Not since Richard Nixon has a man been as obsessed with his detractors as "King" Mo Lawal (7-0) seems to be. The Strikeforce light heavyweight champ would have us believe that almost no MMA fans like him. Not coincidentally, he'd also have us believe that there's considerable overlap among the few fans who do like him and the few fans who genuinely understand the sport, but that's a topic for another day.
The more pressing issue for Lawal is how to deal with his first challenger, Rafael "Feijao" Cavalcante (9-2), without giving those haters more ammunition. The two clash Saturday (10 p.m. ET/PT, Showtime) in Houston.
Despite Lawal's insistence that he should be the underdog, there's a very good reason that the people who pick winners for a living are laying their money on him. Simply put, Lawal has the ability to decide where this fight takes place -- and Feijao doesn't. What Feijao does have is the ability to knock your head off if you stand in front of him for too long, so we do find ourselves once more confronting the enigma of the puncher's chance.
The trouble with having the puncher's chance against a world-class wrestler is that every time you try to set your feet and drop one of those bombs, you risk ending up on your back. That tends to make a fighter tentative, which in turn makes him a sitting duck.
Suddenly the 5-to-1 line on Lawal makes a lot of sense. That's not to say that Feijao has no chance. Anybody who hits like he does has to be taken seriously. But if the Brazilian can't find his range and his rhythm in the first round when he's fresh, his chances of landing the knockout blow get worse and worse with every round that passes and every takedown that slams him to the mat.
With former Strikeforce middleweight champ Jake Shields intent on vacating the title for greener pastures in the UFC, Tim Kennedy (12-2) and Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza (12-2-1) will fight it out for the belt he left behind.
On paper, this is the most competitive fight on tap for Saturday and one of the more interesting style matchups. Kennedy is finally training full time after spending years alternating between his MMA career and his military service, and it's almost frightening to think about how good he might become now that he has only cage fighting to focus on.
Jacare has improved his striking greatly in the past few years, but let's not kid ourselves. The Brazilian submissions whiz wants this fight on the mat. The question is, Can he really put Kennedy there without a little cooperation from the Green Beret sniper?
What's more, when you're going up against a guy who has been waterboarded as part of his day job, can you really hope to make him quit with an armbar?
If Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Jorge Gurgel (13-6) actually decides to use some jiu-jitsu in his fight with talented striker and occasional pro boxer K.J. Noons (9-2), he stands a very good chance of pulling off a minor upset and possibly positioning himself for a future title shot. Then again, that's a pretty big if.
Gurgel has built a reputation as the best ground fighter who can't resist the urge to stand and bang. That's made for some entertaining fights, but he's lost four of his last six, which isn't a bargain he can afford to keep making at 33.
Noons would probably love nothing more than for Gurgel to come charging at him like an irritable bull. He's a counterpuncher with quicker hands and a more technically sound overall striking attack. He can sit back and pick Gurgel apart all night if the fight stays standing, and he knows it.
Gurgel has to know it, too, just like he has to know that his odds improve dramatically as soon as the fight hits the mat. Maybe, just maybe, that will be enough motivation for him to finally put those grappling skills to work.
Finally, the televised card features a transparent matchup between former pro wrestling star Bobby Lashley (5-0) and part-time fighter Chad Griggs (8-1). If this were a WWF match in the early '90s, Lashley would be the guy who comes out to his own theme music wearing a snazzy outfit. Griggs? He'd be the guy using his own name, wearing a pair of plain blue trunks and already standing in the middle of the ring with almost no introduction.
What I'm saying is, Strikeforce chose Griggs because his record looks credible on paper, and yet he seems very beatable for Lashley. He hasn't fought in more than a year and was on the verge of moving down to light heavyweight when he got the call to face Lashley. Because he knows a win in this fight makes him an instant celebrity, he took it.
Of course, it's possible that he could win. We still don't know that much about Lashley's true ability, in part because he's taken nothing but easily winnable fights in his unremarkable MMA career. At least Griggs has fought a few tough guys and been in some wars. Maybe that's enough?
OK, so it's not terribly likely, but that's going to be the story for as long as Strikeforce insists on looking for fights Lashley can reliably win instead of fights fans might actually want to see. The trouble with fights you're expected to win is that, while winning them keeps your career chugging along right on schedule, losing even one of them completely derails it. Let's hope this is the last time Lashley and Strikeforce insist on taking that gamble.