Dan Henderson challenges Rafael 'Feijao' Cavalcante for the Strikeforce light heavyweight title.

On the heels of its World Grand Prix Heavyweight Tournament opening rounds and a well-received Strikeforce Challengers show in Cedar Falls, TX, Scott Coker & Company present the first Strikeforce title matches of 2011, as reigning light heavyweight king Rafael ‘Feijao’ Cavalcante defends against Dan Henderson and women’s welterweight champ Marloes Coenen puts her championship on the line against last-minute replacement Liz Carmouche.

Despite having two titles on the line, to casual fans, this is largely a one-man show, with Henderson far-and-away the brightest star on the bill, perhaps even eclipsing the title for which he’s challenging. Company arena events like this need and deserve the publicity and support, as the televised matches on paper look to deliver some fireworks and highlight reel finishes. Unfortunately, mixed between four UFC events in a single month, the overperforming Fedor vs. Silva show from last month, and now another Nick Diaz title defense in April, Feijao vs. Henderson, not to mention Coenen vs. Carmouche, is lost in the shuffle during its own fight week.

This commercial is the only video that Showtime or Strikeforce released for the event:

Unfortunately, the news below doesn’t get much better. The undercard is made up of local fighters in untelevised matches, a challenge for a women’s title that fans hardly know exists (though Marloes Coenen is pretty and skilled enough that, with some Carano-caliber marketing, I think she could get over with fans), and title contention matches between star-potential hopefuls that are intriguing only to the most hardcore MMA fans.

That said, as one of those hardcore MMA fans, I’m particularly curious about Tim Kennedy vs. Melvin Manhoef, if only to see the clash of styles. Kennedy’s time for stardom, if there is to be one, is now, and if he can get ahold of Manhoef to grapple with him, Kennedy could avoid Manhoef’s knockout power. Several people in the last two years – Gegard Mousasi, Paulo Filho, Robbie Lawler, and Tatsuya Mizuno, have proven that the dangerous Dutch kickboxer can be finished. This match could provide the highlight reel finish of the night, though right now, few casual fans would know that.

170 lbs. – J.P. Felty x John Kuhner: Felty makes his pro debut after amassing a 9-3 amateur record in Kentucky, mostly by submission. He went 1-2 last year, but turned things around in January with a first-round submission win over an experienced local fighter. Kuhner had false starts in 2008 and 2009, losing both times by submission, and hit the restart button by taking a break in 2010. Expect Felty to show up mentally prepared and hungry to impress with a finish.

Prediction: Felty via TKO (round one)

185 lbs. – Marc Cofer x Mitch Whitesel: On paper, this match looks to be a booking of local fighters. Whitesel has a Sherdog record of 15-20 which dates back to 2003. He’s lost his last five matches, two of which already took place this year. Cofer’s record is split even at 3-3, and he hasn’t fought in almost a year. His last three matches were losses, two by submission and one by TKO.

Prediction: Whitesel via TKO (round one)

185 lbs. – Billy ‘Mojo’ Horne x Brian Rogers: Rogers is on a five-fight first-round KO / TKO win streak. Cincinnati’s Mojo Horne is a jiu jitsu specialist who comes in on a two-fight first-round submission streak. Rogers stayed busy in the last half of 2010, which could make the difference

Prediction: Rogers via TKO (round one)

265 lbs. – Jason Riley vs. Jason “Jay” Freeman: Riley is a heavy-handed former heavyweight whose previous Strikeforce outing was a submission loss (due to strikes) to Daniel Cormier last year in Houston, TX. Of his 9-5 record, eight victories are via TKO / KO. Fellow Ohioan Jay Freeman, aka “Charlie Manson III,” makes his MMA return after over a year off. Between the size difference and ring rust, Riley comes in with several advantages on paper. Look for this to be quick.

Prediction: Riley via TKO (round one)

155 lbs. – Jorge Gurgel vs. Tyler Combs: Over his past few matches, Gurgel has looked to prove his standing skills, rather than use his Brazilian jiu Jitsu black belt. Combs is a journeyman with a respectable 13-7 record, amassed on shows throughout the Midwest. Most of his losses have come by way of submission. Most of Combs’ wins have come by way of TKO. It’s not incomprehensible for Gurgel to want to stand-and-bang again, but it didn’t fare him well against K.J. Noons. With two straight losses and Combs first time to the big stage, Gurgel would do well to use his skills for a decisive finish.

