Josh Gross
Friday January 29th, 2010

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Rich Chou couldn't help but entertain flashbacks as he stepped into the lobby of a Crowne Plaza about 30 minutes north of Miami.

Sixteen months ago, Chou was a cog in a sputtering EliteXC machine that, for one reason or many, was on the verge of collapse. When he was last here in October 2008, CBS was set to air a card headlined by a joke of a fight -- but a ratings-grabber -- between Kevin "Kimbo Slice" Ferguson and Ken Shamrock from the BankAtlantic Center.

Saturday, inside the same arena where Seth Petruzelli replaced Shamrock, dropped Ferguson, and killed EliteXC, Strikeforce makes its 2010 debut with a card reminiscent of EliteXC's death rattle -- a middleweight slugfest, a top-notch women's bout, a name or two meant to drive new viewers to watch, and a high-quality title fight.

Yet the lessons of EliteXC's failure, said Chou, who was hired by Strikeforce to help with matchmaking duties in the latter part of 2009, were not forgotten.

While there are obvious similarities between EliteXC and Strikeforce, particularly when it comes to television relationships with Showtime and CBS, the companies' philosophies and power structures are vastly different, he said. So too, the focus in the cage.

Yes, the professional fighting debut of 47-year-old Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker has perplexed many and prompted misguided comparisons to EliteXC's relationship with Slice. The saga of finding an opponent for heavyweight Bobby Lashley, a pro wrestler people seem desperate to compare to Brock Lesnar, didn't speak highly for anyone involved. (Both men are expected to earn victories Saturday, over Greg Nagy and Wes Sims respectively.) However unlike EliteXC, which preempted a welterweight title fight between Jake Shields and Paul Daley for Slice-Shamrock, neither was tabbed by Strikeforce to appear in the evening's main event.

That distinction thankfully belongs to Nick Diaz and Dream champion Marius Zaromskis, who vie for Strikeforce's vacant 170-pound title -- one of four compelling, meaningful fights on the card.

When the two square off Saturday, Diaz would seem to benefit from height and reach advantages, though Zaromskis, a 29-year-old Lithuanian living and training out of London, has said he doesn't believe either will play a factor when it comes to determining the winner.

Ranked No. 8 by after a tremendous 2009 in which he captured Dream's welterweight grand prix, Zaromskis actually walks into the title fight an underdog -- and the lack of confidence by oddsmakers has some merit. While Zaromskis is an accurate, powerful striker, holes remain in his game that Diaz is ripe to exploit, particularly on the floor where the 26-year-old Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt from Stockton, Calif., excels.

Returning to welterweight after a mishmash of bouts between 160 and 180 pounds, Diaz should be at his physical best in a division that saw him do much of his best work after turning pro in 2001.

Because of his size and grappling advantage, Diaz is the pick. But that comes with the understanding that Zaromskis (13-3) is about as dangerous a striker as the division has produced and Diaz (20-7) has been hit and hurt in previous fights.

Attempting the first defense of her 145-pound Strikeforce women's title since stomping Gina Carano last August, Cris Santos (8-1) faces a legitimate threat in Dutch veteran Marloes Coenen (17-3).

Things get pretty basic when "Cyborg" steps in a cage: The 24-year-old Brazilian is hyper-aggressive, something most women simply can't handle. Over a five-round title fight the expectation is at some point she'll land a blow that severely cripples the opposition.

Coenen, however, is no pushover. While she doesn't possess the champion's muscular build or power, the 28-year-old grappling-savvy veteran has the right kind of attitude to hang in long enough to catch Santos in a mistake.

According to Coenen's trainer Martin de Jong, the challenger intends on pressuring Santos, a role reversal they believe will help neutralize some of the offensive firepower Cyborg brings into fights. It's a necessary risk considering the other options. The bout should come down to whether or not Coenen can keep Cyborg off of her long enough to land effective strikes. I don't think she can, at least not over the course of a 25-minute fight.

There's not much mystery in a middleweight clash featuring guys nicknamed "Ruthless" and "No Mercy."

If Robbie Lawler (18-5) chooses to stand with Melvin Manhoef, he risks an early and violent end to the night. It's clear Lawler is the better mixed martial artist, but in terms of pure explosiveness, few fighters anywhere at anytime rival Manhoef, a 33-year-old Dutch super-striker who is so wild he has often been his own worst enemy.

While Lawler, 27, certainly has the power and will to stop just about anyone in the world, the American's best bet is to find a takedown and work from the top. With only one submission win on his ledger, Lawler doesn't represent the kind of threat Manhoef (24-6-1) has faltered against in previous MMA bouts.

The fashionable pick is Manhoef, and I would tend to agree. Lawler's stubbornness leads to his downfall.

Not scheduled to air on the Showtime portion of the card, this welterweight bout with possible No. 1 contender implications is certainly worthy of a mention. Fans can watch it live at 9:05 p.m. ET on a live stream at

Evenly matched in skill and experience, Hieron (18-4) has an edge in speed and athleticism over Riggs (32-11), which is why I like him to win. It would not at all be surprising if this one went the distance.

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