5 Strikeforce Contenders

Strikeforce returns to CBS next month with three championship fights and headlined by Jake Shields’ middleweight title defense against UFC veteran and former PRIDE champion Dan Henderson, who will make his debut for the organization. Gegard Mousasi will defend his light heavyweight strap versus Muhammad “King Mo” Lawal and Lightweight Champion Gilbert Melendez will be tested by DREAM Lightweight champion Shinya Aoki. The company’s matchmaker Rich Chou will have his hands full in the days and months following the Nashville event figuring out who’s next in line for title shots. Allow us to provide some assistance and look ahead at five top contenders, one per division, that deserve to be the chosen ones.

Heavyweight: Winner of Emelianenko/Werdum

We know that Alistair Overeem will fight for the first time in 30 months against Brett Rogers May 15 on Showtime. What we don’t know is whether “The Demolition Man”’s title will be on the line. Strikeforce commentator Mauro Ranallo reported on his Hardcore Sports radio show that the fight was upgraded to a title bout, but not so fast, CEO Scott Coker told ESPN.com’s MMA Live.

Coker also downplayed any concern over potential allegations of Overeem’s steroid abuse while insisting there’s no issues in the relationship between Strikeforce and M-1 Global, the management group for Fedor Emelianenko. Widely regarded as the world’s best heavyweight, Emelianenko is expected to compete on the May 15 against Fabricio Werdum. The winner of that fight should be the unequivocal No. 1 contender for the title. The idea of Rogers winning the title after losing to Fedor and then immediately defending the belt against the Russian is probably what gave Coker pause. But that’s the pickle Strikeforce is in and short of signing Josh Barnett, they have no other credible options.

Light Heavyweight: Ron “Abongo” Humphrey

(Props to MMALinker.)

CBS won’t get Fedor in April, but in addition to Shields vs. Henderson there’s a heavily anticipated light-heavyweight title fight between champion Gegard Mousasi and the undefeated Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal. Depth is a problem in this division with veterans Renato Sobral and Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou having already lost to the champ. Short of signing a free agent, Strikeforce will have to make do with what they’ve got. And what they’ve got is Ron Humphrey. “Abongo” is 5-1 and moved down to light-heavyweight following a TKO loss to Rogers last April. An impressive win over George Bush III at the next Strikeforce Challengers event March 26 may be Humphrey’s ticket to the top.

Middleweight: Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza

Should Shields avoid Henderson’s heavy hands, fresh opponents will be scarce. Jason “Mayhem” Miller is fresh off a loss to Shields, Robbie Lawler lost to Shields last summer, and Scott Smith’s record is too spotty to convincingly sell him as a title contender, and the sexy choice, Cung Le, came from ahead to lose to Smith in his comeback fight. Which leaves us with Ronaldo Souza. “Jacare” has the grappling acumen to give either Shields or Henderson problems but probably needs another Strikeforce fight for the sake of name recognition and character development.

Welterweight: Tyron Woodley

(Daaaaaayyyyyyyuuuuum. Props to MMAWeekly.)

Nick Diaz needs an opponent for his first title defense. On merit alone, Jay Hieron deserves to be the next No. 1 contender. Hieron signed with Strikeforce after he was promised a title shot and many expected it to happen in January. Instead, the Long Island resident was relegated to Strikeforce: Miami’s preliminary card where he defeated Joe Riggs.
At the conclusion of the event, Coker refused to endorse Hieron as the top contender and Diaz said his preference is to fight big-name and not “undercard fighters.” Not the best way to negotiate with a talent that’s now a free agent and has demanded a title shot – among other things – if he were to agree to a new deal.

Coker is trying to use the Strikeforce-DREAM alliance while dangling a Diaz fight to lure Hayato “Mach” Sakurai (35-10-2) to the United States. Sakurai holds notable wins over Frank Trigg, Jens Pulver, Mac Danzig and Caol Uno. He’s also lost to Matt Hughes, Takanori Gomi, Marius Zaromskis and most recently Akihiro Gono on New Year’s Eve.

Here’s a sure thing: Tyron Woodley. He earned a six-fight deal after a dynamic first-round submission of Sal Woods in June and justified it by also winning his last two bouts via tap out. Coker may be in love with the idea of importing Japanese talent, but Strikeforce will live or die with homegrown talent, and Woodley is one of the promotion’s best prospects. Why not give him a real star-making opportunity?

Lightweight: Josh Thomson / Billy Evangelista

(Melendez vs. Thomson III? Aoki vs. Thomson? Yes, please.)

Gilbert Melendez will defend the lightweight strap against DREAM Champion Shinya Aoki on CBS. In his last fight, Melendez went toe-to-toe with Josh Thomson for five rounds, an epic war that garnered late 2009 Fight of the Year consideration. A Melendez win opens the door to a lucrative rubber match with Thomson and an Aoki victory offers Thomson a chance at redemption. Billy Evangelista should be in the mix as well.

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