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Strikeforce 'Melendez vs Masvidal' fight card: KJ Noons vs Billy Evangelista preview

Two former top Strikeforce lightweight contenders will battle for divisional relevance this Saturday night (December 17, 2011) as former EliteXC lightweight champion K.J. Noons takes on nine-time Strikeforce veteran Billy Evangelista in the opening bout of the Strikeforce: "Melendez vs. Masvidal" main card.

Noons is looking to bounce back after a rough year. He lost a rematch to Nick Diaz for the Strikeforce welterweight title and blew his shot at number one contender after getting roughed up by Jorge Masvidal earlier this summer. He needs a victory over Billy Evangelista to avoid falling off a cliff in the lightweight division.

Billy Evangelista is coming off the first loss of his professional career, also to Masvidal. He had been groomed as a top lightweight prospect by Strikeforce but this is now his 10th fight in the promotion and it's time for all that patience to pay dividends. He needs to prove he can hang with the big players in the division or all that effort to build him up will have been for naught.

Can Noons return to form against the previously undefeated prospect? Will Billy Evangelista score the biggest victory of his career thus far? What's the best path to victory for both lightweights on Saturday night?

Let's find out

K.J. Noons

Record: 10-4 overall, 2-2 in Strikeforce

Key Wins: Nick Diaz (EliteXC: Renegade), Yves Edwards (EliteXC: Return of the King), Jorge Gurgel (Strikeforce: Houston)

Key Losses: Nick Diaz (Strikeforce: Diaz vs. Noons 2), Jorge Masvidal (Strikeforce: Overeem vs. Werdum)

How he got here: Karl James Noons is one of the few fighters who has been successful at both boxing and MMA. Originally getting into combat sports as a kickboxer near the turn of the century, he got submitted in less than 30 seconds in his second MMA fight back in 2002.

After that, K.J. focused primarily on boxing for awhile but would make his return to mixed martial arts, achieving the highlight of his career thus far by defeating Nick Diaz via TKO (cuts) to become EliteXC's inaugural lightweight champion. After defending his title against Yves Edwards, Noons would be stripped of his belt for refusing to give Nick Diaz a rematch.

Noons would then sign with Strikeforce two years later and after winning his first two fights in the promotion, he was given a title shot against welterweight champion Nick Diaz in a much anticipated grudge match. The fight with Diaz was electric and both men hurt each other on several occasions but Diaz would go on to outstrike Noons and win the later rounds to take a unanimous decision victory and retain his title.

Noons dropped back down to the lightweight division to battle Jorge Masvidal for a lightweight title shot, but Masvidal had his way with him, beating him soundly in all areas and earning the title shot. Noons will now battle Masvidal's other recent victim, Billy Evangelista to remain relevant in the 155 pound division.

How he gets it done: Despite years of training in MMA, it would still be best for Noons to stick to his roots which is his pure boxing. Whether it's at a distance working his jab or in the pocket where he can land his crosses and hooks, that's where he's most comfortable. What he needs to be careful about this time, however, is not to simply use boxing head movement. All that juking and ducking could have him lean right into a head kick or a knee. He needs to use more MMA-centric head and body movement.

Noons have developed some decent defensive countermeasures over the years so look for him to be prepared to sprawl or push off if Evangelista tried to clinch or shoot for a takedown. He needs to avoid getting tied up at all costs and then get right back to work with his striking. If he gets bogged down in anything else, he could be in trouble.

Billy Evangelista

Record: 11-1 (1 No Contest) overall, 7-1 (1 No Contest) in Strikeforce

Key Wins: Nam Phan (Strikeforce: Melendez vs. Thomson), Jorge Gurgel (Strikeforce Challengers 4), Waachim Spiritwolf (Strikeforce Challengers 11)

Key Losses: Jorge Gurgel (Strikeforce: Feijao vs. Henderson)

How he got here: Billy Evangelista has spent the majority of his career as a Strikeforce lightweight prospect and nearly every fight has been in the spotlight, even making his professional debut at WEC 18 in 2006. He's occasionally fought for other promotions, but Strikeforce is his home. It was where he had his second career fight against Isaiah Hill and it was where he had his most recent (13th) professional fight against Jorge Masvidal.

Evangelista remained undefeated for over five years, grinding out gritty decision victories against the likes of Nam Phan, Jorge Gurgel and even the significantly heavier Waachim Spiritwolf in a catchweight fight but he finally met his match when Jorge Masvidal methodically kept him at a distance and worked his jab to earn a decision of his own.

Evangelista will be looking to reestablish himself in the lightweight division if he can defeat a former welterweight title contender and lightweight champion on Saturday night.

Hoe he gets it done: Evangelista isn't the best striker, but where he's most dangerous is in the clinch or with his takedowns. Look for him to strike only long enough to set either one of those parts of his game up.

If he can pin Noons against the fence and either work for a takedown against the cage or practice some dirty boxing and short knees, he'll definitely do it.

The same goes with a takedown in case Noons comes in overaggressive and opens himself up to being put on his back, perhaps if Evangelista can duck a looping hook or if he can get in deep an drive forward. Evangelista isn't the most explosive wrestler, but he's got pretty solid technique and he's a very big lightweight. If he can grab ahold of Noons' legs, there's a very good shot at putting the boxer on his back.

If he can put Noons down, Evangelista has to keep tight pressure on top of him because "King Karl" is pretty good at getting back to his feet. Even if it risks warnings due to inaction, don't be surprised if Evangelista hangs on tight, creating little to no space with a methodical attack. If he rushes into ground and pound, he could allow Noons to get back to his feet and that's the last thing he wants.

Fight X-Factor: The biggest X-Factor for this fight is how each man responds to their most recent loss, both of them were to main event fighter Jorge Masvidal. Evangelista was picked apart with a jab while Noons was smashed with powerful knees. For Evangelista, it was his first legitimate loss of his career and it had to sting. Noons has dealt with defeat before, but he hadn't been dominated like that since his flash knockout loss at the hands of Charles Bennett nearly five years ago. If either man comes out gunshy or even if one comes out overaggressive almost as a response to defeat, they could be in for a butt-kicking.

Also, knowing that the last man to defeat them is fighting for the title in the main event of the evening has got to sting as well. I believe this will effect Billy Evangelista much more than Noons, but we'll have to wait and see.

Bottom Line: This is an intriguing match-up, and while there are some positives, there are plenty of negatives as well. Billy Evangelista has a very grinding, scrappy, in-your-face style and while it's effective, it's not always the most appealing visually. If he can implement his gameplan and either put Noons on the fence or on his back, this could be a long, drawn-out 15 minutes. Evangelista is not a great finisher and it's unlikely that Noons floors him with his boxing either. The only shot that this one is really entertaining is if Evangelista throws caution to the wind Jorge Gurgel-style and tries to make this a stand-up war.

Who will come out on top at Strikeforce: Melendez vs. Masvidal? Tell us your predictions in the comments below!

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