Strikeforce

Strikeforce

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Danny Acosta recently caught up with elite wrestler and nascent mixed martial artist Daniel Cormier at AKA in San Jose, Calif. With only a few months of serious training under his belt, Cormier is preparing to fight at Strikeforce Challengers on Sept. 25.

Check out Fightmagazine.com’s previous coverage – here and here – to learn more about Daniel Cormier’s life and career.

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Newly Minted UFC Hall of Famer Matt Hughes comments on his recent induction and talks about his UFC 117 contest with Renzo Gracie black belt Ricardo Alemida. Check out our interviews with Robbie Lawler, KJ Noons, and RJ Clifford from the Strikeforce weigh ins here. Videos shot and edited by Rick Lee.

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(Props to Sherdog. Check out the full fight below.)

Shark Fights 13 was stacked, featuring UFC, WEC, Pride, Strikeforce, EliteXC and Bellator veterans from stem to stern. Below you’ll find full results as well as analysis of the impact the fights had on our rankings.

Results

Trevor Prangley def. Keith Jardine by split decision.
Houston Alexander def. Rameau Thierry Sokodjou by TKO (punches) at 1:31 of Round 2.
Paul Daley def. Jorge Masvidal by unanimous decision.
Danillo Villefort def. Joey Villasenor by unanimous decision.
Tarec Saffiedine def. Brock Larson by unanimous decision.
Paul Bradley def. Johnny Rees by submission (rear-naked choke) at 4:28 of Round 1.
Ronnie Mann def. Douglas Evans by split decision to win the Shark Fights Featherweight Championship.
Aaron Rosa def. Devin Cole by unanimous decision.
Daniel Straus def. Karen Darabedyan by unanimous decision.
Eric Davila def. Pete Spratt by submission (guillotine choke) at 3:49 of Round 2.

FIGHT! Rankings

At FIGHT! Magazine, we believe there is a need for a completely objective and unbiased ranking system for fighters to replace the myriad subjective rankings that have become skewed, in many instances, by fighter popularity. In an effort to address this issue FIGHT! Magazine brings you its computerized rankings system which takes into account a fighters strength of opponent, strength of performance, and frequency of activity.

In the evening’s main event, Shark Fights Light Heavyweight Champion Trevor Prangley took on Keith Jardine in a non-title affair. Prangley’s win moved him from #71 to #48 in FIGHT!’s Middleweight Rankings. The South African competes at 185 when he fights for the largest promotions so FIGHT! will not reassign him to Light Heavyweight unless he makes a permanent switch. Jardine dropped his fifth in a row and his seventh in his last nine, falling from #26 to #44 in our Light Heavyweight Rankings.

In the night’s other 205-pound fights, Houston Alexander took a big step back towards relevance with a stoppage win over fellow UFC vet Rameau Thierry Sokodjou. Alexander climbs from #70 to #52, while Sokodjou falls from #25 to #55. Aaron Rosa moved from #52 to #46 with his win over Devin Cole, who enters our Heavyweight Rankings at #71.

The most highly ranked fighter on the card, Paul Daley, moved from #13 to #11 in FIGHT!’s Welterweight Rankings with a win over Jorge Masvidal. Lately “Gamebred” has competed at 155 pounds, and he fell from #25 to #31 in our Lightweight Rankings. If Masvidal continues to compete at 170 he will be reassigned in our rankings. Natural welterweight Danillo Villefort took a last-minute fight with Joey Villasenor and won, leaping from #96 to #50 in our Welterweight Rankings. If he continues to fight at 185 he will be reassigned. With the loss Villasenor crashes from #45 to #80 in our Middleweight Rankings.

Paul Bradley and Johnny Rees both notched their third qualifying fight on Sat. and although both typically compete at 185 on the regional circuit, their qualifying fights took place at welterweight, which is where they are currently ranked. Bradley entered our Welterweight Rankings at #78 after his win, while Rees took up residence at #124. Tarec Saffiedine held tight at #34 in our Welterweight Rankings with his win over Brock Larson, who falls from #69 to #73. Pete Spratt falls from #64 to #109 after his loss to unranked Eric Davila.

