Strikeforce: Rockhold vs. Kennedy is mere hours away on Showtime, and it features a surprisingly strong fight card that has struggled to get the attention it rightly deserves. Why is that, and what will it mean for the fighters who feel increasingly like they’re felling trees in an empty forest? That’s just one of many questions to consider. Here are seven others, in no particular order.
I. Will someone remind me again exactly what Luke Rockhold and Tim Kennedy are fighting for? Oh, right. Strikeforce middleweight title. But what does that mean? The man who holds it on Sunday morning won’t be considered the world’s best middleweight. Not even close. He won’t have earned the right to fight a better opponent who could move him up the ranks, and he certainly won’t have earned a shot at Anderson Silva, who is on the other side of the impenetrable wall that separates Strikeforce and the UFC. So what’s this fight all about, anyway? Well, for those who know enough to appreciate how good Rockhold and Kennedy really are, it’s about the same thing virtually all MMA fights are. It’s a contest for supremacy, and a very interesting one. Whoever wins this will have really proved something, at least to the people who know enough to a) care, and b) appreciate the quality of competition here. Are there enough of those people to make a difference, or to push for the winner of this fight to get a chance to do something on a bigger stage in the near future? I suppose we’ll see, but I’m not optimistic. And I'm not the only one.
II. Don’t think any of this is lost on the fighters themselves. When I spoke to Kennedy for a Sports Illustrated feature recently, he was boiling over with frustration. He’d left active duty in the military because he wanted to be a professional fighter, he said, "and this doesn’t feel very professional." By ‘this,’ he mostly meant fighting a couple times a year with no real hope of serious career advancement. That’s a bad deal financially, and it also denies him a chance at earning the recognition he’s after, he explained:
"I feel like it's a very murky, unclear future for me professionally. I love Strikeforce, love [Strikeforce CEO] Scott [Coker], and I've had some great fights there, but it feels kind of meaningless. The people in [the media] won't look at me any differently if I beat Luke. The fans certainly won't. I won't garner any new ones. It'll just be like, oh, he beat some Strikeforce guy. Even though Luke is amazing, and one of the most underrated fighters around."
This is why, especially lately, Kennedy’s been wondering if he wouldn’t be better off going back to active duty. At least there he knows what he’s signing up for. The same can’t be said of the fighters who got themselves locked down in Strikeforce before they knew it was a dead end street.
III. At least the main event got a push on a UFC broadcast, even if Rockhold wasn’t a fan. You can understand why, when he saw the Strikeforce ads that identified him as a "surfer" and "athlete" during the FUEL TV event on Wednesday, Rockhold wasn’t exactly blown away. Not only is the athlete part more or less a given for anyone fighting in the main event on Showtime, it doesn’t make him look all that cool opposite his Green Beret opponent. But still, it’s good to see some crossover advertising that lets UFC fans know why they should care about tonight’s Strikeforce card. Just how effective that pitch was remains to be seen, but on paper this is definitely the best fight card for weeks to come. Two title fights, plus a couple other fun scraps, and all for free (assuming you subscribe to Showtime, which offers the finest in late-night bikini-related programming)? It sure beats the current lineup for UFC 149. Fighters like Rockhold just have to hope that fans get the message in time.
IV. For Nate Marquardt and Tyron Woodley, the Strikeforce welterweight title is actually incredibly meaningful, in a strange way. When you look at where each man is in his career, it’s hard not to wonder if this belt is more important to them than it is to any of the existing Strikeforce titleholders. Woodley is a fighter who’s still on his way up, trying to prove he’s got more than just takedowns in his arsenal. Marquardt seems to be on his way down, trying to halt the career free fall that resulted from his UFC release. Woodley needs to win just to prove that he can get the job done against experienced, name-brand opponents, while Marquardt wants to remind people that he’s still in the game, and still has the skills that made him a contender in the UFC. That raises the stakes in what might otherwise be a fight for a barely relevant title. It also makes you wonder who’ll have the best response to these peculiar pressures when it matters most. Woodley might lack experience and a well-rounded game, but Marquardt hasn’t fought in nearly a year and a half. Coming off the TRT ("supposedly," according to Woodley) and being out of action for so long could harm Marquardt’s performance. Then again, Woodley might find himself with no plan B if he can’t put Marquardt on his back.
V. And how will Marquardt deal with Woodley’s wrestling, anyway? Woodley seems to think that he’ll take a more pro-active approach to the ground game. Instead of trying only to defend takedowns and stay standing, he told me he expects Marquardt will actually try to take him down and force him to fight off his back:
"I think he's going to try to put me in unfamiliar territory, just like I'll try to do to him. And where do you never see me fight from? My back. I think he might try to put me down, go for a takedown, and put me on my back, take me into the later rounds and get me to fatigue. ...That's what I think he's planning, but he's going to be in for a rude awakening."
Whether that’s an insightful prediction by Woodley or just wishful thinking, we’ll know soon enough.
VI. Lorenz Larkin is, technically, still undefeated -- but for how much longer? He got brutalized and beaten down by Mo Lawal, but after a positive drug test turned that into a no contest, Larkin can once again claim to be unbeaten...sort of. We all saw how easily Lawal handled him. While Larkin seems perfectly willing to write that off to a consequence of what "T-Wood" would call "some extra love," it sure seemed like nothing short of a baseball bat and the help of a couple friends would have saved him on that night. Now he faces Robbie Lawler, a hard-nosed brawler from the old school who has knocked out tougher people in training than Larkin has ever faced in the cage. That doesn’t mean Larkin’s 12-0 (1 NC) record or his youthful zeal will amount to nothing in this fight. Then again, if you're Larkin, don’t expect Lawler to be terribly impressed by your decision win over Nick Rossborough.
VII. Are we looking at the final ride for Keith Jardine, or are we just hoping for it? There’s no questioning "The Dean of Mean’s" toughness. Even 19th century bare-knuckle bar brawlers would have doffed their caps to his sheer fortitude in combat, and he’s won more than his share of fights (or at least survived them) on guts alone. That said, the man is approaching 37 years of age, and his resume includes a litany of physical punishment. He took a face-altering beating just to get himself a draw with Gegard Mousasi in his Strikeforce debut, then looked suddenly ancient in his TKO loss to Rockhold in January. At least now he’s facing Roger Gracie, who is far more likely to choke him into unconsciousness than punch him into it. While Jardine is the underdog in this fight, it’s not out of the question to think he might pull a rabbit out of his hat and win this one on experience and grit alone. In a way though, that almost seems worse for his long-term prospects, since it would probably only encourage him to keep going. That’s the problem with being as tough as Jardine is: at a certain point, your own resolute bad-assery becomes a hindrance rather than a help.