Not only is the Strikeforce Grand Prix: Barnett vs. Kharitonov preliminary card packed with intriguing match ups, but it's also a virtual launch pad for three stellar up and coming fighters. HD Net will air the entire undercard live on Saturday night starting at 8 p.m ET.
The biggest monster to watch out for is Yoel Romero who, with only four pro fights under his belt, tangles with former Strikeforce light-heavyweight champ Rafael "Feijao" Cavalcante. Highly esteemed Muay Thai striker Marcos Rogerio de Lima will join sturdy veteran Mike Kyle in transforming into a whirlwind of flying fists and kicks until one is adequately incapacitated. Canadian youngster Jordan MeinEvangelista "Cyborg" Santos.
Each of these new faces are fresh acquisitions for Strikeforce and truly legitimate prospects. They've passed the "B-League Initiation" with flying colors and will now undergo the human litmus test in their first taste of big time competition. Rounding out the five-fight preliminary portion are scraps pitting Amanda Nunes vs. Alexis Davis and Dominique Steele vs. Chris Mierzwiak
Rafael "Feijao" Cavalcante (10-3) vs. Yoel Romero Palacio (4-0)
With my typical infusion of embellishment, let me lambaste you with the hype behind Romero: take a hulking, broad shouldered stack of muscle like a pixelated villain straight out of Mike Tyson's Punch Out, throw in Olympic freestyle wrestling credentials with silver medal honors at the 2000 games in Sydney, and then shatter the image of the loafing, one-dimensional smash-grappler you've conjured up by endowing the leviathan with a shockingly smooth and polished boxing game. Enter Yoel Romero.
The Cuban southpaw has been boxing with his younger brother (24-1 WBA Cruiserweight Interim Champion) Yoel Pablo Hernandez since they were young and intentionally kept his early fights standing to show off his dazzling striking game. High caliber wrestlers usually struggle the most to adapt their stance and footwork to MMA's unique environment, yet Romero glides around the ring, bobbing and weaving, with an aura of grace and dexterity that belies his grappling background.
His comic book machismo makes him a marketable star and his unparalleled athleticism give him an honest chance to live up to the hype. Read on for detailed assessments of the preliminary card match ups.
I'm a little torn on this match up because I've always touted Cavalcante as one of the most under-rated 205ers around.
Of his three losses, the first was a DQ against Marcio Cruz, a.k.a. "Pe De Pano", back in the IFL days, the second -- which really killed his momentum -- was a 2009 knockout at the hands of Mike Kyle, and he lost his title to Dan Henderson by way of H-bomb in his last outing.
Cavalcante's breakout performance was his thrilling upset of Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal, where the Team Nogueira product displayed elite clinch-work to ward off the same type of electric boxing and wrestling onslaught that Romero brings to the table. He continually slashed knees straight up the pocket with the plum grip.
Lawal only snared two of six takedown attempts and, in the few instances where he was on his back, Cavalcante booted King Mo off balance from butterfly guard to stand back up unscathed.
The Muay Thai mentality is to constantly move forward -- if you're backing up, you're losing. This philosophy shines through in the takedown defense of many Thai-based strikers, as referenced in the Judo Chop on Thiago Alves' footwork, who confront their opponent head-on rather than trying to elude them.
In this animation, "Feijao" backs straight up and embraces the clinch instead of cutting a hard angle to scoot out of the corner. He's an aggressive clincher whose volatile offense accounts for most of his defensive tactics -- just like Thiago Alves -- which is an admirable but risky approach.
Here again Cavalcante unloads two massive strikes to counter Lawal's invasion. As with the big right knee he constantly hammers upward, he adds in a cleaving uppercut, both of which are tailored for an incoming assailant who's dropping levels and ducking their head to tie up.
In the first fight-finishing sequence above, the gamble obviously pays off. The dangers are depicted to the right.
With his butt hitting the cage wall, Cavalcante blasts his signature knee, but his vulnerable location puts Lawal in the perfect position to penetrate deep inside for the single.
Romero's grasp of striking fundamentals makes him seem more like a boxing crossover. Note the unnervingly nimble head movement and footwork while he's shredding laser-straight punches.
1) He opens up with a flying knee and pivots right to lance his left hand before slipping the counter. He sways his head three times in this short sequence to dodge blows, all the while keeping a strong, balanced base but staying light on his toes.
2) With his opponent against the ropes, more of Romero's silky boxing is demonstrated. Check the hand speed, the accuracy and variety of his punches, and again the beautiful head movement.
