By Matt Larkin
The casual MMA fan probably doesn’t know about the Strikeforce event happening Saturday, December 17, and for fairly good reason: regardless of what the UFC says, it’s clear Strikeforce is the “B” promotion under Zuffa now and that the talent pool is slowly being bled dry.
Diehards, though, will likely tune in to catch Gilbert Melendez defend his lightweight championship in what could be his final fight before he’s called up to the big leagues.
Me? I’m reasonably excited about Melendez. But the bout doesn’t mean much. I suspect he’ll beat Jorge Masvidal and, even if he doesn’t, he’s likely coming over to contend among the UFC’s best 155-pounders either way. Melendez versus Gray Maynard, Clay Guida, Melvin Guillard, Anthony Pettis or Jim Miller? For a right to face the winner of Frankie Edgar and Ben Henderson? Set it up, Dana and Joe.
For Saturday, I’m much more excited to see women’s champion Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos return to the cage after an 18-month layoff. Her bout isn’t exciting in the sense that there’s much suspense about her winning or losing, as she has proven worlds above her competition in the past. But it will be very interesting to see just how far her competition has come.
Last year, I was actually impressed with Strikeforce for holding Santos back, not forcing the issue and handing her another cupcake opponent. Her last fight was among the most disturbing I’ve ever seen. She brutalized Jan Finney so badly that the crowd booed her for being too mean. The referee begged Finney, “Fight back, Jan.” It was an embarrassment for women’s MMA. It reminded me of the horrifically lopsided scores for Canada and USA over hapless opponents in women’s Olympic hockey; those teams outscored opponents 41-2 in the 2010 preliminary rounds. The shellackings left pundits suggesting the game go an Olympic hiatus until the competition caught up.
Saturday will tell us a lot. If Hiroko Yamanaka at least gives Cyborg a strong fight, it will help women’s MMA two-fold. First, it will tell other contenders they don’t have to be afraid to challenge Cyborg anymore. Secondly – though this is a highly under-the- radar notion – a great fight between the two women could serve as an audition for the UFC. I haven’t heard the slightest peep about women in the UFC but, hey, the Strikeforce women’s division is under the same ownership umbrella now. Maybe a strong showing would put dollar signs in Dana White’s eyes.
Unfortunately, I expect Cyborg Santos to annihilate Yamanaka. The champ weighs the same as Jose Aldo and once power-bombed 200-plus-pounder Tito Ortiz during a BJJ training session. But my fingers are crossed. If Yamanaka puts up a real fight, she’ll show us there’s hope for women’s MMA yet.
I’m certainly rooting for it. As Cyborg and Gina Carano showed us in one unforgettable round when they clashed in summer of 2009, women’s MMA can be every bit as exciting to watch as the men’s game.
Fingers crossed for Saturday.