The final year of a decade destined to be remembered as pivotal for the expansion of mixed martial arts essentially comes to a close Saturday with dueling Strikeforce and WEC cards, which air on Showtime and Versus respectively. It may very well be the fistic end to 2009 -- in the U.S. at least -- yet the weekend feels more like an early skirmish of a potentially promotional-war-ravaged 2010.
This won't mark the first time Zuffa and Strikeforce crossed paths, and it certainly isn't expected to be the last. MMA fans, if they haven't already, need to accept that their attention is coveted, and once in a while a decision will be necessary to determine which bouts to watch.
I say why not catch them all if you can, and get familiar with your DVR. In honor of a year that flew by -- Seems like UFC 93 happened in 2005, no? -- here are nine forward-looking reasons to watch both cards, where possible:
• Basing each lineup on its own merits, good fights loom. How good we don't know, but it seems likely of the eight bouts guaranteed to be televised, at least three could be terrific. These six, ranked on their potential for great MMA, standout: 1) Takeya Mizugaki vs. Scott Jorgensen; 2) Josh Thomson vs. Gilbert Melendez; 3) Joseph Benavidez vs. Rani Yahya; 4) Donald Cerrone vs. Ed Ratcliff; 5) Anthony Njokuani vs. Chris Horodecki; 6) Cung Le vs. Scott Smith.
• Is there a fighter competing at WEC 45 with the potential to become a bankable pay-per-view attraction? Perhaps a bantamweight will emerge, or lightweight Donald Cerrone, who finds himself a win away from re-matching WEC lightweight champion Jamie Varner. But I have my doubts, and that's a problem since the most important initiative for WEC in 2010 is making its way onto the pay-to-watch platform.
• Strikeforce desperately needs to fill the ranks of its light heavyweight division with quality fighters, and though Mo Lawal meets Mike Whitehead at heavyweight on Saturday, the belief is the former All-American wrestler at Oklahoma State University will campaign at 205 in the fights ahead. The bout, Lawal's first with Strikeforce and first on Showtime, is of enormous importance to the undefeated fighter's career should he desire a dance with Strikeforce champion Gegard Mousasi.
• Josh Thomson or Gilbert Melendez could help determine the second best lightweight on the planet. Right now that distinction belongs to Shinya Aoki, the Japanese pretzel machine long on submission skill, short on strength and the kind of physicality required from most good fighters at the weight. Unless Aoki has his way with the Strikeforce lightweight champ, whomever that may be, and dominates everyone else he faces in 2010, there will be a heated debate over the name of the man relegated to standing well behind B.J. Penn.
• WEC lightweights aren't as fortunate as Thomson or Melendez, at least on the rankings front. While the organization's heaviest division continues to improve under the nurturing of matchmaker Sean Shelby, it cannot propel fighters like Cerrone or Ratcliff into the Top 10 without opportunities against well-regarded opposition. At the moment, there aren't any ranked lightweights in the WEC, and it doesn't sound like many will be brought in. That won't diminish the level of competition there, which continues to be high, but it will impact how fighters like Varner and Benson Henderson are viewed, especially as the organization's 145 and 135 classes regularly deliver fighters onto pound-for-pound top 10 lists.
• As has been its inclination, Strikeforce once again booked weak preliminary matches for a large Showtime-televised event. In doing so, the San Jose, Calif.-based organization once again wasted valuable space on its cards which could have gone to some of their more budding talent. Judging by the way UFC utilizes its off-TV fights, Strikeforce has room to improve.
• Former Strikeforce middleweight champion Cung Le returns to the cage for the first time since March 2008. He has fought six times, winning each bout inside the distance. Fat and happy on movie sets is hardly the way to remain motivated in the fight game, yet Le, who was forced to relinquish the title now held by Jake Shields, remains one of the promotional lynchpins for Strikeforce at its HP Pavilion home base in San Jose, Calif. A poor result against Scott Smith could severely diminish the Vietnamese fighter's capacity to sell tickets, and almost relegate him full-time to acting.
• Strikeforce-signed middleweights Matt Lindland and Ronald "Jacare" Souza appear headed in opposite directions. How fast? We'll know Saturday night. Jacare already submitted the veteran Lindland, now 39-years-old, at the Submission Wrestling World Championships with an armbar in 2003. And he has plenty of advantages on the mat against a fighter who appears to be slowing. An impressive win for the Brazilian puts him in the middle of Strikeforce's most competitive weight category. Should Lindland manage a victory, and it wouldn't be too large a shock considering what he's done in the past, the Olympic silver medalist will set himself up once more for a run at glory.
• Bantamweights encompass perhaps the most intriguing weight class featured by the WEC. In all, five fights at 135 should spark Saturday's Vegas card at The Pearl at the Palms. Depending on how things pan out, Mizugaki, Benavidez, Yahya or Jorgensen could be next in line for Miguel Torres in early March. Another bantamweight, Antonio Banuelos, could also make that group. They all await the result between champion Brian Bowles, and top challenger Dominick Cruz.
WEC 45 (10 p.m. ET, Versus)
Donald Cerrone def. Ed Ratcliff; Chris Horodecki def. Anthony Njokuani; Joseph Benavidez def. Rani Yahya; Scott Jorgensen def. Takeya Mizugaki
Strikeforce "Evolution" (10 p.m ET/PT, Showtime)
Cung Le def. Scott Smith; Gilbert Melendez def. Josh Thomson; "Jacare" def. Matt Lindland; Mo Lawal def. Mike Whitehead