3) His opponent, frustrated, charges Romero with a wild flurry and gets a tough reminder that the guy toying with him on the feet is an Olympic wrestler. Fighters who can mesh exceptional striking and wrestling together have myriad options that wreak havoc on the defender.
4) The last glimpse is flat out the sweetest and most powerful ankle pick you've ever seen in MMA, and an excellent example of why Romero is such a trumpeted newcomer.
This last animation just reinforces his comfort on the feet, admirable aggression and raw striking heft. He wrapped this fight up, his last, in just thirty-three seconds.
Of course, as promising as Romero seems, we can't neglect all the realities of being so green in MMA. He's never been hit by a rocket-fueled technician, nor clinched with a Thai expert, nor grappled with a high level BJJ black belt like "Feijao".
It's uncharacteristic for me to predict Romero. I'm bitterly stubborn about waiting for an inexperienced fighter earn his stripes against legit competition and Cavalcante is one of my first mentions for under-appreciated fighters. However, I think Romero is an outright anomaly, for all the reasons listed above.
My Prediction: Yoel Romero by TKO
Evangelista "Cyborg" Santos (18-14) vs. Jordan "Young Gun" Mein (22-7)
Canadian Jordan Mein is the type of young and hungry fighter that dove headfirst into MMA. Some budding careers are handled with meticulous care and caution, while others are simply hurled into the flames and either singed beyond repair or tempered into steel.
Mein capitalized on the atypical situation of having a father who ran a local fight gym (Canadian Martial Arts Centre) and promotion (Rumble in the Cage) who has happy to launch his son into combat sports.
In 2006 and 2007, his first two years in the sport, Mein fought six times, starting with future phenom Rory MacDonald. Mein lost four of his seven initial bouts before the momentum built. He went on to notch five in a row, finishing four, before his next loss in 2008, then repeated the exact same sequence but, this time, finished each of his wins.
In the final stretch leading up to his Strikeforce debut, he blazed through nine of his next ten opponents with seven stoppages, adding some reputable names to his rap sheet like Joe Riggs, Josh Burkman and Marius Zaromskis. Jason High was the only fighter to best him in the chain of performances that served as his graduation to the big leagues.
Mein is a talented and creative striker. He switches his stance randomly and is virtually ambidextrous. He traded with feared striker Marius Zaromskis for all three rounds and judiciously picked his spots to wear him down.
Though he explodes with tenacious attacks, he's governed by an air of composure that is unique for his age.
Taking note that Zaromskis kept ducking low and to his left before countering, the animation to the right shows Mein pinpointing the pattern by hammering a flying knee from outside.
Notice how he flicks out the front kick and effortlessly switches to southpaw, where he presses with his best weapon from both stances, which is the hook-cross combo.
Here Mein dials up the fury after pinning Zaromskis in the corner, lashing out with a fearsome eleven-strike combination. Yes ... eleven.
This was the only sequence where he really stayed on the trigger. The rest of the fight was a calculated stalking where Mein snapped off crisp low kicks and one-twos.
His lead hook is often the corkscrew type that torques over the guard; a perfect set up for the following cross, which is a method both Emelianenko brothers used successfully.
His defense is excellent, though his lead leg can be a target for low kicks, and his footwork and balance are solid.
"Cyborg" is a perfect test for the rising youngster.
The Chute Boxe mauler has an equally diverse striking acumen. We saw him chop away at the lead leg of Nick Diaz ruthlessly, backing up his distance device with short elbows and searing punches.
Their stand up is alike in that they both mix their strikes well, anchor their combinations with the hook-straight and work in uppercuts, intersperse heavy shots to the body, and key off their jabs and low kicks.
Mein likes to throw a spinning back fist, where Santos is more of a threat with singular right hands and short-range forearms.
In the clinch, Santos looks to push off and circle out or snatch the Thai plum and knee; Mein threatens with takedowns and engages in close-quarter brawling in controlled bursts.
Mein is an expert at owning the distance. His range and footwork usually put him just out of reach or right in your face.
I'm curious if Santos will pressure or assume the counter punching role. He's rarely inclined to force a ground fight but might have an edge with submissions.
I expect the fight to take place standing in an entertaining slug-fest, with both competitors trading low kicks and ill intended combinations while preying on the slightest mistake. Santos is a crippling striker, strong at 170 and should be a fairly even match for Mein. However, I do feel that Mein is the real deal and will have the sharper and more precise stand up. The first round will be a mutual massacre but I imagine that Mein can turn the tide in the later rounds if he doesn't catch him early.
