Pep Talk: Strikeforce Nashville Alters MMA Landscape

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Let me take you back just nine days to the day before UFC 111. The date was April 9 and BJ Penn was the UFC Lightweight Champion and number-one ranked lightweight in the world with Shinya Aoki in the runner up slot. Gegard Mousasi was the Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Champ, Dan Henderson was more than a four to one favorite to beat a blown up welterweight who happened to be the Strikeforce Middleweight kingpin and Anderson Silva was one of the most respected fighters in the game. And all of those fighters sat somewhere on most top ten Pound-for-Pound lists.

Now, just over a week later, the MMA landscape looks a whole lot different. Silva and Penn are still on that mythical list, though many have them lower, and rest assured that Hendo and Mousasi will be gone this week while Jake Shields will take one of their seats at the P4P table. Few outside of his inner circle could have seen the dominating performance that Shields put on Henderson coming. In fact many, including Dana White and the oddsmakers, thought Jake was getting set up for a loss against the former 205 Pride champ.

Henderson came out guns blazing in the first round and nailed Shields with his patented right hand and sent him face first into the canvas in the first 20 seconds of the fight. Henderson pounced on a dazed and confused Shields but the champ somehow recovered and made it out of the round. The remaining four rounds saw Jake completely outwrestle and dominate Hendo. He scored take down after take down, achieved dominant positions 11 different times and had full mount on at least five different occasions. What was most impressive to me was Jake’s ability to completely control Henderson on the ground. His transitions were seamless and clinical and I would have never assumed that a natural 170 pounder could control a highly decorated wrestler who once held the Pride 205 pound belt. Doing so after getting rocked and being seconds away from a state of unconsciousness makes the performance all the more impressive. It speaks to both heart and the conditioning to recover and dominate the way Jake did.

Shields has now won 14 fights in a row and hasn’t suffered a loss since 2005. During that run, he has won world titles in both the 170 and 185 pound divisions and now adds Henderson to a list of victims that includes Yushin Okami, Paul Daley, Carlos Condit and Robbie Lawler. It’s P4P time for Shields.

It may also be time for him to head to the UFC. Whether Strikeforce exercises a one fight option they say they have with Shields, I can’t imagine that the UFC won’t do whatever it takes to sign him as soon as he becomes available. With Fedor already having contractual issues with the promotion and Henderson and Mousasi losing tonight, Strikeforce’s star power is limited. Snatching Jake from the fold is an opportunity that ultra competitive UFC President Dana White would be remiss not to take advantage of. And it makes great sense in light of the UFC struggling to find marketable opponents for its Welterweight Champion, Georges St-Pierre. He has run through the division, leaving mismatched rematches on the table and a potential Daley title fight if he gets by Koscheck, which would be an upset. Shields should be brought in and his first fight in the UFC should be a title fight with GSP. Shields just beat Henderson on national prime time network television, he’s beaten Daley and he is a mutli-divisional world champion. The perfect venue to further introduce him to UFC fans and build the fight is The Ultimate Fighter Season 12. Have him coach opposite GSP and let them fight for the title when the season ends. It could even set up an interesting dynamic of Jake bringing in Cesar Gracie while GSP might ask Renzo Gracie to act as one of his coaches. And all hell could break loose if one of both of the Diaz brothers accompany Jake on the show. Now that would make for ratings. I asked Jake if he was down for the idea. “I think that would be great. Let’s call Dana and hook it up.”

No matter how you spin it, April 17 was not a good night for Strikeforce. A potentially exiting champion’s stock goes through the roof, a high-priced free agent’s stock goes down and a champion who just signed a two-year deal hands over his belt. And then there were the post-fight activities.

Mixed martial arts’ progression into the mainstream suffered a setback when Mayhem Miller interrupted Jake’s post fight interview with Gus Johnson to ask when he would get a rematch of the fight he lost to Shields last November. Feeling disrespected, an emotionally charged Shields shoved Miller and the melee was on. Nick and Nate Diaz took Miller down, punching and kicking him as security were frantically trying to bring order to an ugly scene in the cage. Not good for Strikeforce, not good for CBS and not good for MMA in general. It didn’t help that the uneducated Johnson commented on air that “sometimes these things happen in MMA.” I’m sure that will help, Gus. Nice job.

Closing Shots

• “King Mo” Lawal is the new Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Champion after a unanimous victory over a very disappointing Gegard Mousasi. Lawal, a fantastic wrestler out of Oklahoma State, took Mousasi down repeatedly, virtually at will. He didn’t inflict much damage on the ground and looked somewhat one-dimensional but that’s not surprising for a guy who was in his seventh MMA fight. Gegard looked uninspired. He displayed little to no takedown defense and couldn’t take advantage of what looked to be a gassed Lawal. Going into the fifth round it was clear that he had lost three of the first four rounds, yet he showed no sense of urgency or aggression whatsoever. Gegard is known for his calm and unshakeable demeanor, but tonight he looked like a guy who didn’t care that he was losing his belt. Congrats to Mo, the new King at 205.

• Gilbert Melendez looked fantastic in pitching a unanimous shutout over Japanese submission wizard Shinya Aoki. The bigger, stronger and more aggressive Melendez defended his Strikeforce Lightweight belt by controlling the fight from start to finish, avoiding Aoki’s attempts to get the fight to the ground and punishing him along the way. You could almost feel Aoki wilting as the fight went on as it became more and more apparent that the likelihood of him even getting into a position where he could make a serious attempt at a submission was evaporating. While we’ve seen well deserved criticism of superstars GSP and Anderson Silva for being content to ride out decisions, Gilbert should be equally praised for aggressively going after Aoki in the closing moments of a fight that he clearly had in the bag.

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