• Strikeforce: Diaz v Daley

Semtex Daley plans Strikeforce explosion

ESPN.com staff
April 7, 2011
Strikeforce: Diaz v Daley preview

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Strikeforce brings two title bouts to the Valley View Casino Center in San Diego this Saturday with a card that should provide a nice showcase for two of its top attractions.

Gilbert Melendez defends his lightweight belt against tough Tatsuya Kawajiri, veteran of many a memorable war in Japanese promotions. And welterweight champion Nick Diaz collides with English bomber Paul Daley in a match that should test Diaz's chin and Daley's stamina, and could be an early candidate for fight of the year.

Nick Diaz v Paul Daley

The matchup: Despite his relative youth, Diaz, 27, is one of the most experienced fighters in the game, and his improvement shows in every fight. With a busy stand-up style that keeps opponents overwhelmed and guessing, he is set to face perhaps MMA's most dangerous one-shot striker in Daley. Diaz's third defense of his title brings extreme danger, a punishing style matchup and a fundamental question: Which guy will break under the pressure of what figures to be a concussive firefight on the feet?

Despite Diaz's excellent submission and ground game, he has largely dispensed with takedowns of late, preferring to stand and punch with foes. That plays right into Daley's strengths, which is why this bout is one that shouldn't be missed. Over the past two years, both men have proved overwhelming in the stand-up game, but for vastly different reasons. Diaz wins on volume, good combinations and intelligently placed shots, often throwing arm punches just to keep opponents on the defensive while wearing them out. He also has one of the best chins in the game, and because nobody wants to plunge into his dangerous guard, he pretty much fights this way all night.

Daley, meanwhile, is a high-octane banger with huge power. He explodes with consciousness-killing shots and relishes the chance to plant his feet and trade. A powerful welterweight, he turns his body into every shot. If there is a winning template for Daley, it is Diaz's second match with KJ Noons this past October and a second-round submission over Evangelista Santos in January. Noons gave Diaz a five-round battle by mixing in angles and countering, while Santos had success early by kicking to Diaz's lead leg and taking away his striking base. Both fared better than most against Diaz, and Daley has the tools to exploit those openings if Diaz offers them.

Diaz doesn't figure to have an easy time switching to a ground fight, either. His takedowns have traditionally been marginal, and Daley has decent takedown defense; he gave Jake Shields a good battle before finally getting planted and submitted in the second round in 2008. Diaz is going to eat some bombs in this fight, and his chin will be severely tested. If he comes to wear down Daley with his usual stand-and-fling style, he will have to expect a barrage of booming counterhooks, kicks and everything else thrown back at him.

What makes Diaz so tough is his ability to adjust in the middle of a difficult fight and keep his head. Superior wrestlers have held him down and outworked him to decision wins, but he can always pull guard or wear down Daley in the clinch, then hit a takedown or a big strike to stun his man. He is great at catching opponents in exchanges and exploiting openings.

Diaz has been legitimately knocked out just once - early in his career, in the first of his three fights with Jeremy Jackson. But if there is anyone in the game who could put him to sleep, it's Daley. The key factor is what Diaz does if a standing fight isn't to his advantage. If he keeps slugging, he loses. If he adjusts and takes it to the mat, his path to victory becomes much easier.

The pick: Diaz by submission in four. Expect Diaz to oblige Daley on the feet for the first two rounds, then work to wear him down and eventually find a way to get the fight to the mat. This is a bout that promises truckloads of violence and big swings of momentum, but at the end of the day Diaz should have enough conditioning and mojo to pull out the win.

Gilbert Melendez v Tatsuya Kawajiri

The matchup: These hard-driving, fast-paced lightweights collide in a rematch, with a Strikeforce title on the line. In their first scrap, in 2006, Melendez took a unanimous decision, using superior wrestling and control. Since then, both have improved. Melendez's stand-up has become much better, as he avenged his loss to Josh Thomson in their December 2009 rematch, while Kawajiri outwrestled Thomson in a close decision win on New Year's Eve.

Certain fighters are just wired for five-round bouts, and Melendez's style is perfect for it. He pushes a breakneck pace and gets results over the distance, breaking foes' wills. Kawajiri is tough and resilient, though his stand-up probably is a notch or two below his opponent's; Melendez showed a lot more comfort trading bombs in extended exchanges with Thomson. Before that fight, he would usually stand just enough to set up a takedown attempt. Now, he really looks comfortable in the pocket and can operate from there at length.

