The fact that Nick Diaz brawled his way to a victory over Paul Daley only made it seem more surreal, and in the end I found myself wondering whether this was the best single night of Strikeforce fights I'd ever seen.
The answer? Probably, yeah. Which makes it seem a little bittersweet that it came on a card that Coker and his staff set up, only to have the UFC swoop in just in time to reap the rewards.
Now that it's all over, time to sort through the biggest winners, losers, and everything in between after Strikeforce: Diaz vs. Daley.
Biggest Winner: Nick Diaz
He did exactly what you're not supposed to do if you're a jiu-jitsu black belt fighting a one-dimensional slugger, and yet he still won a first-round stoppage. The fight wasn't without its frightening moments for Diaz (though he insisted he wasn't hurt – merely 'knocked off-balance'), but he nonetheless traded power punches with a guy who's staked his career on them, and still came out on top in the end. Outside the cage, he's as erratic (or, okay, I'll just say it: crazy) as ever, which poses obvious problems for the Zuffa brass. But because he's so exciting to watch between the bells, he's ultimately worth the PR headache in the end. Strikeforce will probably slot him against Tyron Woodley next, at which point we should learn a little more about Diaz's takedown defense, but if he gets through that one it will only make sense to start putting him up against UFC welterweights. That's when the real fun starts...
Biggest Loser: Tatsuya Kawajiri
His shot at the lightweight title was brief and the bright spots were few and far between. Gilbert Melendez steamrolled him in their rematch and put him away in such one-sided fashion that it made you wonder how the first fight was ever so close. With the loss, Kawajiri's future in the American fight scene just got a little dimmer, and right now isn't the best time to try to make a living as a fighter in Japan. The days of big paydays there are over, and even the promises of modest paydays often end with frustrating assurances that the check is in the mail. This was Kawajiri's chance to catch Zuffa's eye, and he couldn't even get off the starting blocks. On the bright side, at least he got beat up by one of (if not the) best lightweights in the world.
Best Use of Recently Legalized Elbows: Gilbert Melendez
He said before the Kawajiri fight that he saw himself ending it with elbows, which are finally legal in the Strikeforce cage, and that's just what he did. The fact that he did so well for so long without them, despite how fundamental they seem to a style like his, tells you how much talent Melendez has to work with. He never let Kawajiri in that fight for a second. Of all the Strikeforce champions who might end up in a crossover fight against a UFC titleholder, Melendez ought to be at the front of the line. There's little left for him to do in Strikeforce, and even with the backlog in the UFC's lightweight division, I don't think anyone (except for maybe Anthony Pettis) would complain if he got a free pass to face the Edgar-Maynard winner.
So Close, Yet So Far: Paul Daley
When he dropped Nick Diaz face-first into the mat, you could almost hear him saying to himself, '...and new Strikeforce welterweight champion.' Unfortunately for Daley, Diaz is never done until the ref pulls you off of him. Daley was maybe only one or two good punches away from gaining some measure of career redemption with Dana White sitting just a few feet away. That would have been a sweet moment for him, but he pulled up short before achieving it and found himself toppling over like a drunk at a New Year's party just a few moments later. Now what? He's had his shot at the Strikeforce strap, and the UFC's doors are closed to him, supposedly for good. We all know that White has been known to reverse his position on those matters from time to time (ask Karo Parisyan) but probably not when the offending party shows little to no remorse. Back to BAMMA?
Least Meaningful Moral Victory: Keith Jardine
On paper, it was a draw. In the eyes of most fans, it was a loss. But just the fact that he could take a fight on nine days' notice against a former light heavyweight champ and still make it a close three rounds was impressive enough. He looked like he'd been hit by a bus when it was all over, and my guess is he's still not feeling like going dancing tonight. But with that gritty performance he let everyone know that "The Dean of Mean" can still show up when you need him and give you your money's worth in pain and blood. As strange as it is to say, that's a viable niche to carve out for yourself in this business. Much like the dung beetle, however, it's not one that anybody else envies. It's better than nothing, but not by much.
Most in Need of an Attitude Adjustment: Gegard Mousasi
Judging by Mousasi's demeanor after the fight, you'd think he'd just suffered a crushing loss instead of a draw that most people thought he deserved to win. He moped around at the post-fight press conference and wondered out loud if maybe he just didn't know how to fight smart. There are still some obvious holes in his defensive wrestling, but that's something he can fix if he makes it a priority. Mousasi has a lot of natural talent, and even with the point deduction for an illegal upkick he still deserved to win that fight. But even before the fight he seemed a little too prone to negative thinking, and afterward he was all too willing to wallow in his own misery. He needs to stop thinking about all the bad things that can and have happened in his career, and start focusing on what he can still do about them.
Best Career-Salvaging Victory: Shinya Aoki
It's still unclear whether Aoki has really learned anything about how to fight in the cage, mostly because this fight was over before we had a chance to find out. As soon as he got over his initial shock at Lyle Beerbohm trying to take him down he turned the tables and got the submission. The whole thing was over before either man had a chance to work up much of a sweat, and just like that Aoki had his first win in the Strikeforce cage. After the fight he said his future in MMA was wherever the money is, which is pretty much an admission that he'd rather keep fighting in the U.S. After that one-sided win, he'll likely get his wish. Then maybe we'll find out what adjustments he's made since his loss to Melendez.
Worst Sudden Slide: Lyle Beerbohm
A few months ago he was undefeated. Now "Fancy Pants" is riding a two-fight losing streak and all the momentum he built up in the shadows of Strikeforce Challengers has vanished. Dropping two in a row right after your primary employer has been purchased by a rival that is no doubt looking over the roster with a magnifying glass seems like particularly bad timing – not that there's a good time to go on a losing skid. Beerbohm might have jumped up in competition a little too soon for his relatively young career, but then again, he is 32. He doesn't have all the time in the world to make his name in this sport, so he needs to get back in the win column quickly to show the Zuffa overlords that there's more to him than interesting wardrobe changes.