Is there really much at stake in Strikeforce fight cards in 2012? There's certainly something up for grabs. The fighters are prominent enough as is the stage. More often than not, though, the relevancy of the action in today's Strikeforce exists closer to the margins of the fight game, not the center.
There are carved out spaces Strikeforce has held onto that still matter to the larger mixed martial arts world. Mercifully, many of them that escaped UFC gerrymandering are on display tonight. There is a very important heavyweight bout, a top-tier lightweight defending his title and a few others notable figures plying their trade. All of that is worth underscoring and appreciating.
Yet, Strikeforce: Barnett vs. Cormier can't help but be compared to the state of Strikeforce at the beginning of the heavyweight grand prix. Tonight's event and the tournament opener from February of 2011 serve as book ends in the study of Strikeforce's diminished state. This evening and the beginning of the grand prix are supposed to be married in the minds of fight fans as a reminder of the stature and significance of both the moment and what brought us to our present position. I cannot speak for the MMA fan base, but the opening of this heavyweight tournament feels much more like a disconnected footnote in prize fighting history.
There's plenty on the line this evening, particularly in the main and co-main events. We should not lose sight of that. Relative to what could've been or what sixteen months ago Strikeforce was placing at stake and on display, though, it's hard to not notice the difference.
Let's examine the stakes each of today's main card fighter faces in their bouts.
Josh Barnett vs. Daniel Cormier
At stake: a secured future as an elite heavyweight. I suspect (and certainly hope) regardless of outcome both Barnett and Cormier will end up in the UFC heavyweight division. Both are too talented to be anywhere else and their injection into the division creates a host of interesting and very legitimate match-ups. Cormier has stated the winner of this bout deserves to move into the top five in terms of rankings and it's basically impossible to argue otherwise. They need the UFC more than the UFC needs them, but there's mutual gain to be had all the way around.
Truth is, however, no future in MMA is ever secured. The only insurance a fighter has is popularity and wins, neither of which are easy to manufacture or maintain. That said, winning tonight could serve as a crucial springboard for the next chapter in their careers. Barnett is 34 years old. Cormier is 33. Both are still very capable, elite heavyweights, but they are also in a position where they need to maximize the time they have left in the sport. Winning the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix and transitioning to the UFC's deeper waters presents a huge opportunity for attention, money and big fights. Accomplishing something like that is always important, but as a prize fighter in one's early thirties that task becomes as important as it ever will be.
Gilbert Melendez vs. Josh Thomson
At stake: everything and nothing. There's a title on the line in this fight. That makes this fight important by default, at least at this level of the game. Thomson is, in this sense, a very dangerous opponent. Moreover, because Melendez has everything to lose - and does so in a fight against an opponent he is expected to handily defeat - there is a real threat to the Strikeforce champion. Facing opposition you pretty clearly outclass can be a temptation to coast or under prepare. That risk is compounded when there's a physical title on the line.
Yet, there's nothing to gain from this fight for Melendez (although there's plenty for Thomson). If he wins, he earns a check and little more. It does nothing to advance his position in the rankings or earn him a fight against a more worthy adversary. Melendez risks a lot here, but he can only move backwards. There's no true upside to the bout.
All one can hope for Melendez is that he doesn't inventory his circumstances to the point where he no longer cares about the stakes. Then he really will lose everything.
Mike Kyle vs. Rafael Cavalcante
At stake: revenge. Kyle's win over Feijao is arguably his best and most unexpected. With the backing of UFC middleweight Anderson Silva and standout performances in the IFL and EliteXC, Feijao was expected to immediately make waves in the Strikeforce light heavyweight division. Yet, in his first fight - a bout with Kyle - he was stopped by strikes in the second round. This is an opportunity for Feijao to prove his freshman Strikeforce fight's outcome was a fluke and all of the promise that surrounded his career is still worth holding onto for fans and media alike.
This may be a bit of a strained metaphor, but Kyle might be looking for 'revenge', too. Since his win over Feijao, Kyle hasn't lost at light heavyweight. He's suffered a couple of setbacks at heavyweight, but that isn't his natural weight class. Yet, Kyle vs. Feijao tonight won't be named a title eliminator for the light heavyweight strap by Strikeforce brass, something that visibly angered the AKA product at yesterday's presser. For Kyle, beating Feijao twice could serve as a repudiation to the suggestion he doesn't belong in title contention talk and that their first meeting was no accident.
Nah-Shon Burrell vs. Chris Spang
At stake: visibility. While I'm not certain this event will draw huge ratings, it's still nevertheless good exposure for two young, athletic and striking-inclined talents. There is reason to believe both Burrell and Spang have upside, so watching their progress tonight and in the future is a worthy exercise. As for tonight, Strikeforce's rosters are thin and a standout performance can presumably do quite a lot for young fighters. Besides, they are on the main card for a reason. Strikeforce believes both in their talent and ability to deliver action. That's opportunity knocking.