The MMA world was treated to two high profile cards this weekend as Strikeforce: Lawler Vs. Shields saw the promotion’s St. Louis debut as well as their debut outside the west coast and WEC 41: Faber Vs. Brown II saw Faber head home to Sacramento for his rematch.
In terms of the hype for both of these shows, it couldn’t have been more opposite. In the case of Strikeforce, the show was named after the main-event because it was the only big fight named at the time (with Baroni/Riggs being the big undercard bout). In quick time however, the card exploded into a stacked one that featured Andrei Arlovski’s first fight since he took on Fedor in January, Kevin Randleman’s U.S. return, and an interesting fight pitting Scott Smith against Nick Diaz. Despite there being an equal amount of interesting fights on the card for MMA insiders, WEC’s effort this past weekend was marketed only by the main-event. This was an obvious strategy for WEC because it worked this time last year for the first Faber/Pulver fight, a fight that set attendance and gate records that would in fact be broken Sunday night. The fact that Faber was going for the title instead of defending it, the fact that he was the underdog for the first time in years, and the fact that it was Faber’s hometown—where he’s a proven no matter what fight it is—all added up to a one-fight build to a card that turned out to be so much more.
With the bigger names and wild personalities involved, most would anticipate Strikeforce’s offering to be the better card this past weekend, but in this writer’s opinion, WEC gets the nod with another fine outing, something that has been the norm this year and makes the extension to ten shows for next year seem more and more like a smart business decision instead of a gamble.
WEC featured a great mix of submissions and action throughout the night as well as some emotion thrown in courtesy of Jens Pulver. Pulver’s fight with Josh Grispi started off with action, but thirty-three seconds in, it was all over courtesy of Grispi catching Pulver in a Guillotine Choke you know he wasn’t going to let go. Pulver became a mass of his own emotions at that point taking a moment not to talk to anybody (he in fact shooed away anyone who got near him immediately after the fight), but just to bask in what had just happened; maybe he knew, but that is yet to be seen. What he may or may not have known at that moment Sunday night was whether or not that was it for Lil Evil inside the cage. Pulver alluded to this being his last fight in the post-fight interview, but the interviewer tried to keep Pulver on track noting the spur of the moment and emotional nature of the allusion. At the same time, going out in Sacramento would probably be the best way for Pulver to end his fighting days as this loss marks his fourth straight (all in WEC) loss as well as his second in as many fights to a Guillotine Choke in the first ninety seconds of a fight. Pulver has lost seven of his last ten fights, fights that have taken place in Pride, UFC, IFL, and WEC. In short, Pulver has been around the last four years and the common reality that these fights have shown is that Jens Pulver is not the Jens Pulver that helped bring prominence to the lower weight classes at the beginning of the decade; he is now one in a long line of once great fighters looking for an endgame.
Pulver’s loss was one of many submissions on this night that wowed. Anthony Pettis, Frank Gomez and Seth Dikun all won their fights with triangle chokes that were wild variations of the move—Dikun had Ronaldo Perez in his version of the move for around a minute before Perez submitted—to go along with a few RNC’s courtesy of Rafael Rebello and Donald Cerrone, Cerrone using the choke to finish a beat down he gave James Krause at the end of their fight. The fight of the night—in my opinion at least—happened in the undercard with Chuck Liddell trained Antonio Banuelos squeaking out a split decision win against Scott Jorgensen in a fight that was a slugfest most of the way, but could be described by one word: contact. Everything—kick, punch, anything—that hit someone hit them hard and with an audible impact. The fight was a back-and-forth affair, as all good ones are, with Jorgensen’s left eye bothering him early in the fight and Banuelos trying to maintain the fight’s pace and keep from getting rocked when his left eye was spewing blood in the final round. This fight, along with Faber/Pulver II, is why WEC’s show was the better show this weekend.