In the night’s only lightweight bout, Daniel Straus defeated Karen Darabedyan to enter our Lightweight Rankings at #60. Darabedyan slips from #137 to #139 with the loss.

UFC vet Doug Evans lost his Shark Fights Featherweight Title to unranked Ronnie Mann but enters our Featherweight Rankings at #60. Mann is currently unranked but should make some noise once he notches his third qualifying fight.

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Nick Diaz said he had no idea he was expected to be on a conference call Wednesday. The usually colorful Strikeforce welterweight was unusually reserved and opened proceedings in unusual fashion.

“Am I supposed to have something to say?” he asked.

Strikeforce held the call in preparation for Strikeforce: Miami on Jan. 30. The event will be broadcast on Showtime at 10 p.m. ET.

Diaz was clearly perturbed by many of the questions. At times, it was difficult to tell if he was telling the truth or simply playing along. When asked whether he was training harder because this is a title fight, he responded, “Yeah. I do extra pushups. I run an extra mile.”

Diaz will fight Marius Zaromskis for the vacant Strikeforce welterweight title. Also on the call: Strikeforce women’s champion Cris Cyborg and challenger Marloes Coenen.

Here are the condensed thoughts of the fighters:

Nick Diaz

Diaz (20-7-1) is a former WEC champion and went 6-4 in the UFC. He has won nine of his last 11 fights. He also beat Takanori Gomi at Pride 33, but the bout was declared no-contest after Diaz tested positive for marijuana.

On dropping back to welterweight after two bouts at higher catchweights: “I think I look the best at this weight. I feel the best. I’ve been waiting for a long time to fight at this weight class. Those last few fights were not my idea. I’ve been fighting welterweight most of my life. But I just fight who they tell me to fight.

On fighting Zaromskis: ““Why? What is this s***? I just woke up. We’re supposed to talk about what? He’s a good fighter, whatever. Anybody fighting at this level is a good fighter.”

On his recent preferences to engage in kickboxing instead of grappling: “I take the easiest direction. I’m going to do whatever it takes.”

On his noticeable lack of trash talk before this bout: “I’ve never been on a conference call with any opponent. I don’t know, dude. What?”

Marius Zaromskis


(Props to MMANYTT.)

Zaromskis (13-3) is the Dream Welterweight Grand Prix Champion. The Lithuanian is on a five-fight win streak and has won the last three via head kick. He answered questions via a translator.

On fighting Diaz: “Nick is a well-rounded fighter. He has strength in his boxing and grappling, all-around. As far as how the fight will go, I do not want to predict that. I have plans to handle to Diaz’ reach, but do not want to reveal them now. Of course, I prepared for Nick on the ground because nick has a superior ground game. But this is MMA not kickboxing and I always train to fight on the ground.”

On defending his Dream title: “There is no date set.”

On his spectacular head-kick finishes: “I don’t look for a high kick. When you look for something, you are the one that gets knocked out. When I see it, I take advantage if it. If it’s not there Ill use another weapon.”

On improvising (like attacking with flips) during the fight: “It’s not something I look for. I just do it. In a way it energizes me during the fight. I’m not doing it to be entertaining. I just do it to energize myself.”

Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos

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The Brazilian (8-1) is the Strikeforce women’s lightweight champion. She won the title beating Gina Carano, who was easily the most recognized and celebrated female fighter in the world at the time. Santos lost her first MMA match in 2005 and has won all eight since. She answered questions via a translator

On being the new face of women’s MMA: “I was not thinking about who was the face or not in MMA when I fought Gina. She was just another opponent. Whether I am the face of women’s MMA or not now, I am training hard and leading the pack for women’s MMA.

On rumors that she would be posing for Playboy: “I was literally horrified one morning when I saw everybody knew about it. I prefer to focus on the fight. Just like anything else that women do, appearance is very important. But it will not make you win a fight. It is your talent and skill that matter the most.”

On her long-term goals: “I am already married. I want to build a family, not right now but in the future. I want to focus on fighting and holding on to her belt as long as I can. Eventually, I’d like to build a team and have students. I can’t wait to train little “Cyborgs” all over the world.”

On life after beating Carano: “Whether you are a woman or not, a belt changes any athletes’ life. Life has changed for the positive and I’m happy with it.”

