Strikeforce Fight Card: Dissection of JZ Cavalcante vs. Justin Wilcox

As the appetizer for Saturday night's Strikeforce Overeem vs. Werdum event, HD Net will air a slew of preliminary bouts beginning at 8 p.m. ET. By far the most appealing and highly anticipated bout is Gesias "JZ" Cavalcante vs. Justin Wilcox. I'll cover the remaining HD Net undercard bouts in a separate piece, as I felt this pairing in particular was in a different league than the other dark matches.

Before his marquee matches with Shinya Aoki in DREAM, American Top Team bulldog "JZ" Cavalcante was being touted as "The Next Big Thing", and for good reason. Barring one draw and one loss to a rising Joachim Hansen in Shooto in only his third fight, Cavalcante left a trail of fourteen respectable bodies in his wake just three years into his career, crushing everyone by TKO or submission save Caol Uno and Henry Matamoros.

His first five wins were all submissions -- three of them guillotine chokes -- and then after a decision win and a draw against Ryan Schultz, he clipped Michihiro Omigawa in Cage Rage to earn a stint in the K-1 Hero's Middleweight (154 lb.) Tournament. In the opening brackets, Cavalcante continued to blaze with violent first round strike-stoppages over Hidetaka Monma and Hiroyuki Takaya. To close out 2006, JZ submitted BJJ black belt Rani Yahya and out-worked Caol Uno in the same night to win the tournament.

At this point in MMA's timeline, BJJ and wrestling were singular styles more commonly pitted against one another rather than coalesced together as Cavalcante did. Wrestlers were generally top-strong but submission weak, and vice-versa, but Cavalcante earned a rep for his breakneck blend of both.

After hammering another first round TKO, this time over Nam Phan, what probably streamlined Cavalcante's credibility was the kickboxing-rules match against Masato at the 2007 K-1 World Max Tournament. Despite losing a decision, the fact that Cavalcante had survived an all-striking match after chiseling his name as an overwhelming MMA ground specialist resonated loudly in the hardcore community.

Riding the roaring buzz, he throttled two more reputable fighters in Andre "Dida" Amado and Vitor Ribeiro -- both in the first round and in the same evening -- to clench the K-1 Middleweight Tournament for the second time in two years.

When he stepped into the DREAM ring against Shinya Aoki in 2008, JZ had one loss, fourteen wins, and twelve stoppages. Now, his momentum has significantly leveled off: illegal blows rendered his first match with Aoki a No Contest, he lost consecutive DREAM decisions to Aoki in the rematch and then Tatsuya Kawajiri, scored a split-decision over crescent-kicking Katsunori Kikuno, and last time out, fought much more competitively with Josh Thomson than the unanimous decision loss would reflect.

We'll dive into the background of Justin Wilcox and break down the match-up after the jump.

SBN coverage of Strikeforce: Overeem vs. Werdum

A former bodybuilder and a teammate of Josh Koscheck on the D1 wrestling team at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania, Wilcox kicked off his MMA career in 2006 as a welterweight. Taking on Bobby Voelker, Chad Reiner, and Dan Hornbuckle right out of the gate speaks volumes about Justin Wilcox's character.

He was victorious in only one (Voelker) of those first three matches, but broke even next time out with a win over Bryce Teager. Wilcox, then training out of Pennsylvania, made a monumental change by setting up shop with Koscheck under the tutelage of vaunted trainer "Crazy" Bob Cook at the American Kickboxing Academy, accompanied by a drop down to the lightweight class.

The results were immediately apparent; blinding, in fact.

His ensuing string of flawless fights, the last being experienced grappler Gabe Reudiger, was enough to attract the attention of Strikeforce, who matched him with Mitsuhiro Ishida on the second Playboy Mansion card. The bad part is that a few seconds after Wilcox shot on the crafty veteran he was tapping out, but the good part is that Ishida was the last fighter to beat him or even put him in any real danger.

Six straight commanding wins followed, and Wilcox has looked incrementally better in each one. The streak included well traveled veterans Daisuke Nakamura, Vitor "Shaolin" Ribeiro, and Rodrigo Damm, as well as recent TUF competitor Shamar Bailey, rocketing "The Silverback" up the Strikeforce contender ladder.

The most distinguished sign of his advancement was forcing Ribeiro to stand with him, and then clocking noteworthy gamer Rodrigo Damm in his last appearance, who is the only fighter to ever knock Jorge Masvidal out.

Free Movement / Striking Phase


I really can't think of any specific areas JZ wouldn't get an eight or nine out of ten rating in MMA. He's extremely adept everywhere and with everything: standing offense and defense, clinch-work, takedowns, and technicality on the ground in any position.

Standing, he might be a little stiff and lacking fluidity. He has a straight, long left jab and often leads with a nice left hook, both of which are backed by the tight, lancing right hand you see in the visual versus Thomson.

JZ is not an avid kicker, though he does throw them, mostly a straight push kick or roundhouse to the body. He's also pitched flying knees from outside, which could come in handy versus a wrestling oriented fighter like Wilcox. I can't recall JZ adamantly targeting low kicks, which is something Wilcox's heavy-weighted front leg has been open to in the past.


