Previewing Strikeforce Challengers: The Main Card

Joey Villasenor. Photo by Esther Lin/EliteXC.

Strikeforce continues to move forward and will hold its second-ever “Challengers” event tonight on Showtime from the ShoWare Center in Kent, Washington with a decidedly different look compared to their inaugural event back in May.

While a slew of skilled prospects will still be featured, tonight’s show will sport an unusual number of fighters that are often seen on the main cards of Strikeforce’s bigger events. The fact that both Dennis Hallman and Duane Ludwig have been relegated to preliminary bouts shows the sheer amount of notable talent on display.

The event will be headlined by a sure-fire middleweight slugfest between Brazilian striker Evangelista “Cyborg” Santos and Greg Jackson-trained Joey Villasenor. Additional bouts slated for the televised main card include a middleweight clash between former BodogFight welterweight champion Nick Thompson and Army veteran Tim Kennedy as well as a lightweight bout involving Jorge Gurgel and Conor Heun.

Ready for the main card preview? Let’s get started.

Evangelista “Cyborg” Santos vs. Joey Villasenor

It’s clear as day in terms of why this fight was tabbed as the main event. Both Santos and Villasenor are fighters that love to stand and bang, regardless of the situation. Nothing has been said or done in the weeks leading up to this fight that would lead anyone to expect anything different. So in my opinion, expect fireworks, especially after yesterday’s confrontation at the weigh-ins.

Santos has struggled in recent years, especially against upper-echelon competition while Villasenor has continued to established himself as one of the middleweight division’s fastest rising contenders. The two separate paths the two have traveled should show in this fight. While Santos certainly has the power to be able to stop Villasenor, his striking has historically shown to be too wild.

Unless Santos is able to catch Villasenor in an unsuspecting submission, “Smoking” Joe will likely have the patience and footwork to be able to avoid Santos’ big bombs and pick him apart on the feet en route to a surprisingly quick first-round stoppage.

Prediction: Joey Villasenor - KO (Punches), R1

Nick Thompson vs. Tim Kennedy

Thompson moves up from welterweight to middleweight in order to take on Kennedy, who will be fighting for the first time in over a year and a half due to a return trip to Iraq with the US Army. Despite the disparity in experience - the fight will be Thompson’s 50th as a professional while Kennedy will only be participating in his 12th - both fighters have fought their fair share of tough opponents.

Kennedy will also have a size advantage going into the fight as Thompson has adapted his body to be able to easily cut to 170 lbs, where he remains on the cusp of being a top-ranked welterweight. However Kennedy’s biggest problem heading into this bout will be the amount of ring rust he’ll have to shake off. Kennedy hasn’t fought since December 2007 and while he’s had somewhat of a hard time finding top-notch opponents, Thompson has been able to stay busy, fighting and winning twice this year already.

Kennedy isn’t going to bring anything to the table that Thompson hasn’t already seen. While Kennedy holds a slight advantage on the feet, Thompson was able to hold his own with a far more dangerous striker in Paul Daley. Kennedy has been known to struggle against fighters with above-average grappling expertise and Thompson’s slick ground game isn’t going to help him in this one. Look for Thompson to take the fight for the ground and have his way with Kennedy over three rounds.

Prediction: Nick Thompson - Unanimous Decision

Jorge Gurgel vs. Conor Heun

Life after the UFC starts tonight for Gurgel, and he isn’t receiving any kind of tune-up fight against Heun, who remains a highly-touted lightweight prospect and received a good amount of attention after his performance on MTV’s “Bully Beatdown” show earlier this year.

The fight is a must-win for Gurgel, who came into the UFC as a well-known submission artist but left the promotion notorious for his willingness to slug it out on the feet rather than follow a gameplan. It’s hard to say whether or not Gurgel will stray away from the mistakes that cost him his spot in the UFC or continue to make the same ones over and over again.

Wherever the fight goes, both fighters will have their hands full against each other. Both are well-rounded on the feet and on the ground. However the level of competition Heun has faced pales in comparison to those that have stepped into the cage against Gurgel. Look for this fight to go all over the place before Gurgel squeezes out a unanimous, but hard-fought decision.

Prediction: Jorge Gurgel - Unanimous Decision

Shayna Baszler vs. Sarah Kaufman

What fight card isn’t complete without your classic, and now almost cliche, “striker vs. grappler” match. Tonight’s event features one as well, albeit involving the females. Baszler has earned all nine of her professional wins via submission while Kaufman has done the same via KO or TKO.

This is probably the toughest fight to pick on the main card. Part of me wants to go with Baszler because of her ability to catch just about anyone in a submission, but it’s hard to go against the strength and power Kaufman showed during her one-sided beating of Miesha Tate last month. The x-factor in this fight, at least in my opinion, is Kaufman’s aggression. Baszler has folded in the past against opponents that like to push the pace and if Kaufman can mentally overcome the danger of Baszler’s ground game, she should be able to do the same.

Prediction: Sarah Kaufman, TKO (Strikes), R2

Cory Devela vs. Luke Rockhold

In a fight where Strikeforce is looking to develop the name of a budding prospect, Devela has been matched up against Rockhold. It will obviously be Rockhold’s biggest test to date while Devela has shared the canvas with the likes of Joe Riggs and Terry Martin, albeit not with the most well-liked results.

Both fighters are versed in submissions and will likely look to bring the fight to the ground. I’m torn based on what I’ve seen of Devela. I’ve been impressed in a couple of his fights and not very pleased with his performance in others. The hype surrounding Rockhold may or may not be legit, but I’ll trust Bob Cook and AKA when they say that they have one of MMA’s brightest prospects working out at their gym. I’ll go with Rockhold here.

Prediction: Luke Rockhold - Submission (Rear-Naked Choke), R1


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