CBS AND STRIKEFORCE will present a World Championship Tripleheader that features five fighters ranked among the best in their respective weight classes and an undefeated star hoping to join their ranks on Saturday, April 17, live on The CBS Television Network (9 p.m. ET/PT), from Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.
In the main event, legendary MMA champion and two-time Olympic wrestler Dan Henderson (25-7), of Temecula, Calif., will make his STRIKEFORCE debut when he challenges Jake Shields, the STRIKEFORCE World Middleweight Champion (24-4-1) of San Francisco, who has won 13 in a row and is unbeaten since December 2004.
Gilbert “El Nino” Melendez (17-2), of San Francisco, by way of Santa Ana, Calif., will risk his STRIKEFORCE World Lightweight belt against DREAM champion and Japanese superstar Shinya Aoki (23-4).
The third world title fight will feature one of the elite mixed martial artists at 205 pounds, Gegard Mousasi (27-2-1), of Armenia, who will put a 15-fight winning streak and his STRIKEFORCE Light Heavyweight crown on the line against one of the most confident, fastest-rising, charismatic fighters in the world, “King Mo” Lawal (6-0), of Murfreesboro, Tenn.
What the fighters and Coker had to say on Friday’s call:
SHIELDS: I’m super excited to be a part of this, to be on CBS again and on the main event for the first time on CBS and for the opportunity to fight Dan Henderson, who’s one of my favorite fighters of the past 10 years. It’s a huge opportunity for me to go out there and showcase my skills against someone of Dan Henderson’s caliber.”
HENDERSON: “I’m as excited as everyone else is to be a part of this CBS card and to have the opportunity to help broaden the sport and bring it to the masses. I’m excited and hopefully all the new fans will be hooked just like the rest of us are.”
MELENDEZ: “I’m very excited and I feel very privileged to be on a card with such great fighters. Not only am I fighting the biggest star in Japan on American soil, but I’m fighting on CBS with guys like Jake Shields, Dan Henderson, Gegard and King Mo. I’m very pumped up, I’m very excited and I’m very thankful that Strikeforce has given me this opportunity and I hope I fight first so I can watch the other fights.
Jake, what kind of fight do you expect on Saturday?
SHIELDS: “A really tough one. It’s really hard to predict where this fight is going to be. I think we’re going to be everywhere, you know. I think we’re going to be on our feet, I’m going to take Henderson down, he’s going to take me down. It’s going to be an all-out war.”
Dan, what about Jake Shields in terms of his abilities poses the biggest threat to you in the cage?
HENDERSON: “Jake has been on a big winning streak and he’s very dangerous in certain aspects of the game. I’m sure he plans on taking me down and using some of his submissions. There are definitely things I need to watch out for and be careful for. I think Jake was right; this fight is going to be on the ground and everywhere else. I think it’s got the potential to be a really exciting fight.”
Scott, how much pressure do you feel to match the TV ratings you drew in November, especially since you don’t have Fedor on this card?
COKER: “Well, not only would we like to match November, but we would like to exceed November. And we’re all working hard to try to get as many eyeballs as we can on this event. I think CBS has done an amazing job with their promotions, I saw a ton of them on the basketball tournament and CSI and Survivor and different top-rated shows. I think in the MMA community we’ve been driving the message as hard as we can. And, the matchups speak for themselves. These are matchups that are going to be amazing and it took us a long time to put these fights together. Every one of these fights could be a main event, so we’ll have a triple main event next Saturday on CBS. We’re hoping to have a great rating, that’s definitely one of our goals and we’re working hard to achieve that.”
Jake, I hear you’ve put on a few pounds?
SHIELDS: I’ve bulked up. I’m still not a huge 185 pounder, but I feel a lot better. I’ve been working with strength trainers. I feel really strong and fast at this weight, it’s the best I’ve felt at185.”
Dan, can you talk about your decision to leave the UFC for Strikeforce?
HENDERSON: “What more do you want to know, I’m pretty much happy with the big aspect of fighting on CBS. There’s no bigger platform and CBS was a huge part of my decision.”
Was the exposure of TV the main lure for you?
HENDESON: “You know, it didn’t bring me over here to just be on CBS, but to be able to still have some big challenges as far as fights go in STRIKEFORCE, they’ve got a pretty good, big roster of fighters now, some big challenges. That’s why it’s not only the money and everything else, but without the challenge it wouldn’t really excite me. So, I’m fairly excited about being on CBS and fighting Jake Shields.”
