In Saturday's Strikeforce: Overeem vs. Werdum event, three compelling bouts will anchor down the main card as a precursor to the Heavyweight Grand Prix matches.
The giddy fan in me is taking over, so I just have to blurt this out: these main card bouts are awesome. In MMA, it's extremely rare to get away with describing anything or anyone as "one of the best" when it's devoid of the three-letter acronym that starts with a "U" and ends with a "C". I think this card bears many exceptions, even beyond the top-ranked tournament competitors.
We have two of the best grapplers in the heavyweight division in Olympic wrestler Daniel Cormier and age-old ADCC and MMA veteran Jeff Monson. Debate the semantics all you want, but when I think of elite lightweight boxing, Karl James Noons and Jorge Masvidal come to mind. What Masvidal may lack in pure boxing mechanics he makes up for with unadulterated toughness, so no matter how you slice it, the match-up is stamped with a big fat Surgeon General's warning as an explosive hazard. Even the collision between Chad Griggs, who's made a habit of heavyweight party-spoiling, and old school submission-shark Valentijn Overeem should be an all out barn-burner.
Lightweight: K.J. Noons (10-3) vs. Jorge Masvidal (21-6)
Noons was guaranteed by Strikeforce that this fight is a number one contender bout for a shot at Gilbert Melendez, so there's a ton riding on this fight for both competitors. Interestingly enough, lightweights Noons and Masvidal recently raised their stock in losses to esteemed welterweights Nick Diaz and Paul Daley.
In 2007, Nick Diaz lit the world on fire after a slobberknocker in Las Vegas against Pride champ Takanori Gomi that ended in a thrilling gogoplata. The stateside EliteXC promotion laid out the perfect pathway for Diaz to assume the role of the posterboy at the helm of the specially crafted 162-pound lightweight division. Fans were in a Nick Diaz frenzy: he beat Gomi, the result was overturned because he smoked weed, that somehow made it even cooler, Diaz was never anything but ornery and ready to fight, and everyone loved it. The stage was set for a marketing orgasm.
Then, little known boxer K.J. Noons came along and peed in everyone's cereal. We're talking full stream, right in the Cheerios.
Rolling out a rock-solid sprawl that was backed by stellar boxing, with heat-seeking accuracy, Noons reeled off airtight combinations and sprung a leak on Diaz's face, earning the TKO win in one of the more memorable upsets of the year. After blasting Yves Edwards later on in 2008, Noons veered away from MMA to compete in boxing, returning last year to revivify his rep with three in a row over Andre "Dida" Amade, Jorge Gurgel, and Conor Heun.
Despite packing on weight and losing the rematch to Diaz in his last showing, he was the first opponent to survive to a decision against Diaz since Mike Aina in 2007.
We first started hearing whispers about Jorge "Gamebred" Masvidal when he shellacked Joe Lauzon at a 2005 AFC event, then notched his resume with reputable names Keith Wisniewski, Steve Berger, and Yves Edwards in the Bodog promotion.
In hardcore circles, Masvidal's street-cred skyrocketed when he was identified in one of Kimbo Slice's backyard boxing videos, bobbing and weaving around the sloppy punches of one of the Youtube sensation's partners. Masvidal's striking experience stuck out like a sore thumb in the throng of Miami street brawlers, as he bobbed and weaved to two straight wins on the backyard circuit, foreshadowing the element of innate ferocity he would go on to exude in MMA.
In two distinct instances, Masvidal was poised to break into the spotlight, but fell short of the mark. After two wins in Strikeforce, he suffered his first and only loss by knockout to Rodrigo Damm in Sengoku; after signing with Bellator and mapping out a collision course with champ Eddie Alvarez, Masvidal was relegated to the highlight-reels of Toby Imada's inverted triangle. After a brawl with welterweight Paul Daley in Shark Fights that many scored for Masvidal, he set up shop in Strikeforce, and handed Billy Evangelista his first loss to set the stage for the Noons showdown.
Virtual essays on this match-up as well as the Cormier vs. Monson and Overeem vs. Griggs contests await in the full entry.
Noons has a beautiful jab and a devastating left hook. He'll throw flying knees along with low, mid, and high kicks, but ninety-percent of his onslaught is KFC-crisp boxing combinations.
