Miesha Tate (center) file photo: Jeff Sherwood | Sherdog.com
The genesis of American mixed martial arts came from one-night tournaments where fighters would compete two, three or even four times to prove themselves better than their fellow competitors.
In recent years, MMA has moved away from this concept for the most part, but the one-night tournament concept will make its return Friday night when Strikeforce hosts a four-woman, one-night tournament at 135 pounds as a part of the Strikeforce Challengers 10 in Phoenix, Ariz. The winner of the tournament will get a shot at Strikeforce 135-pound champion Sarah Kaufman at a later date.
"I'm really excited about being in the tournament because I'm potentially three fights from being a world champion," said American Miesha Tate, who joins Brazilian Carina Damm, Finn Maiju Kujala and Hitomi Akano from Japan in the tournament field. "A lot of people in MMA don't know when they'll have a chance to fight for the title. I know if I win, I'll have a chance to fight for the title. It's very motivating."
One thing that will make Strikeforce's tournament unique is that the four participants won't know their opening-round opponent until Thursday night at the weigh-ins, as there will be a blind draw to determine the pairings. Also, to accommodate potentially having two fights in one night, each bout is being shortened from three five-minute to two-minute rounds for the semifinal bouts and three-minute rounds for the final fight.
Other additions to the regular rules include a fourth "sudden victory" round in case of a draw, which will be scored independently to decide the winner.
Another tweak is the "survivor role" in the case of an accidental foul. "If a semifinal bout ends prematurely due to an accidental, unintentional or no-fault foul, the 'survivor rule' will be implemented. The fighter who is fit to continue will advance," according to the official rules.
The tournament's reserve bout, which will be on the undercard, pits Liz Carmouche against Colleen Schneider, whose winner will step in for any fighter unable to continue on to the final round.
Scouting the Field
The 36-year-old Akano, who has lost two of her last three fights -- one via a split decision to Hiroko Yamanaka and the other a knockout at the hands of Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos -- said she is looking forward to the one-night tournament format.
"I am actually happy that I may be able to fight twice in one night," said Akano in an e-mail interview. "I am preparing to go two sets of three five-minute rounds. Right now, I am working on maintaining my concentrations for a longer period of time and I am not saving anything even for the first fight, I will go all out on each fight."
Akano is respectful of her potential opponents, but is focusing on making herself the best fighter she can be for the tournament.
"(Tate's) primary weapon is the takedown and her straight punches are looking good, so she is an all-around fighter," said Akano. "(Kujala) seems like she has got a strength and I have to be cautious about her striking. I think her weakness is a lack of MMA experience. (Damm) has got many unorthodox moves, so against her, I have to maintain my pace and rhythm. I do look at the three other fighters in the tournament, but also, I am looking at myself so I can improve as well."
The 23-year-old Tate will carry a three-fight winning streak and seven victories in her last eight bouts into the tournament. Her only loss during her current run was a unanimous decision defeat to Kaufman at the first Strikeforce Challengers event in May 2009. She has seven finishes (three knockouts, four submissions) in her nine victories and expects everyone to come out aggressively in the semifinal matchups.
"People are going to want to go out there and get the win as quickly as possible," said Tate. "The longer you're in there, the more chances you have of losing or getting hurt. I'm not worried about being in condition for the finals if I go three two-minute rounds in the first fight. I'm more concerned about injuries. The faster you get in and out of there, the less likely you are to have injuries."
Even though she won't know her first opponent until the night before the fight, Tate isn't too worried about it.
"I really like my style matchup with (Akano, Damm and Kujala)," said Tate. "I'm a better wrestler than all of them, so I can dictate whether I want the fight on the feet or on the ground. I'm just going to go out and impose my will. (Kujala) is the one I'm the least worried about because she's the newest and least-experienced fighter. Damm and Akano would be the two tougher matchups for me in the tournament."
Kujala, who has only been a professional MMA fighter since September 2009, has just five fights on her resume, but she doesn't feel that will be a hindrance on Friday night.
"There's a lot of pressure on all the participants and the majority of the people have never heard of me," said Kujala, who has won her last three fights since a November 2009 loss to Aisling Daly. "They have a lot more experience, but I have a lot more will to fight. They've fought for years and had more fight time. They're a little more worn down than I am."
Kujala said knows that the chance to fight in the tournament is something that doesn't come along every day.
"I've only been a pro since last September," said Kujala. "This isn't something I had as a goal yet. I thought about something like this in five years, but a lot of things have happened in my first year as a fighter. I'm excited to be in it and it's a great opportunity for any fighter, also because of the fact I might get two fights in one night, so it's a chance to get more fights."
Like Tate and Kujala, Damm is riding a hot streak. Since suffering two straight losses to Rosi Sexton and Miku Matsumoto in 2006, Damm has run off 10 straight victories. She has 11 finishes among her 15 wins and has victories against Jessica Aguilar, Molly Helsel, Matsumoto and Vanessa Porto as well.
Damm said she is ready to face whomever she is paired with, whether it be Tate, Akano or Kujala.
"For me, it doesn’t really change much on how the tournament will turn out," said Damm in an e-mail interview. "My trainers have a different approach to each of the opponents and we should be prepared for whatever Strikeforce puts in front of us. This isn't the first time that we trained for a fight without knowing the opponent -- at least this time we have a range of three fighters."
Damm's participation in the tournament was up in the air until recently due to visa issues, but that's something she wants to put behind her so she can focus on Friday night's fights.
"Right now, the important thing is that everything is sorted out and we will be able to take part in the tournament as originally planned," said Damm. "I am really happy to be able to take part in this tournament. It's a great opportunity for me to get back on the big stage and we are working harder then ever to make sure we get the best from this tournament."
Picking a Front-Runner
The four tournament participants were split when asked to choose who might be the favorite (besides themselves) to win the tournament. Damm didn't give a choice, while Kujala chose Tate due to her wrestling background, but added, "It's a tough one (to pick a favorite)."
Akano's response was an illustration of the depth of the field, as she, too, was hard-pressed to pick a winner.
"I don't really want to think about someone other than myself winning the tournament," said Akano. "But if I have to choose the favorite besides myself, I guess it would have to be Miesha Tate."
Tate couldn't decide between Akano and Damm, saying an Akano-Damm fight would be a toss-up proposition.
"It's so hard to say," said Tate. "Overall, I think Damm would beat Akano. She's a good striker and good on the ground, but I could see Damm winning two rounds and Akano coming out with some kind of crazy armbar in the third. If Damm didn't make a mistake, she'd win, but if she makes one mistake, Akano can come up with something that's hard to prepare for."