Five things from Strikeforce
Rafael Cavalcante waited till Mo Lawal tired then punched him into submission
Ronaldo Souza beat Jake Shields by unanimous decision for his first MMA title
Shoddy refereeing continues to be a problem, costing Bobby Lashley in Houston
Strikeforce's first card in Houston, Texas, proved to be an evening replete with repercussions and story lines. Unfortunately, one continues to be the shoddy work of MMA officials. (I'm a broken record when it comes to that and no one is happy about it.) Another is the addition of two Brazilian champions to Strikeforce's title history, which has been anything but predictable.
With the month of August quickly closing in on its last chapter, here's what stands out about Strikeforce: Houston.
Strikeforce light heavyweight champion "King Mo" Lawal did the one thing he said he wouldn't. He engaged in a slugfest with a gunslinger. And he paid a heavy price Saturday night at the Toyota Center, succumbing to Brazil's Rafael "Feijao" Cavalcante in the third round.
"I know what I did," said Lawal, who fell to 7-1. "I didn't wrestle him enough."
Not for lack of trying, really.
Cavalcante (10-2) did extremely well to stop Lawal's advances, either shutting down completely or recovering quickly from takedowns during their two-plus rounds in the cage together.
A hyped prospect out of Brazil, the new champion's rise appeared to derail 14 months ago when he showed up heavy and slow against veteran Mike Kyle. One lesson above all others aided in his recovery from that loss, he said: the realization that you can't eat whatever you want. Against Kyle he forced himself to cut 18 pounds in the days leading up to the bout. Not so against Lawal; the Brazilian was lean and well under the division's 205-pound limit on the scale Friday.
"My strategy in the first and second round was to block his takedowns," Feijao said. "I knew he would be tired in the third round."
Even though the fight was essentially even moving into Round 3, judges cageside had it 20-18 for Lawal. Then he took a stiff right from the Muay Thai fighter, who trains regularly with Anderson Silva, and was forced to fight on instinct. After plowing forward into Feijao's clinch, Lawal ate a knee to the face. Then another. Still, Lawal tried as best as he could to hang in there and, after being dropped by a clipping right to the jaw, he pressed Cavalcante into the fence. The new champion unloaded with elbows to the side of Lawal's head until he no longer felt resistance, at which point referee John McCarthy moved in to save the fallen King.
Light heavyweight is one of the least competitive divisions outside the UFC, and as Strikeforce struggles to gain a foothold, a revolving door at the top won't help. Lawal walked into this fight on the strength of his decision over Gegard Mousasi (29-3-1) in April. Now Feijao owns the belt.
Kyle (17-7-1) would seem to be an obvious first challenger considering last year's result. But a possibility exists for Mousasi, whose style could make for an exciting match against the Brazilian, to sneak his way into the discussion.
To hear Strikeforce spin it, Jake Shields, its former middleweight champion now in the employ of the UFC, was scared to fight Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza (unquestionably one of the most impressive submission grapplers in MMA). That's not quite the truth. Shields turned down Souza because he didn't think the Brazilian's name or résumé were good enough to warrant the opportunity. So instead he agreed to fight Dan Henderson and managed a decisive decision victory in April.
When Shields left (technically he was cut, though he was out the door either way), Strikeforce was tasked with getting the belt around someone's waist. Several ideas were tossed around, including a tournament. But in the end, Scott Coker and his team paired Jacare with Tim Kennedy, a contest most saw as extremely competitive. The result bore that out, as Souza, a five-time world jiu-jitsu champion, claimed his first major MMA title by unanimous decision (49-46 and 48-47 twice).
Kennedy (12-3) felt he did enough to merit the decision despite failing to pressure Souza (13-2) the way he had other opponents. "I was expecting him to be shooting," said Kennedy, who up until last year did plenty of that as a Green Beret and sniper for the Army Rangers. Instead, Souza looked very comfortable on his feet, unleashing smooth combinations, slipping and countering.
"I'm a fast learner and I keep learning every day," Souza said. "I'm not putting much time for my standup and striking but I'm getting sharper."
On display was the continued evolution of Jacare. Each time out he shows something a little bit more. Prior to getting Kennedy, he struck with effectiveness against Joey Villasenor. But he fatigued. There were no cardio issues Saturday, and Jacare, whose wife gave birth to a boy yesterday in Brazil, made it a full 25 minutes with a hop in his step.
Some people just can't avoid controversy. It appears KJ Noons is one of them.
The former EliteXC 160-pound champion has been embroiled in legal squabbles with promoters and managers. He's participating in an ongoing war of words with the fighting Diaz brothers of Stockton, Calif. He left MMA for a spell to try boxing. And now Noons is drawing attention for the way he defeated veteran lightweight Jorge Gurgel.