However, the two biggest moments of the show came back to back: Jose Aldo’s flying knee, and the rematch. In the semi-final of the show, Jose Aldo channeled Yamamoto using a flying knee to not only open up a massive cut above and below Cub Swanson’s left eye, but win the fight in eight seconds in an eerily similar way that Yamamoto scored a four second TKO in Hero’s years ago. And then there was the main-event. As I said earlier, THIS was what everyone paid to see (or maybe just Faber) and despite the hometown boy not coming out the winner, the fight was quite the show. While it is a fight of the year candidate in my book, it won’t win fight of the year; that being said, it was still a hugely entertaining fight and the right way to end a up-and-down good show. For Faber, it was one year later but roles reversed as he (like Pulver against him last year), was the man on the run the majority of the fight making comebacks and staying competitive. While Faber did use the openings he got and nearly had Brown once or twice, breaking his hand in round one forced him to rely on elbows and chops late in the fight when a flurry of punches would’ve meant much more. The majority of the fight was Brown taking it slow peppering and pounding away at Faber with punches and strikes scoring a shutout on my card as the judges gave a few rounds to Faber, which isn’t something I’m going to rant about because at least three of the rounds could be seen as going to Faber. And this could be another example of the ten-point must system being obsolete in this sport because there is just so much more involved in scoring an MMA fight—longer periods, ground game, takedowns and knockdowns not having the same importance as in boxing, etc.—the fact that I scored the fight five rounds to zero in favor of Brown and all three of the judges in Sacramento last night gave Faber one or more rounds, shows how this system differs so strongly as compared to the scoring in a boxing match.
As for Strikeforce, their show while entertaining fell a bit flat considering (again) the names and personalities involved. Phil Baroni, like Jens Pulver the night after, gave another performance that may spark retirement rumors as Joe Riggs dominated the three-round affair that ended with Riggs taking the obvious unanimous decision in a fight that fans saw as action-packed in the making, but didn’t go that way in the execution. Kevin Randleman’s first U.S. fight in three years and second since 2003 ended with a loss, but a close one against Mike Whitehead. Unlike Baroni/Riggs, this fight did provide some suspense and excitement, but was a fan unfriendly ground contest for the majority of it, something that helped Randleman show he still has his ground game and show that Whitehead’s was better. Moving on to the big fights, Nick Diaz again was dominant in the big match setting submitting Scott Smith in round three of their fight Saturday night. Like his fight against Frank Shamrock, Diaz was dominant throughout and only the ability of Shamrock and Smith not to be finished early was what saved them from that fate and got them past round one against Diaz. The shocker of the weekend came when Brett Rodgers officially arrived on the MMA scene with a 22 second TKO of Andrei Arlovski as, like against Fedor, one big shot was enough to put down the Pitbull. And while this one shot didn’t finish him like Fedor did, Rodgers pounced on his pray and finished him in quick fashion. The night ended in quick fashion with Jake Shields adding another to his list of submission victims, as Robbie Lawler became the fourth straight to submit to Shields, the third by choke, in the last two years. The win stretched Shields’ streak to twelve and snapped Lawler’s unbeaten streak at six.
This could end up being a weekend of finales as this weekend had to call into question the futures of Jens Pulver, Phil Baroni, and Kevin Randleman. Pulver gave a hint that he would retire and to reiterate my view from earlier, it is time for him to go at this point. Baroni and Randleman have both been the embodiment of big name, big personality fighters who are shaky when it comes to wins and losses. That is the main reason that these two were able to lose big fights and keep getting high profile ones after: the fans enjoyed them and they could put on a show. However, the showmanship and performance components have left Baroni and Randleman in recent years. Randleman has fallen victim to the evil trio of injuries, age, and inactivity; the three have created a Kevin Randleman that is still capable of giving a good effort and even winning (he’s 1-1 since his last Pride fight), but the spark isn’t there anymore. With Baroni, it’s that he may not be cut out for big fights anymore. Despite performing well in big fights throughout his career, the last few years have seen noticeable skids most notably his losses to Frank Shamrock, Joey Villasenor, and Kala Hose. In those three, Baroni was either knocked out (Villasenor) or lasted, but did not have the fight in hand for a moment.
For fighters with more to look ahead to, this weekend provided an interesting glimpse into the possible futures of many. Brett Rodgers has now arrived and his options are seemingly endless with Alistair Overeem and a shot at the Strikeforce heavyweight title being the most likely outcome for Rodgers’ search for his next fight. Because of Faber’s injury early into the fight with Brown, a third fight is possible, but will have to wait at least until Faber heals up; in the mean time, it looks as though Aldo’s flying knee not only propelled him to victory, but also to a title shot. Despite Faber’s injury, I’m still calling for Faber/Yamamoto if Faber can be healed up in time for New Year’s Eve; if not, I’m still calling for it to take place. And on that note, I’d also like to proclaim that Nick Diaz/Jake Shields has to happen as soon as humanly possible. Strikeforce, I’m talking to you, make it happen because you’ve been consistent in making matches like that happen.