Kawajiri's best chance is to force tie-ups and smother Melendez, as the Japanese veteran may be slightly stronger in a chest-to-chest battle. Still, Melendez is excellent at squirming out of bad positions and getting the upper hand in wild scrambles and transitions. In a five-round fight, he is also pretty much impossible to stop.

The pick: With the world watching and wondering how he'll eventually fare against the lightweights of the UFC, Melendez definitely is aiming to make a splash. He will hold it down here, banging out a clear-cut decision win as he pushes the pace and wears down Kawajiri.

Shinya Aoki v Lyle Beerbohm

The matchup: Aoki is one of MMA's few one-tool fighters who is able to compete at a world-class level. His stand-up is merely a rumour and his wrestling is average, but his submissions are unrivalled. He is perfectly content to let opponents put him down and take their chances in his amazing guard, where he uncorks a dizzying assault of submissions.

With wins over Duane Ludwig and Vitor Ribeiro, Beerbohm has made a splash as an emerging face in Strikeforce. In his previous fight, he was outgrappled in spots and ran out of answers in a decision loss to a tough veteran in Pat Healy. A wrestling-based fighter still in the nascent phase of his career, Beerbohm must prove the loss to be a learning experience or risk revealing his competitive ceiling.

Beerbohm is willing, if not fully developed, on the feet - which puts him ahead of Aoki, who seems to regard striking merely as a means to get the fight to the ground. For Beerbohm, the decision when to shoot and force a mat battle will be key in this matchup. He could sprawl and brawl, using shots to frustrate Aoki while denying him a chance to unleash his marvellous ground game. It would probably be a smart decision, especially early, when quick submissions are much easier before both guys get sweaty and fatigued.

At some point, Aoki will likely make the decision to pull guard if Beerbohm refuses to shoot. That's when "Fancy Pants" will have to punish the Japanese star, evade and stay standing. Healy might have exposed Beerbohm as being a little undersized for lightweight. He also threatened him positionally and with some submission attempts that Aoki likely would finish. Aoki's biggest weakness in the US is that he can't wear his patented colourful pants, which are helpful in keeping friction to land submissions. Against Melendez, Aoki was stifled for five one-sided rounds. Beerbohm isn't Melendez, but he can imitate his style for 15 minutes to good effect if he plays his cards correctly.

The pick: Aoki is just a tad too experienced and savvy. Expect him to land a submission after a lively battle, taking the win in the second round.

Gegard Mousasi v Keith Jardine

The matchup: Mousasi probably is the best little-known light-heavyweight in the game - at least stateside, where his smooth skills have been woefully under-exposed. After dropping a five-round decision and the Strikeforce title to Muhammed Lawal, he has since won twice in Japan's Dream promotion. And before the Lawal loss, Mousasi had racked up 15 consecutive wins, some over the likes of Hector Lombard, Denis Kang, Melvin Manhoef, Ronaldo Souza and Renato Sobral.

With Jardine entering as a late substitution for Mike Kyle, the casual fan will get a glance at Mousasi against a recognizable UFC veteran. When he's on his game, Jardine is one of the tougher outs in the business, taking foes to close decisions using a vexing style and a tenacious approach. He doesn't do anything exceptionally well, but unless you bomb him out early, he's going to give you a difficult go.

Mousasi's stand-up is top-notch, and he's unerringly calm in all phases of the fight, even when planted on his back taking punches. His submissions are solid, though at times he seems a tad too willing to let himself get taken down; it backfired against the powerful Lawal. With the UFC merger, the light-heavyweight division gets even more interesting, and a big win will go a long way toward getting the victor's name in the mix.

Mousasi's style is one that few can handle on the feet, yet Jardine probably will try to challenge him there. Jardine's awkward movement throws off opponents, and that is where Mousasi's leg kicks will be key in wearing down Jardine and nailing him as he tries to set up attacks. Jardine could try to plant Mousasi - whose takedown defense is decent but not world-beating - and grind out a decision win via a high work rate, but that doesn't seem likely. Instead, look for Mousasi to dial in and go to work standing, eventually wearing down Jardine with sharp counters and big kicks, especially to the body and legs.

The pick: This is a great style matchup for Mousasi - about as good as a guy could hope for against an opponent as tricky and unpredictable as Jardine - and he should have too much firepower, scoring a knockout in three.

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