On training with men: “I train only with men. I hurt the women.”

On her most difficult opponent: “I haven’t found any opponent to be very difficult. Most are quick fights. I have not come across an opponent to give me a hard time.”

Marloes Coenen

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As an 18-year-old in 2000, the Dutch fighter (17-3) won one of the first major MMA tournaments for women. Now 28, she is 4-1 since 2008.

On being judged by her appearance: “Women are always judged by our appearance. You see it in tennis with Anna Kournikova. It is almost like Gina is the Kournikova of MMA. One day, I hope that our level of fighting gets to the point where they will talk about the fighting instead of the beauty that you have or do not have.”

On the future of women’s MMA: “When I grew up, there was not an option for girls to fight. My goal is to never hold an office job again. It’s very important to have good ambassadors and good fighters like Gina, like Cris and hopefully like myself. Let’s be honest, I don’t’ think I am the same as Gina and Cris are, but hopefully after this fight, I will be.”

On predicting the Cyborg fight: “I am considered the underdog, but hardcore MMA fans know what I can do and what I am capable of. I don’t really care what people think. I will show it ion the cage. I don’t think it will go five rounds at all. With th type of person she is and the person I am, it will not go five rounds at all.”

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(Props to KahL-One and MMAScraps.)

Each week FIGHT! brings you the best from our friends around the web.

– Armchair Matchmaker: Ultimate Fighter 12 Finale Edition (Cage Potato)

– Five Lessons: Strikeforce vs. UFC (Versus MMA Beat)

– Roger Huerta Saves A Drowning Girls Life (Middle Easy)

– Georges St. Pierre: Emphasis in Camp Was on Finishing Josh Koscheck (MMA Fighting)

– TUF 12 Finale Payouts (MMA Convert)

– Jim Miller Is Patiently Waiting for His Title Shot (Heavy MMA)

– George Sotiropoulos: I’m Moving In the Right Direction (Low Kick)

– TUF 12 Suspensions (5 Ounces of Pain)

– Stefan Struve Talks UFC 124 (SB Nation MMA)

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(Babalu kicks Lawler. Check out the full gallery here.)

Strikeforce Live saw new contenders emerge. Well, maybe it did.

In one of the stranger main event set ups I’ve seen in the time that I’ve been covering mixed martial arts, the winner of the main event between Middleweight Robbie Lawler and Light Heavyweight Renato “Babalu” Sobral fighting at a catchweight of 195 pounds was promised a title shot in his respective division. Don’t try to make sense of it, just run with it and accept that regardless of divisions and belts that it’s easier, and makes more sense, to view Strikeforce as a superfight promotion until they are able to build deeper divisions that don’t see fighters come in and compete for a title in their first or second fight for the promotion.

For their part, Lawler and Sobral lived up to the superfight concept by waging a three round back and forth battle that probably could have been scored either way. The second round clearly belonged to Sobral, who displayed better and more technically diverse striking than we’ve seen from him in the past. He was able to land effective counter strikes along with some good leg kicks and knees to take the round. The third saw a much more aggressive Lawler land the bigger shots early and often, leaving Babalu the more damaged fighter as the two stood center cage awaiting the decision. That decision would largely come down to how the judges scored round one, which I saw for Babalu thanks to two takedowns, two choke attempts and greater overall cage control. The judges agreed, giving Sobral the fight 29-28 on all three cards, and the Light Heavyweight title shot along with it. Maybe.

In true American Kickboxing Academy style, Babalu bypassed the issue of fighting his friend and division champ, “King Mo” Lawal, and respectfully called out Dan Henderson, the man who handed him the first loss of his MMA career when the two fought at Rings eleven years ago. So much for the title shot.