Noons found his mark multiple times in the opening round. But he also found it just after the bell, dropping Gurgel on the spot with a vicious left hook. There was no way Gurgel could recover in time to be right for the second round, but he came out anyhow and Noons (10-2) quickly put him away with a punching combination.
"I was on queer street," said Gurgel, who once again abandoned any intention of bringing the fight to the floor. "I didn't know where my cornerman was; that's the first time that ever happened."
Noons last attack appeared to be a knee to the head while Gurgel (13-6) was down and after the referee had moved in to stop the bout, though replays in the arena were inconclusive and neither fighter said they knew for sure if or where it landed.
Gurgel refused to assign any blame to Noons, pointing instead at the referee.
"By any means am I a dirty fighter, no," Noons said. "I was just going in there to try to engage and get the round. I was in the heat of the moment and I couldn't stop my hands as they were going. It wasn't cheap and I'm not trying to be dirty -- I'm just trying to finish the fight. I didn't intentionally do it, it's just the rush." The win was hugely important for Noons, as it sets up fights in two weight divisions (155 and 170) that would draw some interest.
I vividly remember Brock Lesnar's MMA debut in 2007. Under the stars at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the future UFC heavyweight champion beat up some short-notice replacement in just over a minute. He didn't offer much to glean. A takedown. Some short shots to the face. And a tap. That was all. But it stood out because that night it was clear he had something special. This was a physical force, much more than size and strength.
Strikeforce was building Bobby Lashley to be its Brock Lesnar. I don't remember his first fight. Barely recall the rest. But I'll remember his sixth -- and not so much for what he did.
Lashley was matched against Chad Griggs, an 8-1 fighter out of Tucson, Ariz., expected to be another uninspired stepping stone. For 90 percent of the fight, that's what he was. Lashley used his 6-foot-3, 250-pound comic-book frame to put Griggs down three times in the first. To begin the second, Lashley, who was cut underneath his left eye in the opening round, dumped Griggs hard to the canvas and eventually scored mount.
That's when referee Jon Schorle, a longtime California official, thought it appropriate to intervene because of "inactivity," he told representatives from the Texas Combative Sports Program.
"He was bleeding all over me," Griggs said. "It was getting in my face and my eye. I think Bobby was OK with that too. It seemed like it took Bobby forever to get off my leg. He was tired."
Yes, Lashley's mass betrayed him and fatigue set in. But he was still working from a dominant position, making Schorle's decision to restart action on the feet that much worse when Griggs shut down Lashley's last takedown attempt and hit him in the head up until the bell. The heavyweight prospect couldn't stand and the fight was called.
Referees are allowed to intervene at any point they want in a fight. They're also allowed to restart bouts where they've been broken -- usually when a fighter is the mount he or she is given the courtesy of reclaiming it.
Not tonight. Not according to Schorle, whose poor choice directly influenced the outcome of the fight.
Griggs wasn't going to get Lashley off of him. Maybe he would have survived the round and found a stoppage in the third. We won't know. And that's the real point. Lashley isn't Lesnar. But even if he'll never become a great fighter, he's a fighter nonetheless. He deserved the attention of a competent official, which Schorle has proven time and time again he is not.
Strikeforce had hoped for the winner between Kennedy and Jacare to fight a No. 1 contender later this year following a middleweight tournament. Don't expect that to happen Oct. 9, when Strikeforce returns to San Jose, said Strikeforce matchmaker Rich Chou.
If Strikeforce pushes ahead with a tournament, and Chou said Scott Coker remains a fan of the idea, they'll need to hash out whether or not to make it a single-night event or spread it out over the course of several months. For now, it remains a lively debate within the company.
So there won't be a tournament, but the fall card is shaping up to be a good one with or without it.
Strikeforce confirmed Luke Rockhold will fight Matt Lindland, Sarah Kaufman defends her title against Marloes Coenen, and Nick Diaz will return. Diaz won't fight Jason "Mayhem" Miller, but a bout against Noons or a title defense versus Evangelista "Cyborg" Santos is possible. Noons less so because the Diaz camp isn't willing, apparently, to do him any favors -- payback from their EliteXC days when Noons declined Diaz a rematch after beating him in 2006. Also rumored but as of yet unconfirmed: Dan Henderson vs. Renato "Babalu" Sobral and Josh Thomson vs. Gesias "JZ" Cavalcante. Also, Tyron Woodley is expected to graduate from the Challengers series, and could fight Andre Galvao, who won a unanimous decision on Saturday's undercard.
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