I’m not sure what’s the sadder aspect to the Strikeforce sale – that one company now dominates 90% of the worldwide MMA market, or that it’s most qualified competitor, after years of toiling for casual fans’ respect on its own terms, is now hitting its stride and receiving the attention it’s deserved all this time.

On Saturday, April 9th, the group I’m still considering Coker & Company debuted in San Diego with a lineup of celebrated and respected international competition going against three homegrown Strikeforce stars, including title defenses by Nick Diaz and Gilbert ‘El Nino’ Melendez, and a qualified last-minute replacement in ‘The Dean of Mean,’ Keith Jardine.

What I feared would play in disappointment produced three spectacular first-round finishes and a sloppy but compelling and controversial draw that sets the stage for a storyline rematch. Diaz, defending his Strikeforce welterweight (170 lbs.) title against Paul ‘Semtex’ Daley, triggered more anticipation and debate than any other recent Strikeforce main event. Many believed that Daley, an undeniably dangerous striker, had the speed, power, and striking accuracy to vanquish Diaz, who has become a company star over the last two years by walking to the anti-hero beat of his own drummer. The end result was one of the most exciting rounds I’ve seen all year, with the outspoken and unapologetic British kickboxer dropping the champ several times and threatening him more than any other of Diaz’s    title challenges.

The card was also highlighted by a lightweight title defense by Gilbert Melendez and the U.S. return of DREAM lightweight champion Shinya Aoki. Both fighters renewed their awareness level among fans with dominant first-round finishes. Aoki seemed to have his old emotional charm back, in tears after his victory due apparently to the recent birth of his son, who he wasn’t able to see due to training for this fight. Melendez dispatched of Aoki’s DREAM colleague (and former opponent) Tetsuya Kawajiri handily, throwing punches and elbows for the TKO win. ‘El Nino’ is one of Strikeforce’s few homegrown stars, and as the merger between the UFC and Strikeforce continues over the coming months / years, he’ll be someone the larger casual audience will embrace the most.

Former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion Gegard Mousasi fighting Keith Jardine was another illustration of the controversy behind takedowns and the current scoring system. Jardine wrestled Mousasi to the ground several times in the first and second rounds, which is the only argument for giving the Jardine those rounds. However, the Dean of Mean didn’t advance position or threaten with finishing in any of those situations. What’s more, Mousasi didn’t even look worried at any point, appearing somewhat bored before shrimping out and getting back to his feet seconds later.

This points to judges’ overvalue of takedowns in a match where the most damage was done in the stand-up game. In many peoples’ eyes, including a majority of judges, takedowns are a fundamental benchmark in MMA, almost the grappler’s equivalent of a striker’s knockdown. Both are easy and empirical to identify and account for. However, what really matters in a fight is the follow up, and how effective those benchmarks are in allowing a fighter to advance or finish.

One school of thought is that takedowns and knockdowns, even if ultimately ineffectual in a fight, can be the tie-breaker for a round that is otherwise close to even (in terms of damage and landing, I thought Mousasi was clearly ahead). The other school of thought is that takedowns should require more control of the opponent or position advancing before it really affects the score (this is less of a controversy with knockdowns, perhaps as the visual act of a knockdown looks more commanding and damaging than any given takedown).

I tend to lean towards the latter belief, that not all takedowns should be equal. Of course, even then, the degree to which a fighter needs to control or advance position is always going to be subjective between judges as well.

I gave each round to Mousasi 10-9, and a 30-27 win in the end. Jardine scored multiple takedowns in the first and second, which likely held weight in the judges’ eyes, but I didn’t think he did enough with them relative to Mousasi’s stand-up dominance during the rest of those rounds.

Mousasi was also docked a point in round one due to an upkick to the head while Jardine was on his knees in Mousasi’s guard. Whether it was intentional or accidental is up for debate – Mousasi likely didn’t mean to throw the kick, but it looked like he had a clear view of Jardine being on his knees. Jardine seemed to recover without too much difficulty, and it being a first offense, issuing a warning wouldn’t be unreasonable. But referee Mike Beltran deducted the point, which resulted in a 9-9 first round, by my score. Even given that, I saw Mousasi winning 29-27.

The other three televised matches ended in first-round finishes, resulting in a show budgeted for 2 ½ to three hours ending almost an hour early. Keep in mind Showtime controls the production and running time of Strikeforce shows, which presumably will be the case for as long as Strikeforce broadcasts on the channel. I question whether this is something that is going to be rectified anytime soon under the Zuffa regime.

In a dichotomy of target audiences, extra time was filled with episodes of Inside NASCAR and Nurse Jackie.

Here’s how my predictions and reality turned out for Strikeforce: Diaz vs. Daley:

155 lbs. – Shinya Aoki x Lyle ‘Fancy Pants’ Beerbohm:
Prediction: Beerbohm via TKO (round three)
Result: Aoki via submissioin (round one)

205 lbs. – Gegard Mousasi x Keith Jardine:
Prediction: Jardine via TKO (round two or three)
Result: Technical / Majority Draw (29-27 Mousasi, 28-28, 28-28)

155 lbs. Strikeforce Lightweight Title – Gilbert Melendez x Tatsuya Kawajiri:
Prediction: Melendez via submission (round two) or unanimous decision
Result: Melendez via TKO (round one)

170 lbs. Strikeforce Welterweight Title – Nick Diaz x Paul Daley:
Prediction: Diaz by submission (round two or three)
Result: Diaz by TKO (round one)

The Finish
If my tone and perspective on Strikeforce’s recent string of excellent shows sounds backhanded and glass-half-empty, the quality of this show should be reiterated.

Tonight, the only drawback to Strikeforce: Diaz vs. Daley was that we didn’t get more. The matches were imaginative and felt like they had a larger relevancy – of Strikeforce taking on the world. And certainly all of them were exciting to watch and difficult to predict.

For years, I’ve seen MMA promotions come and go, all trying so hard, too hard, to figure out their own identity while simultaneously trying to replicate for themselves the lightning-in-a-bottle luck that Dana White and the Fertittas had in building the UFC.  Tonight’s event is the ‘MMA alternate choice’ that promoters have wanted to discover. Of course, its not something that you create instantly overnight, so it’s a relief that MMA and ‘the other big group’ finally got to this point. Hopefully we’ll get it for a little while longer.

Putting the larger picture aside for a moment, Strikeforce fans can look forward to finally resuming the heavyweight WGP tournament. Perhaps people will point to the four-man heavyweight tournament from three years ago that the UFC produced, which resulted in Brock Lesnar winning the UFC heavyweight championship, but again, the Strikeforce product has an international element that gives it a more universal tone. If the first leg of that tournament and tonight’s show is any indicator of things to come in the rest of 2011, casual fans just learning about Strikeforce now are going to catch the promotion at the peak of their game. And not a second too soon.

In the meantime, we’ll all have to settle for this Canadian show I keep hearing about at the end of the month. Who knows? It might actually be good too.

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