Stirkeforce: Rockhold vs Jardine Preview and More on Brock Lesnar Retirement

BSO MMA Insider Alex Donno looks at last week’s retirement of Brock Lesnar as well as a preview of tonight’s Strikeforce card on Showtime.

One of the biggest stars in MMA history has announced his retirement after only eight pro fights. Whether you love him or hate him, it’s impossible to deny that Brock Lesnar had a major impact during his brief UFC tenure. His comic book physique, magnetic personality, and previous WWE fame brought millions of extra eyes to a growing sport. By calling him one of the biggest stars in MMA, in no way am I calling him one of the best. With only four wins in the UFC (five MMA wins overall), you’ll never see Brock Lesnar in the UFC hall of fame.  A decade from now, you’ll likely remember him as a flash in the pan who won a few big fights, but then disappeared faster than Milli Vanilli’s credibility. But with that in mind, the fact that Lesnar was able to headline a handful of the most purchased pay per views in UFC history, in just an eight fight pro career, is quite impressive.

Typically, Lesnar has been a hero to the casual fans, but polarizing to the “hardcores.” Many of the message board geeks have always found him severely overrated as a fighter. Based on his last two performances, they may have been right all along. But that shouldn’t be a reason to dislike him. In fact, every MMA fan should appreciate what Brock Lesnar has done for Mixed Martial Arts. Although the UFC has done a great job creating a powerful brand name, MMA is still a star driven sport. No one can deny that without stars like Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Anderson Silva, and Georges St-Pierre, the UFC wouldn’t even be a blip on the sporting radar. Those fighters created worldwide buzz and brought new fans to the sport. And so did Brock Lesnar. Big draws like Lesnar have helped the UFC grow as a business. As the UFC grows, fighter salaries increase. The frequency and quality of live events also increase. And when the UFC grows, that trickles down to regional and local promoters worldwide. Everybody wins. Lesnar deserves some credit for the growth of the sport.

He also deserves credit for his competitive spirit. In just his second professional fight, Lesnar made his UFC debut. Even the world’s most elite fighters typically compete at least a half dozen times in the regional scene, honing their skills, before debuting in the Octagon. In seven UFC appearances, Lesnar never took a tune up fight. He always faced the toughest opponents available, including Randy Couture, Cain Velasquez, and two meetings with former champion Frank Mir. And over the past two years, he’s also had to contend with a serious illness. A severe bout with diverticulitis put his career in jeopardy in 2009. He returned from the illness to fight twice (beating Shane Carwin and then losing the heavyweight title to Cain Velasquez) before relapsing. Rather than allow the illness to end his career, Lesnar underwent surgery to remove 12 inches of his colon, and made his UFC return on December 30th. It’s impossible to quantify exactly how much the illness and surgery impacted his performance in his UFC 141 loss to Alistair Overeem. He was TKO’d in just 2:26 after “The Reem” punished his body with knees and a kick to the liver. It wasn’t a good performance for Lesnar, but certainly he values the fact that he went out on his terms, not the direct terms of his illness. At 34 years old, he’s no spring chicken. And with his health being a constant concern, there’s no shame in Lesnar walking away from MMA at this point in his life. The true impact of the “Brock Lesnar Era” is yet to be truly quantified, but he will be missed.

The UFC is taking this weekend off, but their sister promotion, Strikeforce, invades Las Vegas on Saturday Night. The middleweight title will be on the line in the main event when champion Luke Rockhold meets UFC veteran “The Dean of Mean” Keith Jardine. Rockhold vs. Jardine might end up being an entertaining fight, but it’s a clear illustration of the lack of depth in the Strikeforce talent roster. In his last bout, Jardine fought to a draw with Gegard Mousasi in the light heavyweight division. Yet somehow, that propelled him to a shot at the middleweight title. In a career of 28 fights, he’s never fought at middleweight before. Am I missing something here? It’s impossible to make a compelling argument that Jardine earned this title shot, and even Rockhold admits he’s puzzled by it. He told’s Ariel Helwani he was “a bit dumbfounded” by Jardine getting the shot. With Rockhold being an exciting talent but a virtual unknown, Strikeforce probably felt the need to put him in there with a well-known name like Jardine in order for them to carry main event billing. With the recent announcement of Strikeforce continuing to exist as a separate promotion, a talent exchange with the UFC seems like a wise way to keep them competitive. So far, the UFC has stolen plenty of talent from the Strikeforce ranks, but hasn’t given any in return. Hopefully that changes soon.