One guy who wouldn’t turn down a title shot would be Evangelista “Cyborg” Santos who looked fantastic in his first Strikeforce fight at 170. Cyborg lost a split decision to Joey Villasenor in his Strikeforce debut at middleweight and decided to put himself thought a tougher weight cut and make the move south to the welterweight division. Strikeforce didn’t pull any punches in his divisional debut, giving him Dream Welterweight champ Marius Zaromskis, who was coming off his own Strikeforce debut loss to Nick Diaz. After that loss the “Whitemare” made some changes as well, training at AKA to get ready for Santos. The taller Santos looked great at the new weight and didn’t lose any of his signature aggression. He outstruck Zaromskis from the opening bell to the conclusion of the fight at 2:38 of the first round when he put the TKO win on his resume. Santos effectively used a five inch reach advantage throughout the fight to score in the exchanges and put the Lithuanian to sleep with a big right hand as Marius jumped in with a knee.

Closing Shots

• Takedown Defense Betrays Prangley Trevor Prangley may have forecaste his own demise when he said that his key to victory was going to be his takedown defense. A little over two minutes into the first round, Tim Kennedy got Prangley to the ground and the South African never made it to his feet again until ring announcer Jimmy Lennon announced Kennedy the winner by rear naked choke. Kennedy showed great strength and control on the ground, dishing out enough ground and pound for Prangley to give up his back and try to stand. That was the beginning of the end as Kennedy sunk in the choke, causing Prangley to tap at 3:35 of the first round. Tim moves to 12-2 overall in MMA and 3-0 in the Strikeforce middleweight division. Expect Kennedy to get one of the promotion’s high profile middleweights as he continues his climb up the division’s ladder and establish himself as a contender at 185.

• Koons Victorious Conor Huen took the fight on twelve days notice and almost pulled out the win, losing a split decision to KJ Noons. Noons, who is simultaneously pursuing boxing and MMA careers, took advantage of Huen in the striking department. Conor was the more active of the fighters and definitely pushed the action but took a ton of damage to his face with multiple cuts on both sides of his face and eyes. The fight could have been scored either way, but given the damage suffered by the exciting Huen, it’s not surprising that Noons got the nod. For his part, KJ didn’t look particularly sharp in this fight and it’s hard to think that this is the same fighter who beat Nick Diaz back in 2007. Since that loss, Diaz has gone on a tear with seven straight wins, including victories over Frank Shamrock, Zaromskis (for the Strikeforce Welterweight Title) and Hayato Sakurai.

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The “Last Emperor” Fedor Emelianenko attended a rare press conference for the American media Friday in preparation of his June 26 bout in San Jose. The world’s top heavyweight – some would say earth’s best fighter – will face Fabricio Werdum on the Strikeforce and M-1 Global co-promotion at the HP Pavilion. The event will air on Showtime.

Any Emelianenko appearance causes a stir. The reclusive Russian is ranked No. 1 by FIGHT!, but has fought just three times in the last 30 months and has been a constant target of criticism for UFC president Dana White and Strikeforce champion Alistair Overeem.. White’s ire is due to his inability to sign the fighter simply call “Fedor.” Overeem’s anger stems from his perception that Fedor’s management, M-1 Global, has been purposely avoiding him.

Emelianenko shared the press conference with Werdum, who is ranked No. 8. Of note: Werdum beat Fedor’s brother Aleksander via submission in 2006. Fedor says he will not fight to avenge his brother’s loss.

For fans of heavyweights, the fight will begin a tumultuous week. On July 3, Brock Lesnar (ranked No. 3) will fight Shane Carwin (No. 4) at UFC 116.

“I think both fights are very important because you have four top 10 heavyweights in the sport, but I am not a UFC fan,” Emelianenko said. “So I would tell fans ours is more important because we’re not in the UFC. I’m not a fan of watching their fights. There seems to be a negativity involved in a lot of their shows. How the fights are presented and, in some ways, the actions and behavior of a lot of the fighters in the UFC takes away from the sport.”

Emelianenko and Werdum spoke through translators Friday. Here are the condensed thoughts of the fighters:

FEDOR EMELIANENKO


(Fedor descends from heaven to take on Werdum.)

“The Last Emperor” is widely considered to be the best heavyweight on the planet and among the top pound-for-pound fighters in mixed martial arts. Emelianenko (32-1) is essentially undefeated. His lone “loss” (to Tsuyoshi Kohsaka in 2000) came via an illegal elbow strike. A seven-time Russian Sambo champion, the 33-year-old former Pride champion and current WAMMA champion is coming off a victory over Brett Rogers in November. Emelianenko needed to rally for the win.