Why has MMA gained so much popularity?
HENDERSON: “The sport itself is just so exciting, anything can happen at anytime. To have platforms like CBS broadcasting fights is bringing a lot of fans to the sport, so that definitely helps.”
Jake, do you feel any pressure to put on a show considering it’s the main event on CBS. Some people question your style?
SHIELDS: “Yeah, yeah, definitely. I want to put on a great fight. Of course the two things I want to do are win, of course, but I also want to put on an exciting fight. I know Henderson is a tough fight. But, the other thing is stylistically it will probably be an exciting fight. I want to go out there and use heavy striking and try to put him away with submissions or ground and pound, whatever. I’m definitely trying to end this fight.”
Gilbert, you’ve now avenged both your career losses? How are you so much more dynamic than you were when you first lost to Josh Thomson?
MELENDEZ: “I guess I took a step back after that loss and decided, do I want to do this sport for fun or do I want to make a career out of it? I decided I wanted to make a career out of it so, with that said, I became more motivated, more focused and I promised myself I will never come into a fight unprepared. I don’t care about losing. I just care about not being prepared.”
Dan, on a scale of one to 10, how hungry are you for the STRIKEFORCE Middleweight Championship belt? And, if you obtain that, would you consider moving back up to light heavyweight to fight for the belt there?
HENDERSON: “I’m very excited and hungry to just get out there and fight and fight well. It’s been a while since I’ve been out there and I definitely want to be impressive with my first fight in Strikeforce. There is a belt on the line, so I’m very excited about that. We’ll look where I’ll be after that, but I’ve got to take care of what’s in front of me first, then we’ll go from there. Beyond that, I have no idea and really haven’t thought very much about what I will do.”
Dan, where do you think you stack up with Jake in terms of submission defense?
HENDERSON: “I feel like over there years I’ve fought guys as good or better than Jake on the ground that are great at submissions. I’m not too bad there myself, so I’m not really too concerned too much about it. But I am also aware that that’s probably the biggest danger for me when fighting Jake Shields, but I’m going to be very comfortable there.”
Jake, Dan is known as a great wrestler and striker. How do you think you stand up in terms of the wrestling and striking?
SHIELDS: “We’ll have to see when we get out there, but I’ve been working on a ton of wrestling and trying to get stronger in those areas. As far as power goes, I know he has good power, but I’m not the easiest guy to hit and I certainly can take a punch. I’m ready for it, I’ve worked hard on it. I know on paper he’s a better wrestler, but a lot of times it doesn’t always stack up that way when you get in the cage.”
Jake, do you think you’re a full fledged 185 pound fighter now?
SHIELDS: “Yeah, I don’t know. I feel comfortable at this weight, that’s all I know. Weight is not going to be a factor. If Dan is a better fighter then that has nothing to do with weight. At this point, he’s coming down and I’m coming up, so it’s not going to be a big deal. There’s probably going to be a five pound weight difference, but it’s not going to be a factor in the fight.”
Scott, there have been some reports about Jake’s contact. Is this his last fight with Strikeforce?
COKER: “Jake does have the ability to exercise his one other fight. We’re going to wait to see what happens with this fight.”
SHIELDS: “For the most part, too, I’m really happy with Strikeforce. Everywhere I read people say I’m going to UFC, but I just said I’m not sure where I’m going. The media seems to keep jumping and changing words I say and kind of pushing that I’m jumping away, which isn’t the case. I haven’t said for sure where I’m going. I’ve been very happy with Strikeforce. I’m fighting in the main event on CBS against Dan Henderson. This is, like Dan said, the biggest platform possible. So it’s not like I’m in any hurry to jump and run away.
Dan, how helpful has your wrestling background been for you in MMA?
HENDERSON: “I’ve said it many times that wrestling is the best base to have in MMA. It’s been instrumental in my MMA career and it doesn’t hurt to be able to use that and still have the ability to knock guys down as well. I can’t say enough about wrestling and what it’s done for my MMA career.”
Jake, are you confident going into this fight or are you worried about him taking the belt?
SHIELDS: “No, I’m vey confident. Obviously, Henderson is a tough fighter so I’m not thinking it’s going to be an easy fight, but I’m relaxed. I love having the belt, but it’s not about the belt it’s about the fight. This is a huge fight, but in my mind, I expect to keep the belt. I know Henderson is good, but I have no intentions of letting him take my belt.”
