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Strikeforce grand prix semifinals fight card: Maximo Blanco vs Pat Healy preview

This Saturday night (September 10, 2011), two of the fastest rising lightweights in Strikeforce will throw down during the Strikeforce Grand Prix: "Barnett vs. Kharitonov" as the young gun Maximo Blanco takes on the experienced Team Quest fighter Pat Healy.

Blanco is making his Strikeforce debut after tearing up the Japanese promotions with his vicious striking and powerful wrestling slams. He's ready to test himself against some of the best lightweights on the planet and is eager to find out how his skills match up with the best.

Pat "Bam Bam" Healy finally seems to have found his home after making the cut to lightweight just over one year ago. He's consistently tested himself against the best in the world and is never afraid of anyone, even someone as tenacious in his striking as Blanco. Healy even took this fight on short notice as an injury replacement.

Will Blanco make a terrific debut in the United States? Or will he join his brethren who have performed poorly after transitioning from Japan? Will Pat Healy's gamble of taking this fight on short notice pay dividends?

Let's find out:

Maximo Blanco

Record: 8-2-1 (1 No Contest) overall, 0-0 in Strikeforce

Key Wins: Rodrigo Damm (Sengoku 13), Katsuya Inoue (Pancrase - Changing Tour 4)

Key Losses: Daisuke Hanazawa (Pancrase - Shining 10)

How he got here: Born in Venezuela, Maximo Blanco was not a Brazilian jiu-jitsu stylist but a standout high school wrestler. He would go on to wrestle at a college in Japan as well as the Pan American Games in South America in which he won a bronze medal. After finishing his wrestling career, he transitioned to MMA.

He had ties to Japan due to his college years and he got his start in the Pancrase promotion in August of 2008. He didn't exactly light the world on fire at first. In Blanco's first six professional fights, he had a 2-2-1 record with one No Contest due to an illegal headbutt. His first loss was attributed to inexperience with submissions while his second was after a rule change disallowing soccer kicks which he ignored and was subsequently disqualified.

Since the last disqualification loss in 2009, the Venezuelan powerhouse has reeled off six consecutive victories including a thrashing of former Strikeforce lightweight title challenger Rodrigo Damm. Blanco became a fan favorite in Japan due to his tenacity which allowed him to win the Pancrase lightweight championship. Of Blanco's eight career victories, seven have come by way of knockout.

When Japan began to have serious problems keeping foreign fighters paid and under contract, there began a max exodus of fighters out of Sengoku. Some, like Hatsu Hioki and Jorge Santiago signed with the UFC. Others, like Marlon Sandro, signed with Bellator. Blanco decided upon Strikeforce and he was scheduled to face Josh Thomson in his debut effort but accepted a bout against Pat Healy when Thomson came down with a nasty foot injury.

How he gets it done: Blanco is a ferocious striker, owning some of the most aggressive stand-up tactics in the entire lightweight division. He is a very gifted athlete, capable of exploding forward with hooks and straight punches to put away his opponents.

The Venezuelan also possesses some very strong kicks and knees. He's got a strong front kick that routinely connects in the chest of his opponents and helps him gauge distance for his other attacks.

Blanco's best plan of attack is to try and keep this fight standing where he can unload his strong arsenal of strikes. He's got a solid background in wrestling which he can hopefully use defensively to stay in striking range. Blanco also does a terrific job of mixing in takedowns with his combinations, often slamming his opponents to the canvas while they're worried about the next big strike.

The Sengoku veteran should be careful about using his push kick against Healy as he'll be leaving himself open to being taken down or having his kick caught. Blanco is not a horrible ground fighter, but his main attack on the canvas is ground and pound, not jiu-jitsu. He's still got some work to do with his submission game and he definitely does not want to be put on his back.

