The Strikeforce women's 145 pound title is on the line for the first time in nearly 18 months this Saturday night (Dec. 17, 2011) as champion Cristiane Santos accepts a challenge from Hiroko Yamanaka in the co-main event of Strikeforce: "Melendez vs. Masvidal".
"Cyborg" Santos is returning to the Strikeforce cage after a very long layoff due to issues finding opponents as well as problems with her contract. Everything has finally been squared away and she's ready to get back on the horse and showcase her incredible talents once more.
Hiroko Yamanaka is one of the only top female mixed martial artists who can claim to match Santos in size and skill. Hailing from Japan, this will be her first fight outside of "The Land of teh Rising Sun." She'll be looking to play spoiler and pull off one of the year's biggest upsets.
Will "Cyborg" terminate Yamanaka with her powerful fists? Does the Japanese challenger have what it takes to be a champion? What does each fighter have to do to be victorious on Saturday night?
Let's find out:
Record: 10-1 overall, 4-0 in Strikeforce
Key Wins: Gina Carano (Strikeforce: Carano vs. Cyborg), Marloes Coenen (Strikeforce: Miami), Hitomi Akano (Strikeforce: Shamrock vs. Diaz)
Key Losses: none
How she got here: "Cyborg" Santos actually lost her first mixed martial arts fight via first round kneebar inside two minutes, but boy, has she come a long way since then. Training out of the famed Chute Box Academy in Brazil, Santos added a mean streak to her fighting style and has become as intimidating of a fighter as there is on the women's side of the sport.
Since that first loss, the Brazilian powerhouse hasn't looked back, winning the remainder of her four fights in Brazil before signing with EliteXC. She went 2-0 in the promotion before it went under including an impressive second round TKO of Shayna Baszler in her United States debut.
Afterwards, "Cyborg" signed with Strikeforce and earned a shot at the inaugural title against Gina Carano in what is widely considered the biggest women's mixed martial arts fight of all time. Santos proved to be bigger, stronger and more powerful than "The Face of Women's MMA," scoring a technical knockout with one second remaining in the first round to capture the belt.
Since then, Santos has defended her title twice, knocking out both Marloes Coenen and Jan Finney but she has not fought since June of 2010 due to failure to find suitable opponents as well as contract issues. She was finally signed to a new contract this summer and was given Yamanaka in her comeback fight.
How she gets it done: Santos is ferocious and just the sight of her barreling down on her opponents likely strikes fear into their hearts. That fear would be well placed because she truly does fight like a cyborg, coming forward aggressively, swinging with power and walking through punches to land some of her own.
Santos has been away for nearly one and a half full years, she wants to get back in there and prove she's still the best. Expect to see her come out throwing hard and pushing the pace, looking to end it in the first round if possible. There really isn't anything in Yamanaka's stand-up that should scare her so expect to see "Cyborg" wade inside and looking to land heavy hooks.
If the fight goes to the ground, Santos will be comfortable as long as she's on top. She's very aware of herself from above and isn't easily swept or budged when she's grounding and pounding opponents. While she does have a purple belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, from everything I've seen, it appears Santos would much rather punch Yamanaka's face in than go for the submission.
Record: 12-1 overall, 0-0 in Strikeforce
Key Wins: Hitomi Akano (Jewels 7th Ring)
Key Losses: Hitomi Akano (Smackgirl: World Remix 2008)
How she got here: Hiroko Yamanaka is widely considered one of the best non-Cyborg female featherweights in the world. She got her professional career kickstarted in the Smackgirl promotion, winning the women's open weight tournament in her first four fights.
She could not repeat her performance, however, losing via armbar to veteran female grappler Hitomi Akana. Yamamoto would sign up with the upstart female promotion Jewels, competing in the first three events in the young company's history. In her fourth fight with Jewels, Yamanaka avenged her only loss with a close split decision over Akano.
While she's normally content to go to decision, Yamanaka has finished her last three opponents, scoring two submissions and a TKO. She was up for the challenge of what is by far the biggest fight of her career when Strikeforce came calling.
How she gets it done: Yamanaka has a strong background in Muay Thai as well as traditional Japanese submission grappling. She will come in with a three inch height advantage and should weigh about the same as Santos as she has to cut upwards of 20 pounds to make the 145-limit.
Yamanaka is a very patient fighter and that could help her out against Santos if she can somehow weather the early storm. She has the conditioning to easily handle going three rounds if need be, but it's anybody's guess how she'll handle it if this bout somehow goes for all five.
Expect to see her try to keep the distance in the stand-up, perhaps work some chopping leg kicks trying to chip away at Santos' base. What she truly wants to do is get this fight to the ground and be on top. She doesn't want to risk eating ground and pound from "Cyborg." Also, putting Santos on her back is easier said than done. She will have to use every single trick up her sleeve if she wants to pull out a victory.
Fight X-Factor: The biggest X-Factor is the fact that Cristiane Santos has not fought since June of 2010 and she hasn't actually been challenged in a fight for nearly two years. From every training video, it appears she's kept in shape and kept up with her training, but will it all come back quickly once the cage doors close for real?
That's yet to be seen. It's not likely considering "Cyborg's" fighting style, but there's potential that she comes out slow, looking to get comfortable first before exploding. It's not exactly Yamanaka's style either to try to be crazy aggressive to take advantage of a potential situation like that but if there is ever a time to break the mold, the first minute of the fight would be a perfect time for Yamanaka to do it.
Bottom Line: In all honesty, this fight should showcase just how far the gap is between the number one and number two women's featherweight in the world. "Cyborg" Santos is an absolute monster and barring any unexpected illness or perhaps a Kevin Randleman-esque slip backstage, Santos should be able to handle this fight easily. If you're into a champion showcasing dominance, this is the fight for you.
Who will come out on top at Strikeforce: Melendez vs. Masvidal. Tell us your prediction in the comments below!