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Big year for Strikeforce begins Saturday


Though the biggest names the company has to offer won't be making their way to South Beach this Saturday, make no mistake about it -- there is a lot riding on Strikeforce's first fight card of 2010.

The emerging competitor to the UFC has big plans for the coming year, and Saturday's event in Miami could serve as an indication of things to come for the San Jose-based promotion.

While the April CBS card featuring Fedor Emelianenko, a middleweight title fight between Jake Shields and Dan Henderson, and a rumored light heavyweight tilt between champion Gegard Mousasi and prospect Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal is exceedingly important, so too is getting off on the right foot.

That is where this weekend's event in Miami comes in.

More eyes than normal will be watching the action Saturday night at the BankAtlantic Center, as the debut of former NFL star Herschel Walker will continue to draw the interest of those typically uninterested in mixed martial arts.

Former WWE superstar Bobby Lashley's first fight with the organization will also draw an extra eyeball or two.

Lo and behold, there are also two championship bouts taking place as well, as bad boy Nick Diaz meets DREAM welterweight Grand Prix winner Marius Zaromskis, and Cris "Cyborg" Santos defends her women's 145-pound title against Marloes Coenen.

With all that firepower (both in terms of talent and marketability) on the card -- and an increased number of interested spectators in attendance -- Strikeforce could have a promising start to the year if all goes well.

Love him or hate him, the polarizing and popular Diaz is one of the few fighters on the Strikeforce roster who has the track record in the cage to merit his marketing as a main event fighter.

With Mousasi contractually joined at the hip with Fedor, the company is low on top of the marquee names, and having Diaz holding the welterweight belt would certainly help fill that void.

The same can be said for Santos, the "Female Axe Murderer" who met GinaCarano in August. While Santos walked away with an impressive win and the 145-pound championship, "The Face of Women's MMA" walked away with a black eye, a fat lip, and a dire need for some ice packs.

Having cemented herself as the most feared female fighter on the planet with her high-profile victory over Carano, Santos is quickly becoming a bankable fighter who is perfectly suited to co-main event a card like this in the future. Of course, being champion certainly plays a part in that equation.

Which brings us to the two newcomers to the sport, Walker and Lashley.

Walker's decision to try his hand at MMA has been covered ad nauseam, with opinions falling on both sides of the good-vs.-bad divide and everywhere in between. Regardless of where you stand, there is no denying the man's marketability.

With zero professional experience, Walker has earned more mainstream media coverage than any fighter over the last month, including returning UFC champion Brock Lesnar.

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Though the media storm surrounding Walker's debut will certainly die down following the fight, his entry into the sport has certainly already brought some football fans over for a look and could conceivably keep their attention with a strong showing on Saturday night. While a win over Greg Nagy may mean very little to serious MMA fans, the win is the only important part to many.

Lastly, we have Lashley, the former WWE superstar who began his MMA career with a win over Joshua Franklin in 2008, at MFA: There Will Be Blood. Over the last 12 months, he's earned three more wins, including a decision over Jason Guida and a first round stoppage of Bob "The Beast" Sapp this past June.

Since making the move to MMA, the comparisons between Lashley and Lesnar have been unavoidable. Now that he's stepping onto a bigger stage, expect the comparing and contrasting of the former Vince McMahon employees to continue.

A win Saturday night over recent "TUF 10" cast member and UFC veteran Wes Sims would certainly get the ball rolling, and the comparisons are definitely something Strikeforce can use to their advantage going forward.

But what if Saturday night is a night of upsets and the unexpected? How does 2010 look if Plan B has to be put into action?

Not to be a Debbie Downer, but even when you're hoping for heads, there is a 50-50 chance that tails is coming up, and you have to ready to roll with the punches.

Surely, Strikeforce will be able to work with whatever results they get from Saturday night's fight card, but the plan for 2010 could shift if the favorites come away on the wrong side of the four main card bouts.

Hardcore fans are well aware of the head kick knockouts delivered by Marius Zaromskis en route to winning the Dream welterweight grand prix in July, as well as the 19 seconds it took him to do the same to Myeon Ho Bae as a follow-up in October.

But it takes more than hardcore fans to make an event work, and there aren't a lot of casual observers who have any knowledge of the man known as "The Whitemare."

While a win for Zaromskis could certainly be used as a building block towards creating a new star for the promotion, it will take more than one win for casual fans to be keen on seeing a fighter who is foreign to them in more ways than one headlining an event. That would leave Strikeforce in a difficult position, as there is only so far down the main card you can go with your welterweight champion.

An upset win for Marloes Coenen could make for some interesting opportunities, including a fight with Gina Carano should the former American Gladiator decide to return to the cage at some point. However, having to change gears in the Women's 145-pound division for a second time in less than six months is a challenge.

By the way: Can we just call it the women's featherweight division already? Now back to the show...

Cyborg has received a great deal of attention since stopping Carano, and while defeating the champ -- and yes, her good looks -- should make Coenen an easy sell, outside of a few fighters, there are no easy sells in this business.

Walker and Lashley offer up a similar conundrum: What do you do with two highly marketable fighters if they happen to get beaten?

Now, Strikeforce matchmaker Rich Chou is smart enough to not sacrifice two potential stars on the night they debut with the company, so losses for Walker and Lashley are not expected.

But Georges St. Pierre wasn't supposed to lose to Matt Serra either. Things happen. Plan B needs to be figured out in full just in case.

The media attention surrounding Walker will drop dramatically after his fight on Saturday night. While some will stick around to see what happens next, there is only one first time, and that is what many people are interested in.

The number who choose to sit around to see round two will drop even more if Greg Nagy proves to be too much for the former Heisman Trophy winner.

Lashley's situation is even more tenuous, as it has been a long, hard, and oft-discussed journey to find him an opponent for his Strikeforce debut. Yohan Banks didn't make it past the Florida state athletic commission, and while Jimmy Ambriz did, he was still pre-empted in favor of Wes Sims.

Fans are already on Strikeforce for offering up the MMA equivalent of a "squash match" to the former WWE star, so imagine the backlash if Sims should score the victory.

Despite the sports cliché, winning doesn't solve everything.

While Walker has the benefit of being inexperienced in the cage and can therefore be fed a couple additional easier matchups moving forward, the novelty of watching an inexperienced Herschel Walker fighting a complete unknown wears off.

Such future bouts should be relegated to the preliminary portion of the card -- or a Challenger Series event -- but Walker's marketability makes that almost impossible, meaning guys like Jay Hieron and Joe Riggs will continue to get bumped for a fighter with as many Heismans as he would have wins.

A win doesn't make things any easier for Lashley either. Beating Sims would put him at 5-0 and in need of another step up the competitive ladder. At some point, he's going to have to face a fighter like Shane Del Rosario -- the first opponent Lashley was offered -- or both he and Strikeforce will suffer the wrath of a million Internet addicts calling them out for coddling their marketable new addition.

Strikeforce is hoping for a big year in 2010, and it all starts on Saturday night in Miami.

Wins from Diaz, Cyborg, Walker and Lashley could signal smooth sailing, while upsets could lead to rougher waters than expected.

Just like you can't predict the weather, you can't predict the outcome of a fight, so hopefully Strikeforce has a Plan B ready to roll out if Plan A gets knocked off course on South Beach.