Josh Gross
Friday April 16th, 2010

NASHVILLE -- Omens can be found anywhere.

What then to make of Strikeforce middleweight champion Jake Shields's absent belt?

Sitting adjacent to fellow Strikeforce titlists Gilbert Melendez and Gegard Mousasi, who were not in need of their straps, three champs joined three challengers Thursday to address the media one final time prior to an anticipated night of fights in the Music City.

"A buddy of Jake's forgot to bring the belt," chuckled Jack Shields, the fighter's father and manager, who didn't think to include it on a list of items worth transporting from California. Not that he was omitting it; gaudy jewelry signifying real accomplishments isn't something one usually needs reminding of -- not on the eve of a title defense, at least.

No word yet if the important accessory will arrive in time for Saturday's main event at the Bridgestone Arena -- one of three Strikeforce-promoted bouts guaranteed to air on CBS (9 p.m. ET/PT) -- though Dan Henderson might like to know. If not, the easygoing Henderson, debuting in Strikeforce after willfully departing the Ultimate Fighting Championship earlier this year, owns enough belts to tide him over should the 39-year-old great upend Shields.

Fulfilling the final bout of an agreement he signed while Pro Elite was in business, Shields, thanks to a shrewdly carved-out "champion's" clause, is positioned to meet free agency as a titleholder, winner of 14 in a row, a top-three-ranked middleweight (and welterweight should he choose to fight there), and legitimate pound-for-pound entry. Not bad for a fighter lacking the reputation as a particularly compelling fellow.

"If I go out there and perform good, go out there and knock Dan Henderson out, of course I'm going to get paid," Shields said. "Of course it's a big factor. You don't want to go out there and look bad. I signed the contract. I put a lot of pressure on every one of my fights, that's why I've been successful. I don't want to lose any fights. But this one, the main event on CBS, there's a lot of pressure to win and win in exciting fashion."

The "exciting fashion" stuff is his promoter, Scott Coker, talking.

Winning -- pretty, ugly, exciting, boring, you name it -- has always been enough for Shields (24-4-1), as it has for Henderson (25-7), prompting some to predict the five-round main event could run slow, much like the 31-year-old Californian's last bout against Jason "Mayhem" Miller.

There aren't any secrets here. Shields is one of the best in MMA at combining wrestling with submissions. Henderson, a two-time U.S. Olympian in Greco-Roman wrestling, prefers to grapple and punch, which he did beautifully in his last appearance at UFC 100 when a right hook nearly powered Michael Bisping's head past UFC president Dana White.

"That fight was pretty huge in terms of notoriety," Henderson said. "It's been steadily going up since then."

Exposure provided by Strikeforce on CBS was one reason Henderson fled the UFC, where the two-division Pride champion lost twice (on points to Quinton Jackson in a light heavyweight title fight, and by submission to Anderson Silva at 185 pounds) against three victories.

Rumors peg Shields as a candidate for the UFC regardless of the outcome versus Henderson, though a win would make him the most sought after fighter since Fedor Emelianenko ended up in Coker's expanding stable last summer.

"This is the biggest fight of my career," Shields said. "Henderson's a huge name for the sport. Main event on CBS. I've had a lot of big fights, but if I had to rank one this would be the biggest fight ever."

Asked if he had advice should Shields seek a route into the UFC, Henderson quipped: "Always get it in writing. Dana's famous last words: 'Don't worry bro, we'll take care of you.'"

Battle for No. 1

Because Frankie Edgar toppled B.J. Penn last weekend in Abu Dhabi, more than Gilbert Melendez's belt is at stake Saturday. Edgar's points win over the reigning UFC champion thoroughly confused the lightweight division, leaving Melendez's challenger Shinya Aoki with an opportunity to validate himself as the top 155-pounder in MMA.

"I feel Shinya is No. 1 in the world right now," said the 27-year-old Melendez. "I still think B.J.'s No. 2. It seems like the three through 15 spots are up for grabs. Shinya has obviously put himself above the rest, but I've done a lot in this sport. I'd like to think I'd be a top three guy if I pull this off."

Melendez-Aoki should provide some clarity, not that it seems to matter to Japan's best mixed martial artist.

"I don't care about B.J. Penn or the UFC," said the Dream lightweight champion. "I'm focused on this fight."

Count Aoki (23-4, 1 NC) among the majority of MMA watchers this weekend.

Of the card's three championship bouts, Melendez's defense has generated the most interest from fans and media. For good reason. It brings an interesting set of styles -- Melendez the hard-charger against Aoki the submission master -- and storylines -- the battle for No. 1 and the next phase of a burgeoning relationship between Strikeforce and Dream.