On Werdum – ”For what to expect on the 26th depends on what Fabricio can offer me in the ring and how I react to that. We are both very technical fighters. As far as who will have advantages and strengths over each other, I highly expect both of us will show an extremely skilled fight. I prepare the same way. My preparation has proven itself. I change it from time to time, but not for any other person.”

On his future with Strikeforce – “I don’t want to look too far ahead. Right now I am concentrated on this fight. Right now we have two fights left (with Strikeforce). If everything goes well, I don’t see a reason not to extend this relationship. I’d like to finish up my contract with out any losses and see where it goes from there. I will see what God has planned for me.”

On massive UFC heavyweights Brock Lesnar and Shawn Carwin – “Size and strength doesn’t always define the ability of a fighter to perform in the ring or cage. Those fighters are all top 10 fighters. I’ve seen them perform. They have done very well and have a lot of talent, but size does not define how they would perform against me.”

On great fighters – “I think what defines a great fighter is someone that performs well in the ring, makes the right decisions during fights, fights fair and respects the sport and therefore gains the admiration of the fans. Not so much someone that only falls back on their strength and size, but also their abilities in the fights.

On political aspirations – “While I am an athlete and fighting actively, I don’t intend to a pursue career in politics. I feel there is a demand for me to keep fighting and get back into the cage.”

On his management – “In terms of negotiations,.(manager Vadim Finklestein) relates to me all the details. I don’t participate in those negotiations. The main question that I will decide is how much time I need to prepare for a fight. In respect to where the fight is or who the opponent is, I don’t care. The only thing I dictate is how long I will take to train and be at my best.”

On his critics – “I often get second hand information, but I don’t pay attention to it or seek it out. I don’t have any reaction. I don’t have any reaction to compliments people tell me or criticism. It’s not that important to me. I have more goals in my life than cruising the internet. I am more interested in spending quality time in everyday life with my family and friends.”

On motivation – “My motivation is to fight for my country and my heritage. It has been my motivation throughout my career and will continue to be my motivation as long as I am strong enough to (continue fighting).”

FABRICIO WERDUM


(Ed Soares, Werdum, and Babalu chill at Strikeforce: Heavy Artillery.)

The Brazilian has a reputation as one of the top jiu-jitsu players in the heavyweight division. However, the majority of Werdum’s recent wins have showcased his conditioning and determination. The 32-year-old (13-4-1) is coming off a win over Antonio Silva as a preliminary of “Fedor-Rogers” last November. Werdum rallied late in the fight to win a unanimous decision.

On Fedor – “ The opportunity to fight someone like Fedor only comes once in a lifetime. I’ve been waiting for this opportunity and it’s finally here. I’ve studied Fedor’s fights for my entire career. What is most impressive is his ability to always win. It’s a great honor. Those making the rankings often take away from what a great sportsman and athlete Fedor is. It’s an honor to be considered in the same class as Fedor, who is a deeply religious man and I respect greatly,”

On how to win – “I have to do the same things I’ve done in training. My training and camp was the best one in my life. Everyt ime I fought before, I had bad feelings, but this is one of the times I felt better and am confident. Most fighters have already lost the fight with Fedor before they step in the ring because Fedor has proven himself to be the best in the world.

On talk about Fedor and Overeem – “I don’t really care about what other people say. I deserve this fight. If I get a win on June 26, my goal is a rematch with Fedor.”

On pressure – “I don’t feel more pressure being the underdog. In fact, it’s the opposite. I am more calm for this fight, ironically, than for any fight in my career.”

On training partners – “I’ve worked with many different fighters, not necessarily heavyweights, but excellent fighters in their weight classes. Fighters range from Wanderlei Silva, Babalu, Mark Munoz, Vladimir Matyushenko and “King Mo” Muhammad Lawal.”

On training in the U.S. – “The training is better here. I actually came to the united States to follow (coach) Rafael Cordeiro. It’s better here because of the structure of the training and to be at home in my family in a safe environment.”

On the perception of having a BJJ advantage – “I believe Fedor’s ground game is terribly underrated because people are used to seeing Fedor knock people out. I don’t feel I have any distinct advantages over Fedor that I would care to discuss.”

