by Steven Marrocco – MMAWeekly.com
The biggest women’s fight in MMA history is set for Saturday at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif., where Gina Carano faces off with Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos for the newly created 145-pound women’s middleweight title.
Carano will battle to keep her place as the “face of women’s MMA” with the toughest challenge in her career. She’s had an extended layoff while deciding her fighting future, but to her credit, did not delay the fight after signing with Strikeforce in June. She’s focused her efforts at Xtreme Couture, relying on master game planner Randy Couture’s guidance to prepare and strategize for Santos. All that’s left to do is execute.
Alternatively, Carano is the biggest challenge yet for Santos, who’s never faced someone with the same striking prowess. A former professional handball player, she was recruited by Chute Boxe patriarch Rudimar Fedrigo on the courts and brought into the world of fighting, where her ferocity found it’s place. She’s steamrolled everyone in her way, using pure aggression to overwhelm her opponents.
The bout has serious implications for the future of women’s MMA in Strikeforce. Carano is the undeniable star, and the division will undoubtedly suffer if she doesn’t win. That said, all credit goes to Strikeforce for putting on the best fight possible at the tail end of an explosive summer for mixed martial arts.
The word is: don’t blink.
Cyborg is the female equivalent of Wanderlei Silva: old-school Chute Boxe MMA. That style, a take-no-prisoners, blitzkrieg hybrid of Muay Thai and jiu-jitsu, uses equal parts fear and technique to win the day. Cyborg’s impressive physicality intimidates opponents; she makes them beat themselves. When first bell rings, she simply walks them down and begins swinging for the fences. So far, it’s worked. None of her opponents have stood up to her. When they hit the cage, she’s at her deadliest, swarming with punches and kicks before locking up a plumb and firing knees. Over her four years in the fight game, her technique has improved. She has a jab, her punches are straighter, and she moves her head more in the pocket. But her spirit hasn’t changed – she will keep throwing until her opponent is out or a takedown is easy pickings.
It’s hard to imagine Cyborg breaking character for Carano, though she may temper her aggression by probing with keg kicks and jabs before rushing in. Her gameplan will be to time the attacks correctly, after a missed kick or when she’s used footwork to corner Carano. Then, it’s bombs away.
Carano is no less aggressive, but there’s a technical streak to her work inside the cage. Her jab and front kick serve as the first line of offense and defense: she sets up punch flurries and takes the steam out of opponents’ advances. In the pocket, her overhand right is her best weapon, a looping shot that gets around outstretched arms. Her Muay Thai background will show at close range when she leads with an elbow or uses the plumb to control an opponent’s base.
Expect Carano to pour on jabs and front kicks at the advancing Cyborg, keying off the Brazilian’s heavy right hand for a left hook overhand right combination. After weathering the initial storm, she’ll set up punching combinations with kicks and grind Cyborg down.
Carano’s grappling is mostly limited to defensive maneuvers that allow her to return to her feet. A lone submission victory over Tonya Evinger and resistance to Julie Kedzie’s ground work proved she could hang when the action went down, but in subsequent performances, she’s been matched with opponents who, for the most part, want to stand and slug with her. She does, however, have the flexibility to tie opponents up in guard and use her legs to initiate a scramble for position, or reverse an opponent as the fight hits the ground. It’s advanced basics, and she’s used her skills to keep the fight where she wants it.
Cyborg’s wrestling has improved dramatically from her early performances. She’s added a solid game of ground and pound to her arsenal, using her strength to power opponents into bad spots on the mat. Her jiu-jitsu cannot be ignored – against Yoko Takahashi’s sweep, she countered with a submission attempts – though she hasn’t used it much in her short career. Her best bet is to take Carano down off a body lock and pour on the punishment from top position.
And that’s where Carano will want to be if the fight goes down. Cyborg hasn’t been tested on bottom position, and may break under consistent pressure. Its doubtful Carano will cede position to finish a submission unless Cyborg makes a major tactical error.
More likely is a series of short ground engagements before the two scramble to their feet.
Cyborg’s M.O. so far has been one-sided: either she’s in complete control of the fight, or she’s trying desperately to get there. She’ll take any opportunity to come forward and finish her opponent with a barrage of strikes. As previously noted, she may pay more respect to Carano’s stand-up skills (not to mention the threat of a takedown) but at one point or another she’ll rush in and try to force a mistake.
Carano goes with the flow inside the cage. When opponents press, she backs away or returns fire. When opponents relent, she’s moving forward aggressively. Guaranteed, she’ll be on her bicycle more than ever before for this fight. She’s smart enough not to get into a firefight early on and will wait until later rounds to begin asserting her dominance, assuming she doesn’t get caught.
This section doubles as the “X” factor for this fight. It’s an entirely new world for both fighters. Neither have fought five, five-minute rounds. That’s sixteen extra minutes in the cage, and coupled with the energy of the crowd and pressure inherent to main event billing, conditioning could be a serious factor.
Carano carries the slight edge in this category because she tends to measure herself better during competition. Despite past troubles with weight cutting, she has not faded in later rounds. However, she hasn’t fought since October, and that could play a factor if the fight’s early pace is high.
Cyborg, on the other hand, is so aggressive that it could come back to bite her if the fight goes long. Her usual tempo is not sustainable for 25 minutes. If she gets overly aggressive or emotional when Carano’s punches find their mark, she could gas herself out chasing after revenge.
THE “X” FACTOR
Conditioning undoubtedly is the biggest “X” factor in the fight, and the answer should be evident in early rounds. If Cyborg comes out guns a blazing, it’s a question of whether Carano has the faith in her technique to stop Cyborg in her tracks, or if she chooses to evade the early storm and come on strong later.
In her last fight, Carano let opponent Kelly Kobald wear herself out driving for a takedown and poured the pressure on in the final minutes. While Cyborg’s aggression is more refined and brutal, the gameplan could be similar.
The question is how much respect the two give each other in the opening exchanges.
KEYS TO VICTORY
-Lateral movement, keep jabs and front kicks coming
-Don’t get into an early firefight
-Use Cyborg’s aggression to take her down
-Go the distance.
-Smart aggression: use footwork to counter and corner Carano
-Use plumb to control position and strike inside
-Get the takedown and work ground and pound
-Watch for high kicks