Politics aside, the matchup itself could be explosive. Rockhold is a lanky striker who has finished all but one of his eight victories in the first round. He went five full rounds in his decision victory over Jacare Souza to win the title. He took some punishment from Souza’s strikes in round 1, but rebounded effectively with kicks from distance and a powerful left hook. That performance proved that he possesses the cardio and poise necessary for a long and grueling fight. As for Jardine, the only significant advantage he holds on paper is his experience. He’s logged over three times as many pro fights as the champion. And his awkward striking style could be a tough puzzle to solve. Jardine appears to break all the rules of technical striking, throwing punches and kicks without any rhythm, and from every angle. To figure out his timing is impossible. Even so, the striking matchup should favor the longer Rockhold, who possesses the more dangerous power and precision. It’s worth noting that Jardine has often been vulnerable to left hooks, one of Rockhold’s most effective weapons. If things aren’t going his way, expect Jardine to shoot for a takedown. Landing takedowns won’t be easy against Rockhold, though, who trains with some of the best wrestlers in the sport at AKA in San Jose, California. If he does end up on his back, Rockhold will still be dangerous there with his long limbs and brown belt level Jiu Jitsu.

In the co-main event, MMA veteran Robbie Lawler takes on rising star Adlan Amagov. This one has “fight of the night” potential. Lawler is a proven knockout artist who loves to brawl. Amagov is a bit less reckless, but possesses similar traits. He too has shown lethal KO power in his 9-1-1 pro career, but would be better served to counter strike with Lawler, and work to take the fight to the ground. Lawler is more of a crowd-pleaser than a technician, and has shown great vulnerability in the ground game. The longer he stands in the pocket with Lawler, the more dangerous things will become for Amagov. The question is: will Amagov be skilled enough in his wrestling and disciplined enough in his game plan to take the fight to the floor? If history is any indication, he’s more likely to test his standup skills in Lawler’s brawling range, and that could be trouble.

In the most interesting stylistic clash of the night, elite wrestler Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal will face electrifying striker Lorenz Larkin. Larkin is one of the most exciting fighters to come out of Strikeforce’s now defunct “Challengers Series.” In the striking game, he’s both poised and reckless at the same time, mixing smooth technique with crazy spinning kicks and punches. But his wrestling has been a visible weakness in his young career. That will be a huge problem against King Mo, one of the most accomplished wrestlers in MMA. When he faced high level striker Gegard Mousasi for the light heavyweight title back in 2010, the three-time U.S. Senior National Wrestling Champion was able to completely negate Mousasi’s standup with constant takedowns and dominant top control. He’s also shown skilled and powerful hands in the standup, with his knockout wins over Roger Gracie and Mike Whitehead as evidence. It will be interesting to see how long King Mo opts to test his hands against Larkin. He may try to prove a point and attempt to “out-strike the striker.” His skills may be up the challenge, but there’s no doubt that his safest road to victory lies with his wrestling.

The remaining main card bouts will feature a pair of welterweight clashes in Tyron Woodley vs. Jordan Mein and Tarec Saffiedine vs. Tyler Stinson. With former champion Nick Diaz being poached by the UFC last year, Woodley is the most accomplished welterweight left in Strikeforce.  The former NCAA Wrestling Division 1 All American will face an interesting test in Mein’s kickboxing. However, as is the case in King Mo vs. Larkin, Woodley can easily negate Mein’s striking with his clinch work and takedowns. If Woodley emerges victorious, his next fight should be for the vacant welterweight title, likely against the Saffiedine vs. Stinson winner. Saffiedine should hold a significant striking advantage over Stinson, (who likely won’t have the wrestling to negate that) but Stinson’s durability and power should make that fight interesting.

Strikeforce: Rockhold vs. Jardine airs on Showtime on Saturday, January 7th at 10pm in all time zones (live in the east). And for the first time in Strikeforce history, you can watch the preliminaries live on Showtime Extreme, beginning at 8.