Setting the tone and measuring distance, Noons will build momentum by keying off his jab, as depicted versus Heun to the right. He'll stand on the fringe of striking range and lance jabs, both upstairs and down, and record the patterns of head movements and defensive reactions. Then he starts revving up his right and packing it into the combinations, usually laser-straight or an uppercut, and becomes supremely deadly when he closes off his one-two with a follow up left.
Across the board, Noons gets lofty marks for the subtleties of basic boxing, such as stance, footwork, head movement, shelling, and angles. That being said, he's still subject to the same perils of MMA that everyone else is. Both he and Masvidal have great chins, but each have been knocked out once before while hurling fireballs in the pocket. The more oomph you put on your punches, the more you're exposed.
Noons has cat-like reflexes with his sprawl, but in the later rounds against both Heun and Diaz, he was demonstrating a bad habit from boxing that Masvidal could capitalize on. Having a great base and strong center of gravity, along with his lightning quick reactions, Noons gets away with standing stationary and dipping his head into striking range as a defense.
Though I'd put Noons as one of the better offensive tacticians with body shots and uppercuts straight through the pocket, he also showed a susceptibility to the same strikes because of this tendency hunch over in the same spot at close range.
Masvidal is one of the rare few that can match the quick reflexes of Noons.
Versus Evangelista in the sequence to the right, you see the advantage of his timing on the straight-right counter. In fact, it was more the uncanny timing of Masvidal that facilitated his takedowns on Paul Daley than his pure wrestling skills.
Star wrestler Josh Koscheck might have struggled a little more to ground "Semtex" than Masvidal did; mostly because Jorge transitions so fluently between striking and shooting. Rather than setting up his takedowns with obvious decoy punches, Masvidal seamlessly integrates the level-drop as naturally as he would a punch amidst a combination.
That's exactly what we see to the left. After getting a bead on Evangelista's standing characteristics, Masvidal unleashes the same lunging right counter, but this time snares a leg on his way forward to score a takedown.
Conor Heun is a better wrestler and had very little success taking Noons down, but Masvidal's cerebral approach might yield better results.
Clinch-wise, Noons usually uses the position to strike and escape, where Masvidal is more multi-dimensional with offensive and defensive striking and positions, alternating between pummeling for the body lock and peppering with knees from the Thai plum, maintaining the threat of both strikes and takedowns with a toughness that belies his stature.
Masvidal has the better ground game and is the more complete fighter overall, but Noons has exhibited a knack to nullify grapplers with a smooth sprawl and the feisty scrambling ability to stand back up. In a straight striking match, I'd probably give the edge to Noons for the sharper boxing, who has more power and accuracy, but Masvidal might employ better movement and footwork while unloading with a wider range of angles and techniques.
Both have the ability to find small openings and knock the other out. Sequences like the one to the right, where Masvidal can fade backward and be reduced to covering up when he's pressured with strikes, tip me toward Noons.
I keep bouncing back between Noons having the slightly cleaner boxing and Masvidal's more complete game as the deciding factor. The oddsmakers have Noons by a hair, and I think I'll assent, even though I have to acknowledge that one Masvidal takedown could easily sway what will likely be an evenly contested striking match.
My Prediction: Noons by decision
Daniel Cormier (7-0) vs. Jeff Monson (42-11)
The setting is July 31, 2010.
In his third pro-fight, former Olympic wrestler Daniel Cormier throttles Lucas Browne by TKO in the first round, becoming the XMMA heavyweight champion. Two weeks later, Cormier takes on Tony Johnson Jr., winning the bout by first round submission, becoming the King of the Cage heavyweight champion. One week later, Cormier fights again at Strikeforce: L.A., and -- you guessed it -- replicates the same result with a first round stoppage.
That's three fights, three wins, three first round stoppages, and two championship belts in three weeks.
Who in the heavyweight hell could pull off anything so remarkable in such a short span of time?
The setting is February 21, 2009.
In his nine-millionth MMA fight, Jeff Monson takes on a wily grappling technician named Roy Nelson in Florida, winning the bout the decision. One week later, Monson has beamed over to Belfast, Northern Ireland, where he serves up a guy named Sergei Maslobojev with a north-south choke in the main event. One week later, Monson fights again in Japan at DREAM 8, where he -- you guessed it -- replicates the same submission result, this time over scary Russian paratrooper and former Pride head-basher Sergei Kharitonov.