I'd feel comfortable saying Wilcox's dramatic strides in striking are Demain Maia-ish.

After the Ishida loss inspired his fervent dedication at AKA, each of Wilcox's performances displayed subtle shades of striking enhancement. The stance and footwork that years of high level wrestling cultivates is not conducive to the nuances of kickboxing, and his balance and poise while launching combinations has become tremendously refined.

Previously, he'd lunge forward with a stooped stance and over-commit on only one or two punches, standing a bit flat-footed and squared up. As depicted to the left, he's now measuring his footwork and reeling combinations with a sturdy yet mobilized base underneath him with his chin better tucked.

This, along with his improved footwork, allows him to attack aggressively while still reacting defensively to counter-punches and takedowns, taking less damage and giving more in the process.

I'm going to lean slightly toward JZ based on experience and history, but Wilcox has built the type of no-frills style of straight, tight punches with good power that can give anyone trouble. For the record, I was so impressed with Wilcox's last fight that I almost called this even.

Advantage: JZ (slight)

Clinch Phase


To say JZ likes the guillotine choke isn't even accurate ... obsessed is the more befitting description.

For example, the sequence to the right against Kawajiri is not a replay from three different angles, it's three different instances where JZ gave up clinch position to drop for guillotines.

The move is always a risk, but he's far too willing to take it. In my opinion, the time he was forced to spend fighting off his back after dropping for guillotines is what lost him the Kawajiri and Thomson fights.

Re-examine the first animation versus Thomson above: JZ clips him, then latches the choke and wraps up full-guard. After wrenching it for some time, Thomson escapes, and ends up wrangling a tight side-choke on JZ to close out the round. Versus Kawajiri, it only resulted in clocking a lot of time fighting off the Japanese juggernauts daunting assault from the top.

When he wants, Wilcox has taken everyone down from the clinch or shooting from a distance. Besides his questionable use of the guillotine, JZ has a thorough repertoire of body-lock trips and throws, as well as traditional singles and doubles from outside.

It might seem odd to spend so much time on JZ's guillotine, but it's been a distinct make-or-break technique against the other strong wrestlers he's faced. This match up could be the same: considering Wilcox's inexperience against power-submission players like JZ, it could very well be his undoing without careful head placement in the clinch or on takedown attempts; alternatively, since Team AKA surely is aware of JZ's habits, it could also result in Wilcox baiting him with it to score easy points from the top.

Given my blathering on everything that hinges on the guillotine, across the board, JZ has the broader range of offensive and defensive skills in the clinch.

Advantage: JZ

Grappling Phase


I'm not saying they don't exist, but if Wilcox has improved his submission defense as much as his striking, he hasn't had a chance to show it.

He avoided the submission acumen of Shaolin by keeping the fight upright and beating him standing. It was quite some time ago, but two of his three losses were via armbar, and though Ishida is an elite grappler, his catch was instantaneous.

JZ, however, has proven to have extremely dangerous hips on the ground.

He has excellent sweeps and reversals, he shifts quickly for armbars and triangles, and consistently switches up angles from within his guard to create opportunities. JZ has also demonstrated an uncanny ability to create space with his butterfly guard and bring the fight back up to a standing position. He doesn't make many mistakes either, and is more the type of fighter to punish you dearly for even the slightest slip up.

I think that even if Wilcox gets a takedown and freezes in place to avoid trouble, JZ has the explosive activity to control the pace off his back. The more offensive Wilcox tries to be with ground-and-pound, the more opportunities will flower for JZ, and I don't see Wilcox passing his guard.

Advantage: JZ


The betting lines have finally emerged with JZ being a slight favorite. I was so thoroughly impressed with Wilcox's progression that I was thinking of calling him for the upset, but after I've contrasted the two in each of the phases of combat, I feel more confident about JZ.

This could simply boil down to Wilcox keeping it standing and landing airtight boxing combinations; a pathway that could lead to victory despite JZ's advantages. Whether or not old habits reoccur should play a huge role for JZ: his ill-fated guillotine attempts could offer big risk or bigger reward, protecting his chin and making leg kicks the centerpiece of his striking could allow him to cripple Wilcox's front leg, or his guard game might simply be too much at this stage of Wilcox's career.

The one thing that really concerns me is that JZ has lost to everyone he couldn't bully around (Aoki, Kawajiri, Thomson). Even Katsunori Kikuno gave him a run for this very reason. While I think JZ is the more technical and better finesse fighter, most of his wins have come by manhandling his adversaries, and he will absolutely not do that to Wilcox with brute strength alone. Just like Aoki did to him, he'll have to employ his superior technique and fight mechanics in order to impose his will.

The trend of beating those he could ragdoll and losing to those he couldn't -- along with his propensity to sacrifice position for subs -- makes me nervous for an upset here. I'll stick with the more experienced and well rounded martial artist even though I think Wilcox will turn in a surprising performance.

My Prediction: JZ by submission



Gifs via "Caposa"

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