Strikeforce Diaz-Cyborg preview
For Saturday's Diaz vs. Cyborg event, Strikeforce returns to its home base at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif., with two titles on the line.
In addition to welterweight champion Nick Diaz and middleweight kingpin Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza putting their belts on the line against Evangelista "Cyborg" Santos and Robbie Lawler, respectively, fans will be treated to appearances by two-division Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships winner Roger Gracie and 1982 Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker (although "treated" will depend on one's point of view in the latter case).
Here are the matchup breakdowns, previews and picks.
The matchup: Diaz seems reborn since parting ways with the UFC, developing into one of the game's best welterweights while notching impressive wins against Frank Shamrock and Scott Smith in high-profile catchweight bouts. His combination of high-volume striking and stifling jiu-jitsu has proved to be a veritable blender for most foes, who can't match him on the feet and don't want to take the fight to the ground. He also possesses one of the best chins in the game.
In his last fight -- a five-round decision over K.J. Noons -- Diaz showed his trademark conditioning in what was a fair performance but not as impressive when compared to his previous outings. Cyborg, however, almost guarantees an exciting fight. Unlike Noons -- whose quickness and quirky angles seemed to keep Diaz guessing and puzzled in spots -- Santos is a come-forward brawler.
Cyborg will have to execute the perfect fight against a guy with superior jiu-jitsu and an almost shockproof chin. When you're a brawler with mixed results against lesser competition, Diaz is a difficult assignment. His peck-and-swat stand-up style is eminently his, as nobody else in the sport seems to be able to emulate it as effectively.
Diaz uses his long frame and southpaw stance to simultaneously throw shots while leaning at odd angles to make his opponent miss. His weakness -- wrestling -- has been exploited in bouts in which he was inevitably held down and outpointed. But nobody (save Noons, via cuts) has come close to finishing him since a stoppage loss early in his career against future rival Jeremy Jackson. And Diaz finished him twice in subsequent bouts.
Diaz presses a high work rate and, against aggressive opponents who are willing to trade, always seems to find something that turns the fight in his favor -- whether it's a pinpoint counter or a transition out of which he emerges on top. On the mat, his defensive guard is top-notch, and he's exceptionally calm even in bad spots.
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Cyborg is going to have to land something significant early. Otherwise, he'll get sucked into the kind of fight everyone seems to think they want against Diaz but almost always end up losing: Diaz right there in front of you, trading and somehow getting the better of it. Cyborg has nothing to lose here, and although Diaz tends to fight to the level of his competition, he almost always sucks it up and closes the show.
The pick: Look for some exciting trades in the first round before Diaz drops the hammer and gets the fight to the ground, delivering effective ground-and-pound. Santos won't go easily, as this is the most important fight of his career. But Diaz should be too much for him en route to a second-round technical knockout.
The matchup: Despite being one of the best submission grapplers in the world, Jacare doesn't fight like a guy making the transition into MMA. His striking is crisp and confident, and he attacks aggressively, unafraid of mixing it up. His takedowns also are solid, a trait often lacking in fighters coming from the submission wrestling and jiu-jitsu circuits -- especially those from Brazil.
Lawler will always be Lawler, which is a win-win for fans. The longtime battler loves a gut check-style brawl and rarely is outmuscled despite being a former welterweight. Lawler's go-for-broke style was best exemplified last year in his rousing knockout of Melvin Manhoef, who was seemingly kicking him -- and his lead leg -- into oblivion until Lawler rallied with a massive bomb to win the fight.
Style-wise, you couldn't ask for a more entertaining clash. Jacare specializes in overwhelming opponents early and then submitting them with his textbook finishing holds. Ten of his 13 victories have come in the opening round, but his wins against Tim Kennedy, Joey Villasenor and Jason "Mayhem" Miller went the distance. One question remains unanswered: Can Jacare stay effective if Lawler takes his best shots, keeps swinging and drags him into a long, tough fight?
Lawler's task is clear. He has to let his hands go while timing his shots to avoid being taken down into a compromising position. Lawler might be known as a heavy-handed slugger, but his wrestling chops and takedown defense are largely overlooked. Technically, Jacare likely will be too much for him on the mat, but getting punched in the face has long been the great grappling equalizer.
The pick: Expect Jacare to oblige some stand-up early before opting to take it down. Lawler will have to either catch him early -- something at which he is accomplished -- or survive an onslaught of transitions, submission attempts and high-energy fury. I think Jacare will walk into something big and make a crucial mistake. Nobody in the game is better at capitalizing on those opportunities than Lawler, who will win by third-round knockout in a comeback classic.
The matchup: Despite all the controversy surrounding his entry into Strikeforce and whether his televised slot was deserved, Walker's debut in January 2010 was impressive for a 47-year-old guy who had never fought before. Taking out Greg Nagy with third-round strikes, he showed a decent ability to pace himself, albeit in a largely one-sided bout.
Walker's presence in Strikeforce represents the promotion's answer to EliteXC's use of Kimbo Slice. When vying for second banana status, you have to throw in some wrinkles. That means it's imperative for Strikeforce to keep Walker in winnable fights in something of a shell game before cashing him out in a losing proposition against a name guy. It's good for ratings, and the promotion needs them.
Carson's record is somewhat misleading. His first loss came via first-round technical knockout in June, after he had been retired for nearly 10 years. At 40, he believes he's being overlooked as the Walker hype builds. Can a retired former fighter with a handful of matches overcome a transcendent but aging athlete? This is the kind of freakshow that used to be a staple in Pride Fighting Championships, and it's somewhat interesting, if not eminently worthy of a prime-time slot.
The pick: Go with Walker by second-round TKO.
Jason Probst is a contributor to Sherdog.com.