My Prediction: Jordan Mein by TKO
Mike Kyle (18-8-1) vs. Marcos Rogerio de Lima (8-0)
Marcos Rogerio "Pezao" de Lima is a Muay Thai crossover with an undefeated eight-fight record with six TKOs, and the prime suspect on Leland Roling's Light-Heavyweight Scouting Report.
Paulo Filho, his latest victim and the win that authenticated his reputation, is the only opponent to survive to a decision. de Lima showed encouraging ground prowess by shrimping out and using the fence wall to elude Filho's top control, and his resilience on the mat coupled with a big name win thrust him into the global spotlight.
"Pezao" wields a fully stocked Thai arsenal with each strike packing an incredible wallop.
The beautiful aspect of the three rising prospects debuting on this card is that they have an equal amount of raw skill and entertaining panache. de Lima is no exception.
He fights with the primal rage of an early Chute Boxe product, exuding a malicious intent that makes you feel like he genuinely desires to inflict great bodily harm.
Evidence for this can be found in the punctuation marks in both of the knockouts shown to the right: after his devastating power is shown in the flush uppercut, he cracks his turtled opponent with a full power kick to the leg; after reeling off a double dose of crushing left hooks, he chases his dazed foe across the ring to seal the deal with a flying double foot stomp.
This makes Mike Kyle, who is not considered a fair and friendly sportsman, the perfect welcome for de Lima.
Ranging from allegations that he bit Wes Simms at UFC 47 and used an illegal technique to knock Kyle Olsen out before pummeling his unconscious body despite the referee trying to intervene, Mike Kyle has a rep for being a dirty fighter.
He is not, however, without skill. Like de Lima, Kyle has enormous punching power, winning twelve of eighteen by TKO.
He doesn't do anything fancy on the feet, just throws simple but heavy punches that can end the fight at any time. He holds a knockout victory over Rafael Cavalcante and almost treated Antonio Silva to the same.
Alternating from light-heavy to heavyweight, Kyle is a large athlete who will have a size and strength advantage. He will mostly lay out clean right hands like the one that drops Silva above while circling to the left to keep de Lima in front of his power.
"Pezao" trains under the renowned Judo and BJJ icon Marco Barbosa and spent time at the Nova Uniao camp preparing for Kyle. His kicks will be a key factor against Kyle's boxing and, even though he's a distinguished Thai practitioner, his punches can come a bit wide in the pocket. His ground game has been steadily improving, but Kyle is a decent wrestler and might be able to nail brief takedowns to keep the striker at bay and score points.
There is a damn good case for each of the lauded newcomers to win. Common sense would steer me toward a Muay Thai specialist beating a journeyman who will probably stand with him, but I can't deny that for some reason I'm inclined to pick Kyle in this one. Really, that doesn't make a lot of sense, but I have a nagging twinge that his experience and strength will carry him through, he'll capitalize on being more diverse and the American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) will equip him with a cerebral strategy.
My Prediction: Mike Kyle by decision
In a women's bantamweight (135-pounds) bout, perilous striker Amanda Nunes from the AMA Fight Club takes on submission specialist Alexis Davis.
Nunes is a top ranked female fighter of Brazilian descent who started boxing at age sixteen, BJJ at age seventeen, and is basically a purebred killer. After losing her MMA debut by submission in 2008, Nunes has clocked in six consecutive knockouts, all but one in the first round, earning her the nickname "Lioness of the Ring". It took her just fourteen seconds to vanquish Julia Budd in her last performance on the Woodley vs. Saffiedine card.
Alexis Davis hails from Canada and holds a brown belt in BJJ and a black belt in traditional Japanese Jujutsu. Standout fighters Shayna Baszler, Tara LaRosa and Sarah Kaufman account for three of her four losses, and she's fresh off a decision victory over Julie Kedzie at the Fedor vs. Henderson event. Davis is also considered one of the best female 135-pound fighters.
While Nunes will have trouble competing with Davis on the ground for any extended periods of time, her rousing kickboxing should propel her to a win here. Davis has all the tools to enforce an insurmountable grappling assault and her chances vastly increase as the fight goes on, but Nunes is hell on wheels to stand with and will be head-hunting early.
My Prediction: Amanda Nunes by TKO
Lawal vs. Cavalcante gifs via Grappo
Diaz vs. Santos and Kyle vs. Silva gifs via Zombie Prophet of IronForgesIron.com
All other gifs via Caposa