Strikeforce Main Event Breakdown: Muhammed Lawal vs. Rafael Cavalcante

Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal claims that he should be the underdog against Rafael "Feijao" Cavalcante in his first Strikeforce light-heavyweight championship defense. It is one of the oldest self-motivational ploys in the book; convince yourself you're underrated with the intention of proving otherwise.

But few are buying what Lawal's selling. The undefeated 7-0 champ is a massive favorite across the oddsmakers's universe, and most expect him to walk away with the belt.

Still, it's a match filled with potential pitfalls for the champ, so what's his likely path to victory during Saturday's Strikeforce: Houston show, and what's Cavalcante's best chance at the upset?

Cavalcante (9-2), is coming off back-to-back TKO wins over Antwain Britt and Aaron Rosa. The Brazilian is a jiu-jitsu black belt, but is mostly known as a power striker. That fact was a point of some playful headgames between the two in the leadup to the match.

Cavalcante, perhaps trying to put some fear into Lawal regarding his ground game, has continually reminded the press of his jiu-jitsu prowess. Lawal, who might study more video than any other fighter, is well aware of Cavalcante's preference to keep the fight standing. Even the stats back it up: eight of his nine wins are by TKO, with only one submission.

"It's all mental warfare," Lawal said recently. "Feijao knows he likes the KO. He wants the KO, he doesn't want the submission."

It seems likely, though, that Feijao's most probable road to victory is going to be submission.

According to Compustrike statistics, Lawal has spent twice as much time on the ground as he has on his feet. During his last five fights, 35:37 has been on the ground, while he and his opponents have been upright for 18:19. By contrast, Cavalcante has spent hardly any time on the ground; just 47 seconds out of almost 21 minutes of cage time.

So much of the fight will hinge on whether or not Cavalcante can stay upright. Few fighters have been able to against Lawal, who has been successful on 33 of his last 37 takedown tries (90 percent). Cavalcante, meanwhile, hasn't been taken down in any of his last five fights; opponents are 0-for-3.




But one of Cavalcante's favorite offensive weapons could cause him problems in this regard: kicks. He kicks more than many fighters, with an average of 13 leg strikes thrown per fight. Many wrestlers instinctively look for kicks as an opening for the takedown. Few of those wrestlers are as good as Lawal, so Cavalcante is going to have to choose his spots very carefully.

Cavalcante's punching is good, though he tends to get wild at times. Much of the time, when he's throwing a punch, it's a power punch. He doesn't spend much time with jabs. In the clinch, he has effective muay thai, frequently looking to score with knees.

Perhaps Cavalcante's biggest issue is his head tends to be stationary when he strikes, and opponents find their target. Even though he's 4-1 in his last five fights, opponents have connected on 50 percent of their strike attempts.

Lawal, meanwhile, is still finding his place as a striker. At times, he's switched stances and styles, and he's thrown out the idea of using Bernard Hopkins- or Paul Williams-style boxing against Cavalcante. Whatever style he uses, his hands are quick and he's flashed some power in the past.

But Lawal still has the wrestling mentality. He'll move in for the takedown when it's there, and he should have plenty of opportunities to put Feijao on his back. From there, Feijao may threaten at times, but Lawal survived an eternity on the ground with Gegard Mousasi, a fighter with an active guard, so he's likely to do the same against Cavalcante.

The most underrated part of Lawal's game is his brain. He's extremely intelligent, does his homework and comes in with a very good idea of what his opponent wants to do. Expect Lawal to be a step ahead of Cavalcante in most instances. Feijao has the power to change the fight with one punch, but unless it's a clean KO shot, Lawal will probably find a way to get a takedown, give himself time to recover, and grind out points.

Lawal may be the champion, but he's still a work in progress. Still, he should be able to control where the fight takes place, and any fighter who can do that and also has good submission defense has to be the favorite in most fights. It's no different here. I think Lawal takes Feijao deep into the fight, where the big Brazilian has had some conditioning issues in the past. From there, he finds a way to finish via ground-and-pound. Lawal via TKO in the third.

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