Ben Fowlkes
Saturday December 19th, 2009

When Cung Le takes on Scott Smith Saturday night, it will be the first time in close to two years he's climbed in the cage. Lately, Le has been much more interested in his acting career than his pugilistic one, and it's hard to blame him. At 37, the prospect of making a good living without getting regularly punched in the face must seem too attractive to pass up.

But as Le returns to Strikeforce as a kind of limited engagement in between movie roles, it's hard not to wonder what he's hoping to accomplish. To hear him tell it, it's more of a favor to Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker than anything else. The chance to make a little money without having to face a top opponent probably did hurt either, but in a recent interview Le actually said he feels like he has an "obligation" to fight for Strikeforce whenever his calendar is clear, as a way of thanking them for being so supportive of his acting career.

That's an honorable motive, but honorable motives can sometimes get guys hurt in this business. On paper, Le shouldn't have too much trouble with Smith. He's a slightly more elegant version of a brawler, and he doesn't have as many weapons at his disposal as Le does. What Smith has, though, is power. More than once he's pulled out a win in a fight he seemed to be on his way to losing thanks to his ability to end the fight at any time with one well-placed punch.

Coming back from a long layoff in your late thirties against a guy like that has its risks. They'd be perfectly acceptable risks in Le was looking to come back for good, but a man who's doing a favor for a friend doesn't necessarily train with the same hunger as the man fighting for his livelihood. Le hasn't been beaten yet in his relatively brief MMA career, so we don't know exactly what it's going to take to stop him. We might still not know after Saturday night, but rarely does excessive time away from the sport produce a better fighter than the one who walked away.

Josh Thomson is doing his best to convince us the Strikeforce lightweight title isn't just an obligatory piece of hardware. His fight with Gilbert Melendez may be a clash of Strikeforce's best 155-pounders, but it's definitely not a clash of the best in the world as long as B.J. Penn isn't in there. He proved yet again last weekend that he's the top lightweight in MMA, and his dominant performance suggested that whoever number two is has a big gulf between himself and the UFC champ.

That takes a little bit of the polish off the Strikeforce lightweight strap, but it doesn't completely undermine the value of the Thomson-Melendez rematch. The first time they met it was all Thomson. That was a year and a half ago, and since then Thomson has struggled with injuries that made for some frustrating days in the gym.

He says he's healthy again and ready to get back into action, but Melendez has only gotten better while Thomson's been away. Expect this to be a very different fight than the first meeting. This one ought to be much closer, with the outcome far less certain in the later rounds.

Finally, Strikeforce "Evolution" sees the return of old school MMA icon Matt Lindland, who'll be taking on Brazilian submissions expert Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza in a rare American appearance. The last time Lindland competed he got knocked out in a little over 30 seconds by Vitor Belfort. It was a frightening finish for the 39-year-old Olympic silver medalist, but it takes more than that to keep the hard-headed Lindland at home.

Souza is coming off a disappointing no contest result against rival Jason "Mayhem" Miller. Though he's spent the last couple years fighting mostly in Japan, his prowess is such that he's a familiar face to hardcore MMA fans who have been waiting to see him in a big American promotion for some time.

Realistically, the edge should belong to the younger, quicker Souza. But this will be a question of styles. Lindland is a lanky, awkwardly effective striker, and his wrestling allows him to suffocate opponents at times and make them look bad. If "Jacare" spends three rounds looking for a submission off his back, he risks giving the decision away to Lindland. If he hangs back and tries to avoid the takedown, he concedes too much control of the pace.

Souza has to find a way to fight his fight and take Lindland out of his comfort zone. Otherwise he could be in for a long and frustrating night.

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