Strikeforce: Rousey vs. Kaufman was Strikeforce at its best and worst. On the one hand, the fights were fun and the star of the show shone ever brighter. On the other hand, the fights weren't competitive and outside of two of them, mean very little. Still, there's enough there to hand out awards both with high praise and stern condemnation. Here are the biggest winners, losers and other superlatives from a fun night on Showtime.
Biggest Winner: Ronda Rousey
And the armbar train rolls on. I don't see how anyone can even argue anymore that Rousey isn't MMA's next big superstar. It's true she doesn't yet appear to be a draw at the gate and we'll see how she does in terms of television ratings. But in fairness, she's also living in a climate of over saturation. It's hard to pull people to the show or the couch on Saturday night when you're the third attraction in a month and you've got no supporting cast. Even with considerable promotion to the point of overexposure, Rousey had the sole responsibility (and ability) to make people tune into Strikeforce Saturday evening.
We'll see what happens with Cyborg, but for now humor me with a thought experiment. Rousey was a far more accomplished judoka than Bellator's Rick Hawn. Yet, they were both Olympians. I realize her bronze is several gradients above his ninth place, but the degrees of athletic separation between Olympians relative to Olympians and non-Olympians is fairly minute.
Imagine if Hawn with his judo background and approximately two years worth of training was at the same point in the UFC lightweight division that Rousey is in Strikeforce now. Imagine if Hawn was bulldozing the best the men's game had to offer with first-round armbar after first-round armbar. It'd force you to rethink mixed martial arts as a sport entirely.
Rousey is peerless. Period. Her contemporaries are simply not like her, not from a technical skill perspective nor in terms of raw athleticism. The challenge her promoter and television broadcaster face is getting her the right kind of fights they can sell while keeping Rousey reasonably active. In terms of challenges, there aren't really any. This is the Ronda Rousey show. We're all just living in it.
Biggest Loser: Sarah Kaufman
There isn't much to say here. Kaufman is a world-class fighter and seems to be about as genuine a person as you're going to find in modern MMA, but to train in what I'm sure was a grueling environment only to get ragdolled in less than a minute is a difficult fate to wake up to on a Sunday. It's probably fair to say that's the worst Kaufman will ever look in any professional career defeat.
Most Impressive in Defeat: Julie Kedzie
Kedzie has been a fixture of women's MMA since the days of the sport before 'The Ultimate Fighter' ever changed anything. She's earned a few nice wins, but has lately become something of a journeyman. On Saturday, however, she demonstrated why she's loved by fans. She also proved she has the skills to the rise to the occasion against almost any of the top women's bantamweight fighters active today.
It wasn't just the game plan, but the refinement of her technique. It wasn't just her proactive offense, but the ferocity with which she fought. Early and often she gave Miesha Tate everything she could handle and took her to what appeared to be the brink of defeat more than once. Perhaps most importantly, she fought like possessed women who at once could be both mercilessly aggressive and technically lethal.
Most Awful Referee Moment: Herb Dean
Dean's stoppage of the Adlan Amagov vs. Keith Berry fight was early, which is problematic enough but not the focus of this critique. Instead, it was something Dean said to Berry after the fight to explain his decision, namely, that Berry talking to Dean was an indication Berry wanted out. Talking to the referee is certainly not the best course of action. After all, shouldn't your attention be focused on defending yourself rather than explaining amid a torrent of abuse that you're ok? And Dean has a point when he said to Berry that in the heat of the moment, a fighter talking to a referee can mean he wants out even if you don't necessarily understand what the fighter is saying.
Yet, when Berry told Dean he was saying he was fine - he was knocked down off of a push kick to the knee, not a shot that rocked his equilibrium - Dean told him that Berry could just as easily have been saying 'I'm out! I'm out! Someone please help me understand how a fighter can explain a state of unconsciousness while still conscious and making direct eye contact. Dean's statement is, quite literally, nonsensical.
A conscious, conversant fighter making eye contact isn't the easiest one to make sense of, but that condition in and of itself is not one that fails to meet the criteria of intelligent defense. It's also one that doesn't automatically need rescue and the referee's job is to discern as much. On it's own terms, Dean's stoppage was early and not particularly good, but also not terrible. The issue is that he compounded an early call to the fight with reasoning that transformed a questionable stoppage into an outright poor decision.
Best Reminder of Why MMA Is Great: Tate vs. Kedzie
Everything we enjoy about elite MMA - brutality, grit, technique, back and forth momentum swings, evenly-matched opponents, pitched battles, definitive endings - this bout offered. I typically cringe at the idea that not enjoying women's MMA is some sort of referendum on a person's fandom. As much as I like watching women fight, it's demonstrably false to suggest those who don't aren't true MMA fans.
I'm not opposed to the idea, however, that this fight forces reevaluation of any anti-women's MMA tenets even from diehards. Find those lovers of MMA who identify themselves as 'true fans', especially those with a hesitancy about the women's side of the game. Have them watch the contest Kedzie and Tate put on and strap them to an EKG and neurological scanner in real time. The most ardent may still verbally deny they enjoyed the fight or found the contest worthwhile, but the body wouldn't be able to lie. That fight had hearts pumping and brains desperately trying to process the sensational action from what was as wild as it was calculated a ride.
Best Gig in The Sport: Ronaldo Souza
I'm not sure who has it better than Jacare in high-level MMA. Sure, he lost his title to Luke Rockhold unexpectedly and then dropped a superfight grappling match to Braulio Estima, back to back. But he's on the mend now and with a win over Derek Brunson on Saturday, will likely get another title opportunity.
Think about it: who else in MMA gets a title opportunity after beating a fellow middleweight not even ranked in the top 25? If history is any indication, he also got paid well to do it. It might be nicer to swim in the deeper waters of the UFC for the true competitor inside of him, but it's never a bad night when you get paid to look good and break more of a sweat warming up than you do actually competing.
Worst Night in San Diego: T.J. Cook
It's hard to have a worse night in a great town than what Cook suffered through on Saturday night. Forced to fight in a bout where he was hopelessly outmatched in terms of athleticism against Ovince St. Preux, Cook - who seems to never have the proper trimmings of a camp or support staff a pro fighter should - ended up on the remarkably bad end of a one-punch knockout. And not just a knockout, but the sort of 'out before they hit the mat', arms flail in the air like they're testifying in church kind of knockout. To make matters worse, it's highly unlikely he was paid very much as part of his purse money, to say nothing of the non-existent sponsors on his shorts.
The fight game is positively brutal, often deeply unfair and unmistakably unforgiving. Nowhere was that more on display in MMA than during Cook's fight on a Saturday night in San Diego.
Better Late Than Never: Germaine de Randamie
On a card where a judo Olympian using not many skills beyond what she learned on the judo mats to almost comically dispatch her number-one MMA contender, the average MMA fan may get the wrong impression elite athletes from related combats transitioning to mixed martial arts. Sure, Rousey makes it look easy, but she's Rousey and besides, matriculating grappling arts, on average, historically have a more successful track record than when trying to turn a striker into a complete MMA fighter.
Which is why for those paying attention to the career of de Randamie, there's been open concern about whether she was ever going to turn the corner on her MMA pursuits. Beating Hiroko Yamanaka isn't the highest achievement, but demonstrating some measure of technical growth is never a bad thing. Against the fence de Randamie sat her base wide to avoid the takedown and didn't over commit on distance when striking. Progress for the Dutch kickboxing world champion has been slow, but steady, too. Three cheers for de Randamie finally showing promise in a venue beyond the ring.