Prediction: Gurgel via submission (round three) or decision.

170 lbs. – Roger Bowling vs. Josh Thornburg: Bowling moves on from his back-to-back matches with Bobby Voelker to face Gracie Fighter Josh Thornburg. Both men are fast-rising stars, with only one loss on each of their respective records. This will be Thornburg’s first trip to “The Dance,” but coming from the Cesar Gracie camp, big show jitters are not part of their typical regimen. Bowling has 9-0 boxing background to compliment his 8-1 MMA record. Thornburg to hang tough wherever it goes, but Bowling may have just enough veteran stripes to out-finesse him to the limit, if not stop him with punches.

Prediction: Bowling via unanimous decision

155 lbs. – Billy Evangelista vs. Jorge Masvidal: Evangelista has climbed slowly but steadily up the Strikeforce ladder, finally graduating from the Challengers’ Series to the main cards. The undefeated wrestler & jiu-jitsu specialist from Northern California faces a veteran of over 25 matches. Masvidal has dominated in shows like Bodog Fight, Sengoku, and Bellator. He was 1-2 last year, with each match going to decision. Both men are more prone to going the distance than finishing, and this could play out similarly.

Prediction: Evangelista via unanimous decision.

185 lbs. – Tim Kennedy vs. Melvin Manhoef: Manhoef is susceptible to any respected grappler, and with half of his victories by submission, Kennedy has earned that qualification. However, Kennedy hasn’t faced a striker as severe as Manhoef and his leg kicks, which evens the playing field in many ways. Manhoef is coming off back-to-back losses from the first half of last year, including a Robbie Lawler-branded counterpunch KO. Like with the main event, it’s a striker vs. grappler chess match. Does Manhoef tag Kennedy first or does Kennedy cinch on a submission?

Never let it be said fighters don’t have a sense of humor:

Prediction: Kennedy via submission (round one or two)

135 lbs. Strikeforce Women’s Welterweight Title – Marloes Coenen vs. Liz Carmouche: Carmouche replaces Miesha Tate, who, after winning a four-woman one-night tournament in August, earned a title shot for the women’s welterweight championship. A former marine who did several tours of duty in the Middle East, Carmouche is certainly tough enough. She’s undefeated in five matches, with four finishes, mostly TKOs. Coenen beat Sarah Kaufman for the women’s welterweight title in October last year. She’ll have the size, reach, and experience advantage, but Carmouche has beaten women with those criteria before. I would expect Carmouche to get in the pocket and overwhelm Coenen with strikes, or strive to take her down and ground-and-pound, but if Coenen can control the pace of the match, she’ll likely control the outcome as well.

Showtime / Strikeforce Fighter Profile on Marloes Coenen from last year (tell me you wouldn’t hold the door for this woman):

Prediction: Coenen via submission (round two)

205 lbs. Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Title – Rafael ‘Feijao’ Cavalcante vs. Dan Henderson: As a Black House member and training partner to Anderson Silva, it should come as no surprise that ‘Feijao’ is a striking machine. One of his two losses was due to an illegal kick, and his only submission win was due to punches. Beyond that, he has nine TKO / KO finishes to his credit. On the flipside, Henderson has flat-out KO’s over Ryo Chonan, Akihiro Gono, Wanderlei Silva, Michael Bisping, and ‘Babalu’ Sobral. He’s also faced strikers like Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson, Anderson Silva, and Vitor Belfort. The keys will be who takes command of the match with their obvious skills – Feijao keeping the match standing or Henderson with his clinch and ground game.

Prediction: Cavalcante via TKO (round two)

The Finish

Two thousand eleven is a crucial year for Strikeforce and Showtime. Having been partners for two to five years now (depending on who you ask), the time for introduction and redefinition is over. Now is the time to show-and-prove what great MMA matches and memories these companies can provide. And one part of that is in treating championship matches as end-all-be-all special moments in history that people will want to remember.

Right now, this show does not have that feel.

One of the big keys to this partnership’s success is 1) promoting memorable, charismatic fighters who 2) put on exciting, compelling matches 3) for titles about which people believe and care. Nick Diaz and Gilbert Melendez are doing that, and the Heavyweight Grand Prix is already starting to provide some mainstream water cooler buzz. Hopefully, the champions after Saturday night will go on to cover parts one and two, such that part three, with the help of Showtime, comes to fruition. Going into the event this weekend, however, it is not the case, and it’s a little too late to fix that for this show.


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