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bobby_lashley_guida1
(Lashley pressures Jason Guida.)

Clutching the floor of a Colorado Springs bank, Bobby Lashley had no idea his life was about to change forever. In 2003, Lashley was an Olympic hopeful. Then three gunmen followed him into the bank and one fired a round at the back of his head. The shot missed the wrestler but killed his dream – Lashley damaged his knee when he dove to the floor, and two surgeries and a six-month layoff caused him to miss the Olympic trials.

“I waited 18 years (for a shot at the Olympics) and it all came down to that,” he said. “I was like ‘What do I do next?’”

The irony of Bobby Lashley’s life is that he partially owes his budding MMA career to that awful moment. Lashley went on to become a pro wrestling superstar and then a high-profile free agent fighter. On Saturday, Lashley will make his debut for a major promotion, fighting last-minute fill-in Wes Sims at Strikeforce: Miami.

“People expect a lot out of me, but I don’t know why,” Lashley said. “I’m only four fights into (my career).”

Lashley’s humility isn’t forced, but it does seem a little naive. MMA fans might expect someone of his amateur pedigree (three-time NAIA national champion and former Olympic hopeful) and athleticism to excel. Promoters’ pupils turn into dollar signs when reminded of his pro wrestling success and the obvious, inevitable comparisons to Ultimate Fighting Championship Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar. Both were WWE champions with similar athletic backgrounds.

“People try to compare us, but I don’t care” Lashley said. “Ok, so we were both pro wrestlers with an amateur wrestling background. But that’s it. I’ve never even met him. We’re not the same person.”

But Lesnar’s success has transformed expectations for Lashley. Lashley was a sought-after free agent before his first fight and fans wanted him to succeed or fail based upon their own feelings towards sports entertainment. But while Lesnar jumped directly to the UFC, title contention and the disdain of many fans, Lashley chose a slower road.

“I wanted to take my time,” Lashley said. “Signing with Strikeforce was a good opportunity for me. I feel like I am ready for the next step and they have a lot of good heavyweights. Eventually there will be big fights with guys like Fedor (Emelianenko) or Fabricio Werdum.”

Lashley’s road to Strikeforce began on the floor of that Colorado Springs’ bank. With his amateur wrestling career over, he needed something else. In November 2004, professional wrestling promoters — perhaps looking for another Lesnar, who had recently left for the NFL – came calling.

“Professional wrestling presented an opportunity at a time when I had to seriously look at it,” Lashley said. “I was a (pro) wrestling fan when I was younger and when I had an opportunity to tryout, it was fun. They offered me a contract. I had my amateur career taken from me and this was something new. Plus, I went straight to the top.”

By 2005, Lashley was on television. By 2006, he was the World Wrestling Entertainment champion.

“I think pro wrestling is tougher on the body than MMA simply because of the schedule,” Lashley said. “It was four days a week, every week of constant pounding. And, whether the crowd is 2,000 or 85,000, you always want to put on your best match. It takes a toll on your body.”

More competitor than showman, Lashley left the WWE in 2008. He declined to elaborate on the circumstances, saying merely it was a combination of in-ring schedule and out-of-ring politics.

“Pro wrestling was good for me at the time,” Lashley said. “It was fun. I learned how to go in front of large crowds and not get rattled. I know how to perform. It was time for me to do something else.”

Inspired by wrestler-turned-fighters like Josh Thomson and Josh Koscheck, Lashley threw himself into MMA much the same way he had amateur and pro wrestling.

“Amateur wrestling gives you that grit,” Lashley said. “That’s why they do well in MMA. Wrestlers just keep coming. You can stop a lot of guys with a jab, but wrestlers are go-go-go. It’s that pressure cooker mentality.

“But it was very tough to get back to that mentality. I had to find the commitment to training that I had in college and at the Olympic Training Center. Pro wrestling is a different style of training. You put weight on and get heavier. There is some cardio, but not the same kind of cardio as amateur wrestling. I had to ask myself if I wanted to go through that kind of torture again.”

Once Lashley got his mind right, he has been on a tear. He has won all four MMA fights easily, including dominant wins over veterans Bob Sapp and Jason Guida.

