Photo by Dave Mandel for Sherdog.com.
On Saturday night, Strikeforce: Fedor vs. Henderson will feature a number of fighters that find themselves in must win situations. Easily the biggest name in this position is main eventer Fedor Emelianenko, as I broke down yesterday. Today, we look at another fighter in a tough spot, and it's one at the complete opposite end of the card.
JZ Cavalcante, Gesias Cavalcante, JZ Calvan - whatever name you choose to call him, it's a name that at one time commanded tremendous respect in the Lightweight division. But on Saturday, you won't even see him on the main card as he faces Bobby Green in a preliminary bout. Long-time JZ fans may be asking themselves how he fell this far, while newer fans may ask why we should care about him at all. Let's try to answer both of those questions.
In 2007, when the Japanese MMA market took a severe hit with the death of Pride and Hero's, JZ was one of the absolute top Lightweight fighters in the world. The young fighter had taken Japan by storm, running through the 2006 and 2007 Hero's Grand Prix tournaments to become the two time champion and putting together an impressive 4 year, 13 fight winning streak. Then, in 2008, new organization Dream announced their plans to launch the company with a Lightweight Grand Prix. The main event of their first ever show was set: JZ vs. Shinya Aoki in a quarter final.
At the time, the Aoki vs. JZ fight was considered an absolute dream match, with the former Pride and Shooto star Aoki vs. the ex-Hero's champion JZ. Many viewed this as a contest between the #1 and #2 Lightweights in the world. If that seems strange, remember that throughout the mid 2000's, Japan dominated the lighter weight classes, with fighters like Takanori Gomi and Kid Yamamoto viewed as the world's elite in these divisions, while in the UFC, the Lightweights were dormant for much of this time. At the time of Dream.1, the UFC Lightweight division was just starting to regain its footing, with the reign of B.J. Penn in its early stages.
This major clash in the Lightweight division was set, and fans eagerly anticipated the showdown. What they got was not at all what was expected.
After just 4 minutes of action, JZ landed an unintentional illegal blow, Aoki is unable to continue, and the mega fight is ruled a no contest. The two would rematch 6 weeks later, but much of the excitement died down in those weeks, and the 2nd fight turned out to be a somewhat lackluster affair, with JZ having no answers for Aoki's control, allowing the Japanese fighter to take home a unanimous decision.
After the Aoki loss, JZ faced a series of setbacks due to injury and other scheduling issues that kept him out of action for over a year. His return took place in Dream in 2009 against Tatsuya Kawajiri. A combination of ring rust and injuries resulted in another somewhat uninspiring performance, with Kawajiri taking the decision win. After that, it would be yet another year plus before JZ returned, this time squeaking by Katsunori Kikuno in a close decision. Following the Kikuno win, he made the move to Strikeforce, losing his debut to Josh Thomson, and going to a No Contest against Justin Wilcox.
Now, the man who was once considered a top 2 Lightweight in the world and one of the most exciting fighters out there, finds himself in a bad spot. Since the Hero's tournament win in 2007, he was only won one single fight. From a 14-1-1 record to only one win in 4 years is a severe drop, and that's reflected in his placement on the card. It's been years since we have seen the exciting, dynamic fighter that won over fans around the world and, given his time off for injuries, it's unclear if we'll ever get that fighter back.
A loss for JZ on Saturday almost surely means he'll lose his chance at the UFC - there's just no room in the Lightweight division for a fighter with his recent record. At 28 he still has career options, and would actually make a nice addition to a Bellator tournament, but it will definitely be a long journey back to the top, and it's a journey I'm not sure he is able to make at this point.
Looking back, the Aoki fights seem to represent JZ's entire post-Hero's career: great expectations, followed by delays, and ultimately disappointment. Can he turn that narrative around? We'll find out on Saturday.