In his last fight, Aoki, 26, infamously treated Mizuto Hirota's right arm like a chicken wing, almost snapping it clean off the shoulder. Aoki may not look it, but he's mean. And motivated. And, he said repeatedly in the lead-up to his first bout in the U.S., in a must-win position for Japanese MMA.

Melendez (17-2) needs to maintain his aggressive approach without sacrificing position on the ground, otherwise Aoki can tie him up and, quite literally, force a submission. If the American attempts to keep it standing, and since he's the better wrestler and striker that seems his likeliest path to victory, he shouldn't meet with any serious trouble. Far better strikers have come and gone. Aoki has never ended a fight on the feet, and it would be a minor miracle if he did so against the stout Strikeforce champ.

"I'm a grown man," said Melendez, who regained the belt in December against Josh Thomson. "I know what I'm getting into. He may break my arm. I may break his jaw. Someone may get put to sleep."

And someone could also be the top-ranked lightweight in the world.

Time for talk is over

Gegard Mousasi still isn't used to this.

"You got to spice it up," bellowed Muhammed Lawal in the light heavyweight champion's direction Thursday afternoon. "This fight is the main fight people are talking about ... besides the other two. Come on man, just have some fun."

Do an impression, Mousasi. Do it. Please. Mousasi, relax. Get angry, Mousasi. Do something, Mousasi!

If nothing else, Lawal, known by everyone else as "King Mo," has been heard. Plenty. By everyone. Including the 24-year-old Armenian-born champion, who isn't interested in listening anymore, if he ever was.

"It bothered me at first, but now I can laugh about it," Mousasi said of Lawal's goading, which includes an impersonation of the champion the challenger likens to Kermit the Frog. "It's not going to affect my performance in the cage.

"If you know him, if you get to know him, he's a nice guy. But for me I have to fight him so it's a different situation. I don't need to know him."

In just his seventh fight since turning professional in the fall of 2008, Lawal, an accomplished collegiate and international wrestler, has been fast-tracked. He can credit his mouth and self-promotional skills, as well as a heavy dose of bravado-soaked athleticism.

"I think he's scared a little bit because he bought into his own hype," said Lawal, 6-0. "I'm going to test his conditioning. Test his ground game. Test his standup."

How? By something the 28-year-old called "Cuban style."

"I don't know what I'm going to do before I see it," King Mo said. "It's drunken wrestling meets drunken boxing meets drunken kickboxing. Just being drunk, period." Substitute "unorthodox" for "drunk" and you get the idea. He wants to be the MMA version of Emanuel Augustus, minus the journeyman tag.

Lawal and his camp say Mousasi is overvalued. He's not as good as his record, they suggested, an impressive 28-2-1. He's not much of an athlete either, with those pigeon-toed feet.

As he's done throughout the promotion of this fight, Mousasi shrugs, smirks, and knows the talk will soon be at an end.

"People always underestimate me physically," Mousasi said. "They don't think I hit hard. They underestimate my chin. This is not an athletic sport. Once I hit him and hurt him, it's a fight. I'm going to make sure he fights differently because I'm going to hurt him. He can be very athletic, he will have advantages, but he can be hurt and he can have his athleticism taken away."

And so too, Mousasi must think, the ability to speak.


Each championship on Saturday is well matched, so much so that a solid case could be made for either side. I'll stick with one.

• So long as Henderson stops Shields from gaining top control, the 39-year-old workhorse should leave the cage Saturday with another title. The challenger is favored, and for good reason. On the feet he's much better. And unlike Robbie Lawler, whom Shields submitted last year to win the belt, Henderson isn't likely to give away his neck or some other foolish submission. Henderson TKO R4.

• Melendez is the pick over Aoki, who makes his first appearance in a cage after nearly seven year's worth of fights in a ring. Because of his physicality, edge in striking, and wealth of submission knowledge, Melendez appears perfectly suited to neutralize and handle the edgy Japanese champion. Melendez TKO R3.

• Mousasi admits that despite owning an almost four-to-one advantage over Lawal in the number of fights he's had in his career, never before has he faced someone as explosive as Lawal. The challenger is naturally larger, and he should be able to wrestle. But for how long? Twenty-five minutes seems like a stretch. The massive experience gap is too much to look past. Mousasi flows between techniques very well, and at some point will capitalize as Lawal makes the mistake of someone who just didn't know any better. Mousasi TKO R3.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.