Pat Healy

Record: 27-17 overall, 3-1 in Strikeforce

Key Wins: Carlos Condit (Extreme Wars 3), Paul Daley (SF 11), Dan Hardy (Absolute Fighting Championships 10), Lyle Beerbohm (Strikeforce Challengers 14)

Key Losses: Josh Thomson (Strikeforce: Fedor vs. Werdum), T.J. Waldberger (Shark Fights 6), Jake Ellenberger (IFL: Las Vegas).

How he got here: Despite being just 28 years old, Pat Healy has an extremely long history in MMA dating back over 10 years against some of the stiffest competition imaginable. Healy has never seen a fight he didn't like and it has cost him the opportunity to have a strong record.

The Team Quest fighter has fought a who's who of the welterweight division, even some tough middleweights throughout the early stages of his career, competing in seemingly every promotion imaginable including the UFC, WEC, IFL, Shark Fights, MFC and now Strikeforce.

Due to the ridiculously difficult level of competition Healy has faced throughout his career, he's never won more than four fights in a row despite having fought 44 times professionally. It always seems like just when he's beginning to get on a roll, he stepped in against someone like Jake Ellenberger, Jay Hieron, Chris Lytle or Chris Leben.

After winning the MFC welterweight title against Ryan Ford and defending it, he finally made the decision to drop to lightweight nine years into his MMA career. The drop immediately paid dividends as Healy has gone 4-1 as a lightweight, handing Lyle Beerbohm the first loss of his career and only being defeated by former Strikeforce lightweight champion Josh Thomson. Ironically, it was an injury to Thomson that allowed Healy to step in and fight Blanco on this upcoming Strikeforce event.

How he gets it done: The plan of attack for Pat Healy is similar to nearly every Pat Healy fight. He needs to avoid big striking exchanges on the feet and take his opponent down. Healy trains out of Team Quest in Oregon and has become a very strong wrestler with some of the best experience against the best opposition of any lightweight in MMA today.

Size could be a huge factor as well since Healy is one of the largest lightweights in all of mixed martial arts. What Healy will try to do is shoot in when Blanco gets a bit overaggressive with his striking, perhaps ducking a huge lunging hook with a wrestling shot or catching a kick and countering with a single-leg takedown.

The clinch is not a poor position for Healy either as he can hopefully wear down on Blanco with his size and strength advantage akin to GSP - Penn 2, perhaps completely gassing out the Venezuelan's shoulders by pressing down on him.

If Healy can put the Strikeforce newcomer down, expect him to really grind on him there. He's a terrific wrestler and will try to force Blanco to carry all of his weight while looking to pass guard and drop some light ground and pound. "Bam Bam" possesses a strong jiu-jitsu arsenal as well and if he can advance to a dominant position, especially later in the fight, do not be surprised to see a submission.

Fight "X-Factor:" By far, the biggest X-Factor for this fight is experience. Maximo Blanco has a terrific highlight reel against some Japanese fighters in Sengoku and Pancrase but he's still only fought professionally for three years. Blanco's most significant victory was against Rodrigo Damm, a fighter who would get absolutely obliterated by Strikeforce's Justin Wilcox in his next fight in what could have been scored a 10-7 round.

Healy has fought nearly four times as much as Blanco against significantly tougher opposition. He's got victories over UFC welterweight title challengers and top contenders on his resume and that's something Blanco simply can't match. Healy has seen just about everything in this sport, while Blanco is still a bit of a young pup.

Bottom Line: There is potential for incredible events taking place in this fight, Blanco's highlight reel is a testament to that. Depending how strong the Venezuelan's ground game is, there's also the possibilities of very exciting scrambles on the canvas. Pat Healy is going to push the pace and try to exhaust his opponent, which should lead to some very intense moments. The only way this fight isn't terrific is if Blanco shows up gunshy due to a fear of being put on his back and it either turns into a staring contest or a lay-and-pray clinic. I don't see that happening, however.

Who will come out on top at the Strikeforce: "Barnett vs. Kharitonov" on Saturday night? Tell us your predictions in the comments below!

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