Last weekend’s double-header of “The Ultimate Fighter 12 Finale” and Strikeforce “Henderson vs. Babalu II” was a nice dose of MMA with some good action. The “TUF” finale crowned Jonathan Brookins as the season 12 winner, giving the lightweight a nice boost as he jumps into the sport’s deepest division, with the WEC merger making it a packed talent pool.
Meanwhile, the Strikeforce card delivered a trifecta of consecutive stoppages which were probably the most brutal trio of knockouts in the history of the sport. After Paul Daley’s booming hook took out Scott Smith, “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler followed with a savage, coma-inducing bombing of Matt Lindland. In the main event, Dan Henderson put together a series of right hands that left Renato Sobral senseless.
These kinds of stoppages are fairly rare, and to have this many in a row on the same card was a freak occurrence. What Daley, Lawler and Henderson do in their next bouts is anyone’s guess, but their performances Saturday made a lot of people want to watch. Here are five matchups we’d like to see after this weekend’s double-dip of MMA.
Paul Daley vs. Nick Diaz
With his one-punch knockout of slugger Scott Smith, Paul Daley sent notice to the Strikeforce welterweight division that he’s a dangerous new entry. In related news, the Pope is Catholic and the IRS is probably going to tax you at some point in your life.
What made Daley’s stoppage so impressive was that he took out Smith -- a guy that usually takes one heck of a pounding before falling -- with a single bomb. Afterward, “Semtex” expressed interest in squaring off with K.J. Noons, but honestly, a match with Nick Diaz would be a lot better, both stylistically and qualitatively. I don’t want to see Daley and Noons, mostly because I think Daley is simply too big for K.J., though it would provide a good challenger for Diaz, who outlasted Noons in a five-round defense last October.
Daley-Diaz is perfect for several reasons. First, both of them love to talk smack and get riled up at the idea of anyone daring to fight them. Second, Daley’s standing style is the perfect foil for Diaz, who in recent years has used his high-volume attack to get opponents punch-drunk, then mug and take them out. Daley loves to counter people willing to come after him.
The biggest advantage for Diaz would be his outstanding jiu-jitsu, but Daley has very good takedown defense. Paul gave Jake Shields fits trying to get their fight to the floor before Jake finally succeeded, and Daley’s physical strength and one-punch power would give him a great chance at hurting Diaz, who probably has one of the best chins in the game.
It’s a great combination of styles and it’d be interesting to see if Diaz tried to go after Daley the way he does most foes. It’d also be a lot of fun in the prefight buildup, as the trash talk would be epic, entertaining, and quote-worthy. Daley has the kind of tools to put Diaz through hell, especially in a five-rounder, which is where Diaz should be fighting in every bout given his amazing stamina and hard-nosed style.
Dan Henderson vs. Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante
A no-brainer in that this one is apparently next on deck anyway. It also makes perfect sense. In his title-winning upset of Muhammed Lawal, Cavalcante showed serious toughness, takedown defense, and the willingness to pound away from any position.
Henderson still has dangerous hands and wrestling to match, or surpass, Lawal’s -- at least in an MMA context, where “Hendo’s” standup and conditioning at 205 pounds will probably test Cavalcante’s gas tank in a five-rounder. This is one of the things I’ve always liked about Strikeforce: It’s not hard to come up with the intuitive next matchups, because they don’t have a huge cupboard of people to choose from.
Henderson kick-started his career again with his win over “Babalu.” With Lawal set to return from September’s ACL surgery in a six-month time frame, he’d be right back in the mix once Henderson and Cavalcante settled their business.
While ex-champ and rising star Gegard Mousasi has competed in Dream for his last two bouts, he’d be a welcome return to the division as well. In fact, he’s probably got as big an upside as anyone in the organization.
Strikeforce is still pretty thin at 205, but with these three in a sort of round-robin competition, you could stretch it for the next three or four fights while building up a deeper talent base. If Henderson looks his lethal old self, like he did in dispatching Sobral, it really doesn’t matter who you put in with him. It’s going to be exciting, and at the end of the day, excitement is what the promotion needs above all else.
Robbie Lawler vs. Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza
“Ruthless” Robbie never looked better than he did taking out Lindland with a gorgeous double-right hand to the body and head, and then a perfectly placed right-hand smash as Lindland rolled over on his back. Lawler postured up and, instead of delivering unnecessary punches, politely rearranged Lindland’s legs as the veteran was rescued by the ref. Lawler’s right hand also took out Melvin Manhoef in January after the potent kickboxer was seemingly one shot away from crippling Robbie.
“Jacare” Souza is on the short list of the world’s finest grapplers, and is currently the Strikeforce middleweight champ. Souza’s standup is coming along nicely, and he has good takedowns in addition to a phenomenal ground game. However, Lawler has always been a stellar anti-grappler, with hands that operate as brutal equalizers. In fact, Lawler has really spent less time on his back in his career than almost anyone with the amount of fights he’s had against such tough competition. That’s why he’d make a tough challenger for Jacare, and an exciting one, too.
Demian Maia vs. Mark Munoz
While the Strikeforce card was dominated by smashing knockouts, Maia took the distance rout, outworking a game-but-outmatched Kendall Grove en route to a decision win. Maia probably attempts more lower-leg takedowns than any contender in the sport, but he does so effectively because he isn’t afraid to get stuffed on them and end up on his back, where he’s still dangerous. This makes his takedowns more effective, because opponents like Grove opt to try and get away instead of stuffing him and ending up on top, where his submissions and sweeps are eminently dangerous.
That would be one hell of a risk against Munoz, who probably falls asleep at night hoping someone would drop down for a single-leg on him. The former NCAA wrestling champ has gone 4-1 in the UFC since his disastrous debut. Following a knockout loss to Matt Hamill, Munoz dropped to middleweight and slowly began solidifying his game. Though he was decisioned by the tough Yushin Okami two bouts ago, Munoz showed his stylistic fire in his decision over fellow wrestling ace Aaron Simpson last month at UFC 123.
The reason Maia-Munoz makes sense is because it’s a perfect stylistic matchup. Munoz’s ground-and-pound is exceptional, and he probably has better standup than Maia. Demian’s submissions and ground game make most people afraid to hit the mat against him, but Munoz is more than willing to go there against people, given his heavy hands and all-in penchant for finishing foes when they’re on their backs. When both fighters relish getting the fight into the same tactical position, that almost always means drama. It’s also a nice middleweight eliminator, and would elevate someone a couple notches up in the division’s pecking order.
Jonathan Brookins vs. Aaron Riley
It’s hard to know who the first opponent should be for a “TUF” winner. Do you throw him in deep, thereby risking a defeat for a marketable star, and a simultaneous chance of building instant credibility if he wins? With the huge amount of talent at 155, I’m not sure Brookins will have the kind of matchmaking available to him that previous “TUF” winners had.
Guys like Diego Sanchez and Forrest Griffin were given bouts where they were 4-to-1 favorites in their first couple post-“TUF” outings, but that may simply not be feasible for Brookins. In fact, it could backfire, as there are so many other tough 155-pounders, and he’d be left treading water even if he did beat a couple ho-hum opponents.
That said, a tough veteran like Riley is the perfect first test. He comes to bang, and his standup and experience would really ask some interesting questions against Brookins. There are no easy fights at lightweight, and even if Brookins lost, there’s no shame in losing to Riley.