Ahh, what the hell. You don't visit Bloody Elbow for impartial opinions. Luke Rockhold will probably make his first successful title defense against Keith Jardine in the main attraction of the Strikeforce: Rockhold vs. Jardine event tonight, but I want Jardine to win.
Don't get me wrong -- I have nothing against Rockhold. He proved his legitimate talent in upsetting Ronaldo Souza; a title fight the betting lines portrayed as a cakewalk for the reigning champion. Rockhold sashayed around the cage with a whirlwind of striking finesse to dethrone the BJJ phenom in one of the biggest upsets of 2011, flashing quick combinations and flicking out Tornado kicks to add some style points to the stupefying achievement.
I'm not really even a fan of Jardine either. Much like watching the appalling flick The Human Centipede, my face contorts into a look of wretched and confused horror when he does the whole nipple-tweak shtick. He might have the cheesiest nickname in sports history, even if you include Kin Corn Karn from the ancient "Pro Wrestling" game for Nintendo. His punches remind me of my cat when I playfully dangle string in front of his face.
Please receive that as good-natured ribbing, as the reason I'm siding with Jardine is because the peanut gallery is clowning him a little too hard for my taste. Poking fun here and there is one thing, but this match up has been greeted with bellowing laughter, construed as a virtual embarrassment and discarded as an ominous sign of Strikeforce's emaciated roster ever since it was announced.
Jeers about Jardine's glass jaw run rampant, yet he's been stopped by Wanderlei Silva (one of the greatest knockout artists in MMA history), top-15 light-heavyweights in Thiago Silva and Ryan Bader, Houston Alexander (who came out of nowhere with unexpected punching power in Sokoudjou-like fashion) and Travis Wiuff in Jardine's third pro fight. Additionally, he's gone toe-to-toe with a few elite strikers in Quinton Jackson (decision loss), Chuck Liddell (decision win), Brandon Vera (split-decision win), Gegard Mousasi (draw) and Forrest Griffin (yeah, I said it; TKO win).
Finally, this is a guy who trains at the best camp under the best coach and, with a rap sheet punctuated by the who's who of 205-pounds, is now dropping down to 185 to face a young fighter with exactly one top-shelf win to his name.
I'm just saying. Jardine is far from a lock and deserves to be the underdog, but let's not forget that everyone was poo-pooing Rockhold's chances just as much going into the "Jacare" fight. Having fulfilled my quota for emotional whining, I will do you the honor of staying as unbiased and objective as possible in the match up analysis that awaits in the full entry.
Let's give some love to the champ because I'm definitely not trying to discredit him by any means.
Rockhold came up in martial arts training both wrestling and BJJ at the same time. This is a tremendous asset for a young fighter considering how the two styles generally seem to oppose one another rather than be conjoined. The benefits are evident in Rockhold finishing six of his eight wins by submission. The AKA fighter is now a brown belt under Dave Camarillo, a renowned instructor who teaches a system that's custom-tailored to MMA.
Having cemented his dual-pronged grappling prowess, it wasn't entirely shocking that Rockhold was able to stuff the bulk of Souza's takedowns (above). What was indeed jaw-dropping was that he didn't just out-strike "Jacare" but assailed him with a litany of showtime kicks. To the left he unfurls a Taekwondo-based, alternating-leg Double Roundhouse kick. At 6'3" with long limbs and exceptional quickness, Rockhold's freakish improvement with kickboxing is huge. Souza is not known for striking but isn't a pushover in that department and Rockhold handily unhinged him.
I was also impressed with how smoothly Rockhold interchanged his hands and feet. A southpaw, he tends to lead combinations with his long, straight left hand and then trigger follow up shots based on his opponent's reactions, movement and position.
Concerned with defending takedowns early, Rockhold opened up by restricting his arsenal to controlled bursts of clean punches with good footwork. When Souza's aggression faded and he acquiesced to a striking match, Rockhold started to punish him for standing flat-footed and stationary by interspersing kicks, mostly to the body.
Well, he's no Mauricio "Shogun" Rua with this Tornado kick, but it did come at the twenty-four minute mark of a grueling battle. It's not that this is an amazing feat. It's a nice example of Rockhold's fight I.Q. and creative diversity to recognize that Souza was lazily stepping back in a straight line and just covering up to absorb blows.
It will be interesting to see how he addresses the awkward style of Jardine. The clear path against "Jacare" was to avoid the ground and Jardine doesn't have one glaring weakness to exploit.
In fact, Jardine excels in the same areas as Rockhold.
Before he appeared on TUF, Jardine attracted attention for his tenacious wrestling and frenetic scrambling skills. While he's not much of an offensive submissionist, he has a high level of comfort and knowledge and has never been submitted in his career. He wisely went back to those roots to rifle takedowns on Gegard Mousasi and effectively disrupt his rhythm.
The tactic definitely actualized as a way to steal the momentum and keep Mousasi guessing rather than inflict major damage or control.
It was only after the reality show and setting up shop at Jackson's MMA that his herky-jerky striking style of pawing with odd angles and timing emerged. Jardine has a unique grasp of range and assembly of punches that are a nightmare to anticipate and defend. He flurries at a very abstract tempo, his unorthodox boxing sails inward at curious trajectories and he alternates between back-pedaling and countering to pouring it on with heated aggression. Exploding for double-leg takedowns while his opponent is still trying to calculate the way he shifts gears on the feet presents a variety of unique challenges to the defender.
Speaking of defense -- that's one aspect that Jardine really struggles with and accounts for most of his knockout losses.
He seems to become a little too fixated on weaving a mysterious attack with his offense and his defense suffers. His wide and looping style offers up plenty of holes to exploit; he rarely keeps his chin protected while committing to combinations and has been tagged many times because of it. The left hook has been a particular thorn in his side. He also has tremendous power in his low roundhouse kicks and does a good job of controlling distance with them.
Even though I realize we're going back in time quite a bit here, completely undressing a still-ferocious Chuck Liddell on the feet is a memorable accomplishment.
That was another pairing that was considered a gimme so we could finally be treated to the highly anticipated Liddell vs. Silva slug-fest. Jardine defied the odds by cracking his low kick freely from outside and jumbling Liddell's ability to counter with unpredictable boxing tactics in the pocket. Jardine is not a knockout specialist but still packs a significant amount of heft in his hands.
The impact of Jardine's first cut to middleweight will obviously be a pivotal factor.
Typically, a fighter can expect a boost in strength while sacrificing quickness in a lower weight class. On paper, this should suit Jardine well. Quickness was never an integral ability and his size and strength should complement his takedown prowess. Of course, cardio is always a concern, and this time it's magnified by the contest being a five-round affair. Experience is all Jardine while youthful exuberance, agility, height/reach and momentum are advantages for Rockhold.
Regardless of all my blabbering about Jardine, Rockhold is the rightful favorite and the safe pick. I'm still not on board with the +400-range betting odds for Jardine though. Hopefully I've succeeded in increasing the appeal of the match up, even if it's just so you can say "I told you so!" if Rockhold takes it. Being fully aware it's a risky choice, I'm sticking to my guns and going with the underdog.
My Prediction: Keith Jardine by TKO.
Rockhold vs. Souza and Jardine vs. Mousasi gifs via Zombie Prophet of IronForgesIron.com
Jardine vs. Liddell gif via FightReport.net
All others via MMA-Core.com