Gilbert, everyone knows what Aoki did in his last fight. What is your reaction to his antics after he beat Mizuto Hirota?
MELENDEZ: “First of all, breaking a guy’s arm is part of the game. The guy should have tapped out. My mentality stepping in the cage is kill or be killed, and I’m sure most top fighters have the same mentality. With him running around, dancing around and doing the middle finger? I thought it was a little uncharacteristic; it’s really not my style. But I’m not one to judge Aoki. Maybe this guy was talking bad about his Mom in the back or spit on him in the back, so I can’t really jump and judge him. If he continues to act like that over and over I’ll probably think he’s kind of weird. It just comes with the game and sometimes when you see blood you act a little crazy.”
How important is it for you to not only win but step up the ladder?
MELENDEZ: “It’s crazy. I had two losses in 2008 and I fell off the rankings. I was ranked No. 2 in the world for a minute, No. 3 in the world. But, Scott Coker gave me an opportunity to avenge both those losses, I’m back in the top 10 now and I’m fighting the No. 2 fighter in the world. It’s pretty nuts. I’m really excited and I’m excited to take advantage of the opportunity. Not just that I’m fighting the No. 2 guy in the world but also that I think I have a good chance of beating this guy.”
What’s the key for you in this fight against Aoki?
MELENDEZ: “A perfect fight would be we never hit the ground and I sprawl and brawl this guy. But, you got to be prepared for every scenario in this fight and I believe I am. I have to be able to defend all his submissions, I have to be able to be confident on the ground, and, like I said, best case scenario I never touch the ground and I knock him out. But you got to be prepared for everything from this guy.”
Gil, are you worried about Aoki finding a way out of the fight?
MELENDEZ: “I’ve studied a lot of tapes on him and one thing I’ve noticed is he’ll look for the way out and I can’t give him that opportunity. If I accidently hit him in the nuts or I elbow him wrong I have to realize that he might try to take advantage of that and find a way out. I just have to be very careful and not give him that opportunity. It’s just something that I’m aware of and I almost would blame myself if I gave him that opportunity to get out of there. It’s definitely something that’s on my mind.”
Do you think training with Nick (Diaz) and Jake (Shields) is an advantage for you against Aoki?
MELENDEZ: “Definitely, a lot of people fight Aoki and they’re three months out of a fight and they think they have enough time to start training Jiu-Jitsu. I’ve been training for this guy unconsciously for years. I’ve had Jake, who’s tapping guys out, I’ve had Nick (Diaz) and Nate doing crazy Jiu-Jitsu and a stacked team of guys. I’ve really been preparing for this guy unconsciously for five years. I’m very fortunate I have a great team and I think it’s going to help a lot.”
Jake, how much of a benefit for you is it that your last fight went five rounds?
SHIELDS: Yeah, maybe it is. I guess if it was the first time I’ve fought five rounds, but Dan has fought five rounds as well. When you fight five rounds you don’t forget how to do it. It’s one of those things that you either can do or you can’t. But I think me and Dan both know how to fight five rounds, so it won’t really make a difference.”
Dan, what are the pros and cons of having the layoff at this time of year career?
HENDERSON: “I don’t see any cons in it, other than it gave my body a chance to relax and recover from different injuries. But, I’m in the gym every day that I’m home training my guys and training with them, so I feel like I’ve been fighting the whole time while I’ve been home in the gym. The pros, I guess, is it’s been a while since I’ve been in there and I’m pretty excited and hungry to be back in there. I’ve been chomping at the bits for months now waiting to get back in the cage.”
Jake, what do you think is the key to your big win streak?
HENDERSON: “I think the key is just hard work. I’ve been training hard and I also have a good team behind me. We just train really hard and just push ourselves to get better. I’m really confident right now but I try not to be over confident because when you get over confident that’s when you lose. I’m confident but I know I’m in for the toughest fight of my life on April 17.”
Gilbert, how is Aoki so good if he’s so seemingly one-dimensional?
MELENDEZ: “The thing with Aoki is he’s a very intelligent fighter and it’s obvious you want to stay on your feet with him. Basically, you just want to keep it on your feet. Once he gets to the ground he has a great back attack, he has a great rubber guard, and you have to be prepared for all of those. As I study his tapes, I get scared of all those positions, but the closer I get to the fight I feel more confident about it. But, yeah man, just being prepared for all those positions on the ground.”
