle, Cormier (7-0) must figure out how to win fights against better opposition in the manner he did Friday.
Three fights, three wins for the former U.S. judo Olympian who turns 38 in March. Is it too late for Ferguson to make a dent in MMA? Likely. But he does appear to have the game to give it a run. Ferguson loves leg locks, as evidenced by his kneebar against an early-fatiguing John Richard (1-2). As the competition gets tougher, Ferguson will have a tough time winning in similar fashion.
The unbeaten 28-year-old prospect was considered by most observers as potentially special, a fighter who would one day rank at or near the top of the welterweight division. He may very well make good on those prognostications, but if his victory over Tarec Saffiedine -- a fine prospect in his own right -- proved anything, it's that for all of Woodley's tools he's not yet deserving of that kind of praise. For the second time in less than a year, Woodley (8-0) looked more ordinary than his believers -- myself included -- make him out to be. Expectations have been tempered for the time being. Woodley, as is his right, needs more time to develop.
Ovince St. Preux
The former University of Tennessee linebacker seems to love MMA. After going 6-0 in 2010, St. Preux got off to an early start this year. I'll give him this: When he's not fatigued, he's fun to watch. His striking needs work, though St. Preux did show a commitment to trading punches against a game Ron Humphrey. As skimpy as Strikeforce's light heavyweight class appears to be, St. Preux isn't far from a contender slot.
He fights with spirit and determination, but I can't see Humphrey (7-3) growing beyond an average mixed martial artist. Strikeforce will probably continue to book him for entertaining action -- and they need options in a vapid light heavyweight division -- but that's about it.
It's important to remember that Saffiedine is just 24 years old. Still, despite making great strides in the wrestling department since coming to the U.S. three years ago and taking up residence at Dan Henderson's Team Quest facility in Temecula, Calif., the Belgian fighter could not counter a high-level wrestler. Is there time for him to improve? Sure. But unless he can stay on his feet, Saffiedine (10-3) is likely to fall short of championship aspirations.
So much for that. Touted as a physical match for "Cyborg" Santos, the chiseled young Canadian kickboxer (1-1 in MMA) was destroyed in Nashville. It was a brutal loss for the 27-year-old, one that might be difficult for her to come back from.
Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.