That's three fights, three wins, two north-south chokes, and two less belts acquired than Cormier -- but about ten-thousand more miles and two wins better than anyone he's ever faced -- in just over two weeks.
These are the kind of gamers we're dealing with here. Though one is new, one is old; one is experienced, one is not; one is wrestling based, one is submission based ... these are two natural born fighters who have spent more time on the mat grappling than most humans have spent in a bed sleeping. It takes a strange and unusual human being, and one of very questionable sanity to do such things, which is why we, the fans, love MMA and its fighters.
Here's how it goes: Cormier is a freakishly athletic specimen and one of the best wrestlers to ever enter MMA. He's migrated to the vaunted American Kickboxing Academy where they've bolted on a set of skills that somehow eliminate all the bad habits wrestlers usually have, propelling Cormier to a resplendent record of seven straight wins, finishing all of his opponents save the last; the gritty Devin Cole.
Jeff "The Snowman" Monson's was a D1 college wrestler at the University of Oregon, he's a BJJ black belt, two-time ADCC winner with a litany of other sport grappling accolades, and you'll find some of the biggest and best names in the sport on an MMA record that stems all the way back to 1997. He's won two boxing matches by knockout, he's an ISKA karate champion, and to make you feel even more inferior, he's got a Bachelor and a Master's degree in Psychology. Another way of saying this is that there's basically nothing of importance that you can do better than Jeff Monson.
This animation is a nice way to summarize how far along Cormier has come in only seven fights and two years.
Here's my take on the haps: hard and fast left high-kick, gut-wrenching push kick, left hand to set up the level-drop and grab the over-under, massive display of strength on the inside trip attempt that is countered, but he flows with the go and shifts his momentum to nail the lateral drop. That's the beauty of chaining together top-shelf takedown attempts.
By the way, that laundry list of activity all takes place in about ten seconds.
In the second sequence, we see more of how dangerous his agility and wrestling wit is when combined with such startling comfort in his striking game.
Though perhaps not the prettiest, he leads with a left and a homerun overhand right that will not tickle if it lands squarely. Cormier maintains pressure with an uppercut and a straight right, then a left high-kick followed by a right high-kick.
Still stalking, he ducks under the counter-strike, and hurls dual-combos consecutively, ending with a two-piece consisting of a right uppercut and left hook. Note how he continually drops levels, using the looming threat of his takedowns to interrupt his opponent's rhythm. Finally, he throws a three-punch combo, then clears space up the middle of the pipe with another huge uppercut and follows it in to grab the clinch and hit another trip takedown.
This is the madness that Jeff Monson will be dealing with. In a recent interview with Luke Thomas of SB Nation, Cormier lent some poignant commentary on what I think Jeff Monson's most dangerous ploy will be.
Daniel Cormier: I'm very aware of his half guard position, whether he's on his back or pulls guard or when he shoots and then pulls half-guard. It's one of his strongest positions and you have to be totally aware and I am. I am aware that he is unbelievable in that area but with that being said, I cannot admit that or sit here and say I'm not going to wrestle him because that would be unfair to myself and the skills that I have. I'm a wrestler so I have to be willing to go to the ground with Jeff and hope that the training I've done in the gym and my partners and everything else has sufficiently prepared me for all the challenges that he's going to present. It's going to be extremely tough but we are confident in what I've done in the gym. Nobody in the gym is Jeff Monson and nobody can grapple like Jeff Monson but I've gotta believe that what I've got so far coupled with the skills I have naturally and that I've gained in wrestling, should be enough to allow me to grapple with him through everything else.
Monson's sneaky tactic of shooting in, then falling back to grab a deep half-guard is a maneuver he's used with extreme efficiency in the past. Let's take a sequential look-see at how he employed it to catch Sergei Kharitonov.
Here Monson does a mediocre job of setting up his shoot, but times it when Kharitonov is planted and covers a lot of ground while penetrating deeply. Following through to get deep penetration on the attempt is absolutely essential in order to pull guard effectively.
The next key tactic is the manner in which Monson walks clockwise to clasp his hands together to retain the single and prevent Sergei from slipping out.
Once he locks his grip in the turtle position, he gathers himself and waits for Sergei to react, then surges forward as soon as the Russian frees up a hand to throw strikes.