“Critics try to find reasons for why I fight,” Lashley said. “It’s simple: I want to do it. I’m not going to do what I don’t want to do. I love fighting.”

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Strikeforce Lightweight Interim Champion Gilbert Melendez invited FIGHT! Magazine’s Danny Acosta into his training camp for five days. Acosta documented a week of the San Franciscan’s quest to unify the Strikeforce Lightweight belts versus title-holder Josh Thomson on Dec. 19 at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif. live on Showtime.

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.—Gilbert Melendez has carried the weight of Josh Thomson’s name on his back for the past two years.

Locking up the doors at El Nino Training Center, his San Francisco gym and home, Melendez jumps into his Toyota truck packed with training partners in the back seat and his girlfriend and public relations person Keri up front. He’s making the roughly 30-minute drive across the Bay Bridge to Cesar Gracie’s school in Pleasant Hill, a suburban town in the East Bay. After two official cancellations and months of rumors, Melendez just received official word he’s fighting Thomson again and it took him days to work through the pre-fight jitters.

“You get like a whole nervous thing for like two or three days that goes through your body, like two days for me,” says Melendez. “It’s like a lot of tense stuff but you accept you’re going to war with him and now I’m pumped on it.”

The two Strikeforce lightweights have been on a collision course for almost four years. Melendez came to the San Jose-based promotion as the world’s best featherweight searching for heavier challenges. The organization’s debut MMA event on March 10, 2006, featured world-ranked 155-pounder Thomson battling for its inaugural gold against a then-unknown Clay Guida. “The Punk,” a hometown and betting favorite, lost a unanimous decision to the Chicagoan while Melendez took out Harris Sarmiento that same night.

The fighters swapped opponents three months later, with Thomson topping Sarmiento and Melendez taking Guida’s new belt. Melendez spent the rest of the year fighting in Japan while Thomson kept picking off competition in Strikeforce. The sudden decline of Japan’s mixed martial arts scene and Melendez’s first career defeat to Mitsuhiro Ishida brought the Santa Ana, Calif. native back to Strikeforce. On June 27, 2008, Thomson took the belt back in a dominating defeat of Melendez. After two years as Strikeforce Lightweight Champion, Melendez suffered defeat for just the second time in his career.

“I feel like he doesn’t get much respect, Josh Thomson, so losing to the guy who doesn’t get respect makes me go down even more,” says Melendez. “People tend to give me a lot of respect and I lost that fight and no one really—for some reason, people just forget who Josh is. I know he lost to Guida. I think he’s a great fighter. I think, yeah they look past us a little bit. I think Josh and I are better than a lot of those UFC guys for sure.”

When Melendez arrives at Cesar Gracie’s gym later that drab Monday afternoon he rolls with black belt and Mundials champion Caio Terra. “The Ultimate Fighter” season five winner Nate Diaz and Strikeforce veteran David “Tarzan” Douglas go after Melendez for the first three stanzas of MMA sparring in the ring. Melendez’s coach, newly minted Strikeforce Middleweight Champion Jake Shields, comes in fresh to work over Melendez for the championship rounds. Melendez survives, even bulldogging some takedowns.

Fighting for 25 minutes is nothing new for “El Nino.” Despite not having the title for the last 18 months, he’s been preparing for title fights non-stop. With MMA fans watching come show time on Showtime, the 27-year-old has the chance to avenge the only loss on his record that has gone uncorrected. And he can’t wait to drop his interim belt to become undisputed in the process.

“My last four fights have been five-five’s. So that’s the best thing the interim title has done, allowed me to get ready for five-five’s,” he says. “But does it really mean anything to me? No. It’s actually been kind of embarrassing being like, ‘Oh you’re the Strikeforce champ?’ ‘Well, I’m actually the interim Strikeforce champ.’ I never really liked it.”

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Paul Thatcher’s best shots from M-1 Global/Strikeforce: Fedor vs. Werdum are up now, as are a slew of video interviews shot immediately following the fights. Check out the photo gallery here and go here to watch interviews with Cung Le, Alistair Overeem, Rafael Cordeiro, Jerry Millen, and Frank Shamrock.

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