Fortunes changed for five at final Strikeforce event

USA Today Sports

Fighting in a lame duck show, the last Strikeforce event, would make it appear the stakes wouldn't be as high as most shows. In reality, for most on Saturday, the consequences of losing were higher.

Every time there is a major show, almost everyone is affected not just in their pocketbook, but in their career trajectory based on how they performed and whether they won or lost.

But Saturday night's Strikeforce final event in Oklahoma City had much higher stakes than most. On the surface, the value of a championship that will never be defended again as the main event, or appearing on a lame duck show may not seem that important. But there was a feeling, said directly to some and hinted at to others, that the theme of the show was if you win, you get a shot in the UFC. If you lose, unless you are a big name, then probably not.

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The card was filled with matches that seemed easy to predict going in, and most went as expected. There were two surprises, Tarec Saffiedine beating Nate Marquardt to win the Strikeforce welterweight title and a Ryan Couture decision win over K.J. Noons. The latter was thought by many, if not most, to be the result of a bad decision.

Almost everyone on the show is going to wind up with their career paths taking a major turn. The winners wind up in UFC, where they will likely get more regular fights, and have the opportunity to make more money. Many of the losers are going to have not just changes in career trajectory, but may have to find a new career home. Some may wind up with Bellator, but with the landscape of solid paydays for fighters outside of the major leagues getting tougher, some may have major life changes to think about.

But as far as our usual look at five whose situation changed, we'll look at people who are likely staying in the sport:

TAREC SAFFIEDINE - It was a surprise, but it made a nice final Strikeforce story that an underdog who came through the ranks of the Strikeforce Challengers series shows ended up capturing the title in the final main event. While Saffiedine (14-3) will never defend the title, he will forever be the answer to trivia questions as the winner of the final Strikeforce fight and its last new champion. But more importantly, the win would seem to insure that the Belgian-born fighter's career path continues upward. Saffiedine compiled a 7-1 record in Strikeforce, only losing to Tyron Woodley, when he had trouble with the wrestling game. But against Nate Marquardt, his takedown defense showed significant improvement after all his work with Dan Henderson. As the fight stayed on its feet, his blistering low kick attack left Marquardt's left leg looking like a bloody rare steak. It's a deep welterweight division he's entering, and it's hard to say how he'll do. But at least he's entering it, which was far from a given.

NATE MARQUARDT - Nobody's stock went down more on Saturday than Marquardt, who days earlier was being asked questions about a potential title fight with Georges St-Pierre, and people speculated on how quickly he'd be able to get it. Cutting from middleweight, where Marquardt had been a solid top 10 fighter in the weight class for about a dozen years, moving down looked like the right move when he had his best performance. It was when he knocked out previously unbeaten Tyron Woodley to capture the vacant title on July 14.

Now 32-11-2, it's not just that he lost to Saffiedine, but in a five-round fight, he came out flat and fought sluggish even before his leg was destroyed. He now has to first prove this night was not indicative that, at almost 34, his days as a highly-ranked fighter are over regardless of the weight class. As for the St-Pierre fight, with so many strong contenders waiting, his name won't even be in discussions for a long time.

DANIEL CORMIER - Cormier (11-0), even more than Marquardt, was the fighter coming out of this show that was most talked about regarding a future UFC title shot. The only question was whether that would be as a heavyweight, the division he won the Strikeforce Grand Prix in or light heavyweight. After teammate and training partner Cain Velasquez won the heavyweight title from Junior Dos Santos on Dec. 29, Cormier would not answer questions that night regarding whether he would move down.

Previously, he had talked about the probability of it if Velasquez won the title. Velasquez saying he would not fight Cormier seemed to answer the question. Cormier had done a number of interviews late last year talking about wanting to fight light heavyweight champion Jon Jones. And Dana White seemed to have the answer when, after UFC 155 was over, he only brought up the idea of Cormier facing Jones provided Jones retains his title on April 27 against Chael Sonnen.

Cormier showed up at 230 pounds, the lightest fighting weight of his career, and a weight that a lot of light heavyweight stars cut from. But if that wasn't enough of a hint, after winning, Cormier said he first wanted to fight Frank Mir first on April 20 in San Jose, his current home town and the date of a UFC FOX special, and then was looking at coming after Jones.

Cormier, who placed fourth in the 2004 Olympics at 211.5 pounds in freestyle wrestling, is, when it comes to credentials, the best heavyweight wrestler in this sport. Jones, on the other hand, has been able to overpower every opponent in wrestling thus far in his career if he has needed to. But there are questions.

The first is Cormier mentally being able to get to 205. At the 2008 Olympics, in trying to cut to 211.5 pounds, his kidneys shut down and he wound up in the hospital, ending his career in that sport and it was more than a year before he started in his new sport. That was reason he came into MMA as a heavyweight. But he was also 248 pounds walking around at the time, and cutting to 211.5. Now he's 230 and if he concentrates on his diet he can probably drop weight from there. But unlike most, physically he can't risk a drastic weight cut.

Another are his hands, which he's broken a couple of times in his career. He was never in trouble against Dion Staring, but he was being much more careful when it came to throwing punches. Staring lasted until late in the second round in a fight most expected Cormier to win quickly.

Cormier is new in the sport, having started training a little over three years ago. Because of that, most don't realize he's also almost 34 and most of his wrestling contemporaries have already retired. Because of that, it's important to avoid injuries and face Jones as quickly as possible.

K.J. NOONS - After losing via split decision to Ryan Couture in a fight that many had him winning all three rounds in, Noons (11-6) is not a lock to get into UFC. What he has going for him is that Dana White, both publicly and privately, thought he was robbed. But with so many studs in the UFC lightweight division, and the company trying to limit additions, there are no guarantees. Having the best fight of the show helps him. Having a name from being in some big fights in Strikeforce, plus holding wins over Nick Diaz and Yves Edwards, is a plus. At times, it's better for a career to lose exciting than win boring. Noons better hope those making the big decisions think this is one of those times.

KURT HOLOBAUGH - Holobaugh (9-1), was a late addition to the show, an unknown fighter best known for the story about how he fought and won on his wedding day. As a late replacement, he couldn't stop the wrestling game of Pat Healy and lost a decision. But he didn't get tired, and showed some crisp stand-up when he was able to stay upright. Holobaugh, like Noons, has been fighting at lightweight. He may be better off if he can make featherweight, where there is less depth and a far shorter line to the top. But even if he doesn't get picked up, based on his performance here, he should be strong on the Bellator radar.

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