The next sequence begins with Monson losing the deep half, but grabbing a hold of Sergei's left ankle during the scramble.
Quickly twisting from his back to his knees, Monson secures the ankle pick and is now in takedown position. He bursts forward to knock Sergei backward while pulling the single leg in tight underneath him, forming a fulcrum to literally tip the Russian over backward.
Sergei attempts to recover, desperate to keep Monson from taking the top position, and tries to break his grip and take a knee. Monson is too tenacious, and snaps up to a power position on his knees and thrusts forward to put him flat on his back.
When Monson overtakes the top position, he's already in side-control, and nimbly advances to north-south with his arms already in choke position.
It's basically over from there.
Once the referee decides he's not going to allow Kharitonov to pitter-patter the illegal region of the back of the head, there is nothing left to do but tap out.
This was Sergei Kharitonov's first and only loss by submission, and this is a sturdy veteran of the fight game who's faced elite heavyweight grapplers like Fabricio Werdum and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.
So, in Cormier's quote in the interview above about Monson's half-guard, particularly his danger when shooting in and then pulling guard to achieve the position, that's exactly what he's referencing.
Contrary to fairly popular opinion, Monson has a durable chin, with only Ricco Rodriguez and Pedro Rizzo clipping him with strikes. While I'd give Cormier a slight edge standing, particularly with reach and power, I'm not sure he has the heft to Nyquil Monson.
The most shocking aspect to me is that Cormier is ridiculously favored on the betting lines, as high as -360 at the time of writing. I would agree that his youth, strength to agility ratio, and terrifying acclimation to MMA should put him as the favorite, but it's crazy to put an inexperienced, wrestling based fighter that high against a cagey submissionist like Monson.
While it's most likely that the AKA phenom will switch between standing aggression and takedowns just enough to stay in firm control of the momentum, I'll throw out a longshot pick for Monson to pull off the upset with pure craftiness.
My Prediction: Monson by submission
Valentijn Overeem (29-25) vs. Chad Griggs (10-1)
Let's face it, we're all exhausted by now. If most media outlets can get away with passing off a single paragraph for a prediction, hopefully you can allow me that same liberty for this last pick.
Valentijn, Alistair's brother, has one of the weirdest records you'll find. Fifty-four fights, seventeen wins by submission, fifteen losses by submission. Let's not get into all that. His potential has never been in question, as anyone who's submitted Randy Couture and "Babalu" Sobral is supremely skilled, but his consistency has. He looked ultra-sharp both standing and attacking with submissions against Ray Sefo last time out, but his opponent on Saturday will present more of a challenge.
Facilitated by one of the worst stand-ups in MMA history (shown to the left), Chad Griggs put his name on the map in a dramatic come-from-behind victory over Bobby Lashley. After a monster-slam and achieving a less-than-volatile pace in full mount, the referee intervened and the fight was restarted in the standing position.
To his full credit, Griggs rode out the storm underneath the behemoth and was still fresh enough to cascade punches all over an exhausted Lashley's head for the second round TKO.
Now, this will probably sound like I'm pouring Haterade all over Griggs' parade, but I'm not. His glorious chops alone forgive him of any misdoing, and really, this was another questionable decision by the referee -- not Griggs.
In the first round, Villante tagged Griggs with a right, stepped back, and then cleaved two high kicks. The first looked to wobble Griggs and cause to stumble forward a little, but the referee chose to step in to replace his mouthpiece.
I'm not saying the only reason Chad Griggs won his last two fights, the biggest of his career, was directly on account of the curious actions of the officials, but I don't think it's terrible to say they were extremely favorable to him and highly influential on the outcome. Griggs, gamer that he is, once again turned the tide with a vicious TKO over the rising prospect Villante.
The odds hold Griggs a slight favorite, but perhaps I'm just feeling a bit sentimental, as I think Valentijn's mesh of slick submissions and solid striking can pull him through early. While Griggs could surely out-brawl him standing for a stoppage, or more likely, wear him down with his strength and size in the later rounds for a commanding decision, when Valentijn is on, he's hard to stop.
My Prediction: Overeem by submission
Good gifs via Zombie Prophet of IronForgesIron.com
Fuzzy gifs by Yours Truly