Henderson, Carmouche, Masvidal shine brightly at Strikeforce
Dan Henderson, Jorge Masvidal saw their stocks rise after Saturday's card
It's back to the drawing board for Rafael Cavalcante and Marloes Coenen
Dutch striker Melvin Manhoef showed his limitations against top-tier guys
It was a tough night for the champions of Strikeforce's light heavyweight and women's welterweight division Saturday in Columbus, Ohio.
One of them, women's 135-pound champion Marloes Coenen, managed to hang on to her belt -- just barely. She was easily matched for one round and dominated for two against the fearless, less-experienced Liz Carmouche, before finally using a sizable height advantage to submit the first challenger to her title.
The other, light heavyweight champion Rafael "Feijao" Cavalcante, gave too much space to his first challenger, perennial contender Dan Henderson, and found himself looking at the lights in the third round after drawing first blood with a big punch in the opening frame.
So Coenen is now teed up for a second title defense, against Meisha Tate, and "Feijao" makes the trip back to his native Brazil without his belt. Both go back to the drawing board.
Here's a closer look at the fallout from Saturday's event:
Dan Henderson (27-8): He looked like a shell of himself last April when he fought Jake Shields for the middleweight championship, but at light heavyweight, "Hendo" is back to his concussive ways. He's now stopped his two most recent opponents with his dreaded right hand and a flurry of nasty ground and pound, in the process netting his fourth major MMA title in a 14-year career.
Next up for the 40-year-old fighter is most likely a title defense against the winner of an April 9 bout between former champion Gegard Mousasi and Mike Kyle, who was earmarked as a possible contender during Saturday's broadcast. Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal is also on the list of contenders should he be victorious in a June fight against an opponent to be announced.
That's about it for credible threats to Henderson's crown in the next 12 to 18 months. Roger Gracie won't be ready anytime soon, and apart from the rematch circuit, there's not much out there at 205 pounds unless Strikeforce acquires more top-tier talent. That could mean one last trip to middleweight, where champ Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza waits. Winning the promotion's 185-pound title would be a great end to a decorated career.
Liz Carmouche (5-1): So it's true that Marines just don't get big-fight jitters. The stout Carmouche, who served three tours of duty in Iraq as a helicopter electrician, might as well have been sparring at the base for her cool under Coenen's fire. Before the fight, observers said her inexperience would cost her the fight, that she would get picked apart by the taller champion, that it was too much, too soon. But Team Carmouche found the perfect place to negate a significant height and reach advantage: a spot three quarters of the way up the champ's torso where, due to good old-fashioned physics, she could gain mount and deliver punishment without being bucked by her longer counterpart. And so she did, hammering Coenen like a bully on milk-money day.
Eventually, physics caught up to her. She made a tactical error when she opened herself to a triangle choke and tapped when she couldn't shuck the long legs of Coenen. But Carmouche certainly proved she was no gimme; the champ lay on the mat in exhaustion, aware she was fortunate to win.
"Liz is very, very talented, and she will be a champion someday," Coenen said at the post-fight news conference.
Should Carmouche continue to deliver the same type of performances, that day could come sooner than later. She's a tough matchup for several top 135-pound competitors, including Meisha Tate, who was supposed to fight Coenen before sustaining a knee injury. Thinking in the short term, a bout with Amanda Nunes is a great fight for the former Marine. Longer term, Alexis Davis and Shayna Baszler are good starts. Whoever's next, they know they're in for a fight.
Jorge Masvidal (21-6): The American Top Team fighter has been up, down and around the block several times in eight years as a pro. He's turned in performances where he looks like a world-beater, and he's looked like a small-circuit headliner in others. On Saturday, he fell closer to the former in a main card bout against Billy Evangelista. But that was more than enough to outclass the homegrown Strikeforce prospect on every front and win a unanimous decision.
Now that his first test is in the books, Masvidal can go to work in both the lightweight and welterweight divisions. He'll deliver exciting fights in both; I was told last week that the winner of Evangelista vs. Masvidal would get a crack at K.J. Noons, who's returning to the lightweight division after an unsuccessful bid at welterweight champion Nick Diaz's belt. Noons is expected to fight at Strikeforce's next major Showtime event, on April 9 in San Diego. That could be the time for Masvidal's coming-out party.
Jorge Gurgel (14-7): Look at Gurgel's early résumé, and it's a laundry list of wins by guillotine choke. Then he joined the UFC, got seduced by the standup game and drove both his coaches and fans crazy in neglecting his black-belt jiu-jitsu skills. More than two years after his UFC exit, Gurgel finally put to use his best weapon and choked out club fighter Billy Vaughn in 44 seconds with a guillotine. Not necessarily a front-page story, but a start. Now the question is, will the new Gurgel take?
Rafael Cavalcante (10-3): It was the biggest test of his professional career, and he had a heap of help from his mentors Anderson Silva and the Nogueira brothers, all of whom had defeated Henderson. But Cavalcante's deep respect for the former PRIDE champion may have cost him the fight. He drew first blood with a big punch in the first round, and predictably was taken to the mat as he tried to seal the deal. But as the fight progressed into the second and third rounds, Cavalcante let Henderson dictate the pace in offensive exchanges, and that's what ultimately led to his demise. Cavalcante took a right hand that sent him face-first to the mat seconds before the subsequent wave-off.
There could, of course, be extenuating circumstances that made Cavalcante look slower than usual. Maybe he had just prepared himself for a grueling five-round battle in the clinch and on the mat. Maybe Henderson simply prevented him from executing his game plan with superior wrestling and clinch work. Either way, he learned a lesson he might have already known had he possessed more experience going into the high-profile fight. Unfortunately, he had to learn the hard way.
Marloes Coenen (19-4): There's a sunnier way of looking at the gauntlet she ran before pulling out a fourth-round submission win against Carmouche. There's the old standby: A true champion is never out of the fight. It doesn't matter if it's round one or five -- you make one mistake, and you're done. Well, I'm from Oregon, and it rains almost all the time. The champ will need to take a good look at why she was so helpless when the challenger dominated from mount in the second and third rounds.
As Strikeforce commentators pointed out during Carmouche's ground-and-pound party, it seemed Coenen wasn't aware that she could use the cage to initiate a reversal. She wasn't hurt by the punches, of course, and the referee thankfully abstained from a positional stoppage. But had Carmouche's punches been harder and more accurate, the belt would have changed hands once again. Coenen has got some work to do when she gets back to her home city of Amsterdam.
Billy Evangelista (11-1): Strikeforce and American Kickboxing Academy had big plans for Evangelista and had slowly taken him from a preliminary-card attraction to a headliner in its challenger series. They had hoped he would take the next step to becoming a homegrown, main-card draw in major Showtime events. Those hopes have now been deflated with his first professional setback in a unanimous decision loss to Masvidal, who was supposed to provide a bridge to big-name opponents.
The California-based promotion can take him back to the minor leagues to regain his confidence against largely unheralded opponents, or take another chance by putting him against a mid-tier fighter who's coming off a loss.
Melvin Manhoef (24-9-1): It's clear that even if the Dutch striker trains eight hours a day, seven days a week in jiu-jitsu, he's still going to be at a disadvantage against the bulk of top-tier guys. Manhoef claimed to have trained almost solely on the ground game in preparation for his bout with Tim Kennedy, and it took all of 3:41 before he tapped to a rear naked choke. He's now 0-2 in Strikeforce. It's time again to put him in the cage with another striker so fans can actually get their money's worth.