Jeff Wagenheim: Grading big-league readiness of Strikeforce Challengers' lineup - Sports Illustrated

Grading the big-league readiness of Strikeforce Challengers' lineup

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If you're a baseball fan, you try to make at least an annual pilgrimage to your favorite Major League team's mecca of a ballpark, maybe even get to more than one game if you've got a few hundred spare bucks in your wallet. But for a more intimate, affordable, and ultimately forward-looking ballgame experience, you head to your closest minor league park, where you get to witness the baby steps of tomorrow's all-stars and also-rans.

It's the same in every sport, really. Fans of college football, basketball and hockey get to watch Super Bowl, NBA Finals and Stanley Cup MVPs in the making, along with a lot of young players whose lifelong claim to fame will be that they once played with a future NFL, NBA or NHL star. It's cool to be a sightseer on the ground floor of the sports skyscraper called greatness, a little like being a music fan and catching an arena headliner-to-be while the band is still playing sweaty, dingy rock clubs.

The combat sports equivalent to all this was on display on Friday night. Really on display, before millions watching on TV. On ESPN2, there was the season premiere of the boxing show Friday Night Fights. And over on Showtime, Strikeforce Challengers 13 took full advantage of being on the big stage of the premium cable channel's weekend-long free preview. Scott Coker & Co. showcased several mixed martial artists who look to be headed toward the majors.

How close to the big leagues are these Challengers? As with any minor league operation, you have to grade on a curve, with the understanding being that if these guys were complete fighters they'd already have broken into Strikeforce's starting lineup. Keeping that in mind, here is one man's perspective on what Friday night's performances said about where the various fighters belong in the MMA minor league system:

Daniel Cormier: The two-time Olympic wrestler was in control for practically every second of a unanimous-decision win over Devin Cole, an experienced heavyweight who has been in with a lot of major leaguers (including wins over Mike Kyle and Travis Wiuff). That was pretty impressive, especially when Cormier put on a wrestling clinic in the second round. But he let Cole hang around and hang around, evidence that Cormier still needs some minor league batting practice. To his credit, he recognizes that. "A little disappointed," Cormier said when asked to assess his performance. "I don't think we expect a performance like that at AKA." That's another promising thing about Cormier -- he trains at American Kickboxing Academy, rolling with the likes of UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez and, as the gym's name suggests, rounding his striking game into form as well. However, it would be disingenuous to neglect to mention this: On a night when several fighters came out looking as chiseled as Mr. Olympia, Cormier showed off more of a Big Country physique. The paunchy look has worked OK for Roy Nelson, but if you're taking that route to the big time, you'd better bring the excitement.

Tyron Woodley: He seemed to be fighting two formidable foes: Tarec Saffiedine and the pressure of being a headliner on a televised fight card, even a minor league one. Woodley was not helped by a Strikeforce/Showtime hype machine trying to build up this fight into more than it was ("It's a matchup that has had hardcore fight fans salivating since it was first announced," announcer Mauro Ranallo hyperventilated at the top of the telecast). But more than anything, Woodley's skill set took on a narrow look because, facing a fellow welterweight up-and-comer who is a dangerous striker, he stayed within his safety zone. It was a winning strategy, to be sure, but all that clinching, while successfully managing distance and staving off danger, was not very crowd pleasing. Woodley's close-to-the-vest victory made Cornier's look like a tightrope act by comparison. Next time he steps in the cage -- still in the minors, presumably, or perhaps as an early prelim on a regular Strikeforce show -- it would be great for Woodley to be in with a well-rounded opponent so we can see how he mixes it up.

Ovince Saint-Prieux: First off, people have got to stop calling him "OSP," because who needs the pressure of having a nickname that echoes perhaps the top pound-for-pound fighter in MMA? Then again, this guy clearly is comfortable performing under pressure, as Friday's event was in Nashville, just down the road from his home base of Knoxville, where GSP -- I mean, OSP, no, Saint-Prieux -- played linebacker for the University of Tennessee. If he can handle the pressure of SEC football, he can handle a Strikeforce fight before hometown fans. And handle it he did. Ron "Abongo" Hmphrey, who not long ago was in with Brett Rogers and Kyle, put up a fight, especially in the second round, but Saint-Prieux made it obvious from the start that he was the alpha male here. "I want to continue to improve and walk up the ladder," he said after his third win in seven weeks. Maybe he should rest first. And come up with a new nickname.

Rhadi Ferguson: What an intriguing athlete, and not just because he's a cousin of Kevin "Kimbo Slice" Ferguson. (Boy, those family reunions must get rowdy.) What really makes Ferguson fascinating is that he has competed not only in the Olympics as a judoka, but he also in the Abu Dhabi Submission Wrestling World Championships and the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu World Championships. That's an indication of how well-rounded he is -- as is the fact that he's a Ph.D. Facing last-minute replacement John Richard, Ferguson got into trouble in the first round but had an escape plan at the ready. He doesn't have a long shelf life (he's 36), but he's worth watching.

Tarec Saffiedine: He took a step backward with the decisive loss to Woodley, but he's definitely still in the game. He needed to pull the trigger with his strikes at every opportunity, especially with Woodley limiting those opportunities, and trust that his Dan Henderson-led wrestling training would hold him in good stead against a stout wrestler. Saffiedine actually did fare well in the grappling game, but he played the other man's game way more than he should have. He needs to fight his fight.

Amanda Nunes: You might look at the result sheet -- she won by KO in 14 seconds -- and be puzzled that I'm relegating the young Brazilian to the mid-minor leagues. I'm doing it for her own good. A 14-second KO might seem to indicate she's ready for the bigs, but in Strikeforce women's MMA "the bigs" means Cris "Cyborg" Santos. And what Friday's quick victory failed to tell us about Nunes is whether, when someone stands up to her onslaught (as Cyborg likely would), she has a Plan B. Let's see her in another bout at this level -- hopefully one that lasts a while -- and see what she has.

Ron "Abongo" Humphrey: He didn't look out of his league, but in a step down in competition -- Saint-Prieux is no Rogers or even a Kyle -- he should have been able to do more.

Devin Cole: See "Abongo" assessment above. Having been in with more experienced competition, he at least should have had his moments. He didn't.

Julia Budd: Speaking of moments, Budd was in there for too few to consider this a true test. But whatever you call it, getting dropped in 14 seconds earns a failing grade.

John Richard: Taking a fight on short notice isn't often a wise move, but it worked out OK for Richard. Aside from the loss, of course. He showed he is dangerous right from the start, which should earn him more MMA paydays. A lot of journeyman baseball minor leaguers would consider that a successful performance.

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