Jake, how much help have you been for Gil? I know you’ve wanted to fight Aoki for at least a couple of years.
SHIELDS: “Yeah, I want to fight Aoki, but I’m bigger now and he’s smaller so that’s probably not going to happen. Instead, Gil gets to fight him. He’s a guy that I’ve really studied and know a lot about so I’ve definitely tried to help him some. I definitely see how to beat Aoki and I definitely understand it, and I think Gil has the perfect style to go out there and put him away.”’
Gilbert, do you think it will make a difference that Aoki is fighting in a ring rather than a cage?
MELENDEZ: “Well first of all, I have thought about it but it’s not something that I’m banking on U.S. rules helping me out. I’ve fought in a ring and I’ve fought in a cage and there are differences, but sometimes you get a little bit more lost in a cage and you don’t know where you are, whereas in a ring you’re a little bit more aware. In Japan when you fight in the ring you have to dialogue with the referee and you have a bunch of people dragging you to the middle where you can work on your submissions. In a cage the referee is not involved at all. He needs to stop a fight or penalize someone for hitting below the belt or poking in the eye. I think the cage can play an advantage in the Jiu-Jitsu game for me, if I wedge him against there he might be a little uncomfortable. I’m not banking on the cage helping me a lot, but I can see how it could make him a little confused and hurt his Jiu-Jitsu game a little.”
This fight is likely to feature a lot of grappling, what’s your approach to that since you’ll have such a huge audience?
MELENDEZ: “Best case scenario, I never hit the ground with this guy, but, realistically, I have to be prepared to hit the ground with him, and I am. Fortunately, my style of Jiu-Jitsu is high paced and scrambles and Aoki’s is tricky and entertaining. So, if we do hit the ground I think it will be entertaining for all the viewers. I don’t think anyone will be booing and saying ‘stand up and fight.’ They’re probably be pretty caught up in it and maybe slightly confused at what’s actually going on. I would like to display my Jiu-Jitsu skills. I’m pretty confident in them. I’m looking forward to displaying my mixed martial arts skills.”
Scott, can you run through the process of putting together the fight with Aoki? I know he’s in pretty strong demand.
COKER: “It was a tough road getting Aoki here. It started a year ago when we announced the relationship with SHOWTIME and CBS, one of my goals was we have to have the DREAM fighters come to the U.S. and fight our guys because those would be some of the most amazing matchups in mixed martial arts. So I started working towards that. I thought we were going to have it towards the end of last year and then it got postponed for different reasons. He was busying fighting in Dynamite. I really am appreciative for DREAM letting this fight happen because it was a very difficult task to have this happen. He’s really a Japanese treasure and a superstar over there. For him to take the risk and come over and fight Gilbert was something that was tough to do. Luckily, after Dynamite he had an opening and we grabbed it.”
What if Aoki wins and becomes the champion? It would be difficult to get a lot of dates.
COKER: “That’s a good question. I think what would have to happen is Gilbert would have to go to Japan and beat him up over there.”
Gilbert, what are your thoughts on an immediate rematch?
MELENDEZ: “An immediate rematch sounds cool. I would love to fight him again. Obviously, I’m trying to get through this fight and win. I’m just very excited that Scott has the confidence in me and he gives me confidence. I really believe I can win this fight. Like I said, I’m a soldier here. If Scott wants me to go to Japan and fight Aoki I’ll do it. I have no problem going over there. I’d like to make a statement and beat him here and I’d like to go over there and beat him and make a big statement in the MMA industry.”
Jake, are you happy fighting at 185 or do you see yourself going back to welterweight?
SHIELDS: “I take it one fight at a time. I’m just trying to get through this fight for now and look at my options. I feel like I could go back to 170 pretty easily. I walk around at 185, so I think I could make weight in two weeks if I had to. But I think I’ll just take it one fight at a time. I’m just looking for the biggest fights. “
Doors at Bridgestone Arena will open at 6:30 CT. The first preliminary bout will begin at 7 p.m. Tickets are on sale at the Bridgestone Arena ticket office, all Ticketmaster locations (800) 745-3000, Ticketmaster online (www.ticketmaster.com) and STRIKEFORCE’S official website (www.strikeforce.com).
You can follow CBS and Strikeforce on Twitter at @CBS_MMA and @StrikeforceMMA