California’s most successful MMA promotion to date will make its first appearance as a Zuffa product in San Diego tomorrow night as Strikeforce presents Strikeforce: Diaz vs. Daley for the viewing pleasure of the mixed martial arts world. The night opens with a classic ground battle as Washington-native wrestler “Fancy Pants” Lyle Beerbohm (15-1) takes on world renowned submission expert “Tobikan Judan” Shinya Aoki (26-5) and a sure fired stand-up barn burner between Netherlands boxing machine “The Dreamcatcher” Gegard Mousasi (24-3-1) and former UFC stand out “The Dean of Mean” Keith Jardine (15-9-1). The action will lead up to a main event between the Stockton-based welterweight champion “El Diablo” Nick Diaz (23-8) and former UFC welterweight contender “Semtex” Paul Daley (23-10-2), but not before lightweight champion “El Nino” Gilbert Melendez (18-2) defends his title in a rematch against Japanese superstar “Crusher” Tatsuya Kawajiri (26-5-2). The two warriors first met in 2006 at PRIDE: Shockwave where Melendez used his wrestling to counter the superior striking of Kawajiri on his way to a Unanimous Decision victory. Since then, both men have evolved and have seemed on a collision course ever since the announcement that Strikeforce and DREAM would be co-promoting.
At First Glance: These two men have been an obvious “match to make” for Scott Coker for quite some time. Not only is there the obvious rematch angle, but both men have faced similar paths since their initial match. Melendez has developed his striking into a dangerous weapon, something he lacked in the previous bout, and has gone 6-2 with wins over Shinya Aoki, “The Punk” Josh Thompson (17-3-1), and Mitsuhiro Ishida (19-5-1). For his part, Kawajiri has gone 8-2 with victories over Thompson and “JZ” Gesias Cavalcante (14-3-1), dropping bouts only to two of the best lightweights in the world, Shinya Aoki and Eddie Alvarez (20-2), and has shored up his wrestling game to a solid competitive level. The last time the two fought, neither man was a complete fighter and it became a race between Melendez’s wrestling and Kawajiri’s boxing. This time, with both men having rounded out their games – it’s simply a matter of who is the better man.
In Depth: In their first match, Melendez had no chance on the feet and was forced to use his wrestling to stall Kawajiri out in order to get the judges’ nod. He has since fixed those issues as evidenced by his ability to batter Thompson and Ishida. Kawajiri also fixed the wrestling problems that caused him to fall short in the first bout. The determining factor is which man has improved the most and that man is likely Gilbert Melendez. Kawajiri does hold a slight advantage in the fact that Melendez hasn’t fought in just one week shy of a year, but ring rust is rarely enough to make up for a deficiency in two of the three major areas of the fight game. Kawajiri will also be fighting in the States for the first time and will have to deal with the jet lag that should level out any advantage gained from Melendez’s inactivity. Kawajiri does likely maintain an edge in the striking department, but not enough of one to counter act Melendez’s wrestling and ground game in conjunction with his improved stand-up. Kawajiri’s only real chance of winning this fight comes in wise use of the clinch. “Crusher” has a broader build that is naturally stronger in the collar tie and the over-under where he can bully Melendez around and blast him with hooks as he breaks free.
Wild Card: In addition to fighting overseas for the first time, Kawajiri will also be fighting in a cage with legal elbows on the ground for the first time. This is a major issue for “Crusher” not just in terms of having to deal with a new time zone and new rules, but in having to face Melendez in an environment which heavily favors wrestlers who can use the cage in a number of ways to assist them in their takedowns. This even helps to nullify Kawajiri’s sole real advantage in the clinch as Melendez is undoubtedly more familiar with using the fence to aid him in the over-under tie than his Japanese counterpart.
The Verdict: At the end of the day, there are simply too many factors stacking the deck against Tatsuya Kawajiri. He has a solid skill set and could be a very entertaining bout for Melendez, but a combination of superior wrestling and greater familiarity with the cage environment will allow the Strikeforce Lightweight Champion to once again evade danger and control his opponent until a combination of the torrid pace he sets, jet lag, and use of the cage allows Melendez to put his old foe away. Melendez via TKO (Strikes), Round 4.