Jeff Wagenheim: Gracie does it best: Diaz, Melendez destroy opponents at Strikeforce - Sports Illustrated

Gracie does it best: Diaz, Melendez destroy opponents at Strikeforce

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Nick Diaz was breathtaking, Gilbert Melendez devastating. Hail, Cesar.

The two Strikeforce champions who train in Cesar Gracie's jiu-jitsu academy in wine country east of San Francisco both retained their belts in exhilarating performances Saturday night in San Diego. Neither used a whole lot of jiu-jitsu to get the job done, but one thing must be said: Gracie sure breeds fighters who like to fight.

Diaz, facing the challenge of a guy with ferocious punching power but little game on the ground, brazenly chose to stand with Paul Daley for the better part of the main event, which ended with three seconds remaining in the first round with the challenger on his back eating punches until referee John McCarthy pushed the welterweight champion away. As for his teammate who wears the lightweight belt, Melendez finished his workday even more quickly and viciously, swarming Tatsuya Kawajiri from the start, dropping him less than 30 seconds in, dominating him even after the fight got back to standing, and eventually finishing with an onslaught of elbows at 3:14.

What began as a surreal fight night, with UFC president Dana White at cageside rockin' a Strikeforce T-shirt to trumpet the organization's purchase by the UFC's parent company, ended up as something of an infomercial for Gracie's gym. "Cesar Gracie," Diaz said during a postfight interview in the cage. "Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, OK? Come see us in Lodi, 230 School Street, if you want to learn some jiu-jitsu technique." The place is actually on South School Street, in case you're in your car on the way to sign up for classes. Then, with blood dripping down his cheek, Diaz clarified: "Not everybody trains to fight like this. Some people just want to learn some jiu-jitsu and train martial arts."

It'd be fascinating to hang out at that gym just to see what makes Nick Diaz (25-7, 1 NC) tick. He came out of his corner with his arms at his sides and his chin jutting tantalizingly forward, inviting Daley (27-10-2) to attack. But it was the champ who launched the early offensive, first with his trash talk, then with some crisp jabs and hard hooks that put the Brit against the cage.

Daley eventually found a home for his own punches, elbows and knees. But Diaz stayed in his face, even after appearing to be hurt, and about two minutes into the fight it was Daley, while eating a barrage of punches, who took the fight to the ground. That seemed like a less sensible strategy than Diaz's decision to stand with the power puncher, because at least Nick has a formidable striking game himself. On the ground, Daley was a fish out of water. But Diaz didn't seem interested in hooking the big one in that way. He fought back to his feet and took it to Daley some more with punches. Until he got caught.

With just about a minute and a half left in the round, Daley dropped Diaz with a nasty left hook. For a moment, as the champ lay on his face and the challenger bombarded him with rights, it appeared as though Nick might have outsmarted himself by allowing the fight to be fought in the only place where Daley could win it. But Diaz survived, got to his feet with 30 seconds left, and apparently decided enough was enough. He waded in on Daley, trapped him against the cage, nailed him with punches to the face and body, and as they broke away from the fence, the challenger fell to the mat. There were just 10 seconds left, but that was plenty of time for Diaz to finish the job.

There was no such drama for Melendez (19-2) in his rematch with Kawajiri, whom he'd beat by unanimous decision in the Pride promotion in 2006. He dropped the former Shooto champion (27-7-2) with a right hand in the opening seconds, and while Kawajiri did get right back up, he went into retreat. That sent him up against the cage, a sensation he'd never before felt in a bout, since he'd fought all of his previous fights in a ring. It was the least of his problems against the unrelenting champion.

Kawajiri's best moment in the fight was actually the beginning of the end for him. He connected with a high kick that appeared to wobble Melendez just a bit, and emboldened, the Japanese fighter came forward with a flurry of punches. But when they clinched, Melendez nailed him with two knees to the body, then a right hand, and ended up taking Kawajiri's back as they went to the mat. The challenger survived, got to his feet, but the next time he tasted the power of a Melendez punch, he shot for a takedown. Melendez stuffed the attempt, landed some left hands to the head as he held onto Kawajiri, then pushed him onto his back and finished with four thunderous elbows before referee Cecil Peoples could jump in.

It was an electrifying slaughter, right from the start. "That's my style, man," Melendez said afterward. "That's how we train. I don't know how to fight any other way, bro."

What can Melendez do for an encore? "I'll tell you what: I think it's time we unify some titles," he said, looking around the arena as the crowd roared. "Who wants to see me fight for that UFC title? Let's unify it in my hexagon. I'm the No. 1 lightweight in the world, baby."

Fit to be tied: What a win by Keith Jardine. Officially, "The Dean of Mean" got only a majority draw in a fight in which Gegard Mousasi beat him up, bloodied him and nullified his every attempt to inflict damage of his own. But the 35-year-old UFC refugee, in a rare occurrence of being in the cage with someone whose facial hair is more scary looking than his own (ref Mike Beltran, not Mousasi), was relentless and effective in his takedowns, succeeding on 6-of-9 attempts, and one time it paid off. No, Jardine (17-9-2) was not able to hurt or even control Mousasi (30-3-2) on the ground, but the former light heavyweight champion nailed him with an illegal up-kick, and the point deduction was the difference. Jardine, who took the fight on nine days notice after Mike Kyle pulled out with a broken hand, might not have looked like a winner -- or even, frankly, someone who deserved a draw -- but he did look like he's found a new home in Strikeforce.

Nothing sub-par about this submission: If you're a glass-half-filled kind of observer, you could point out that Shinya Aoki's striking game was totally ineffective. But who cares if you're 0 for 2 with your kicks and don't even throw a punch when you're able to slickly trip your man to the canvas, quickly secure back control and finish him with a submission that looked a little like a choke, a little like a neck crank. Whatever it was, it looked painful, and Lyle Beerbohm tapped at 1:33 of the first round, taking his second straight loss after winning the first 16 fights of his career. It was the fourth straight win for Aoki (27-5, 1 NC), the Dream lightweight champ, who last lost a year ago when Gilbert Melendez got the decision. Rematch? Or does Melendez have other plans?

Business as unusual: Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker sure got the Showtime telecast off to a fun start for fans -- you might even call it a visionary start -- by veering from the "business as usual" mantra Dana White has been feeding us. In an interview with broadcaster Mauro Ranallo, he was asked whether he'd like to see some Strikeforce vs. UFC fights. "As a fan, of course," said Coker. "But for right now we're going to keep the . . . the Showtime fans will be able to see the Showtime fighters, the UFC fans will be able to see the UFC fighters. But as a fan of martial arts fighting and MMA, hey, let's have Alistair Overeem fight Cain Velasquez, let's have Gilbert Melendez get it on with Frankie [Edgar]. Let's do it, because to me that's the beauty of this deal, is that it's good for martial arts, it's good for MMA. And, unlike in boxing, where you don't see some of the big, big fights, you're going to see all the fights now."

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