From L to R: Carmouche, Henderson, Cavalcante and Coenen (Esther Lin/Strikeforce)

The heavyweight grand prix has been the focus of Strikeforce lately, but let’s not forget that the promotion has other divisions that feature prominent fighters and title belts. On Saturday, the light heavyweights and the ladies take center stage when Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante defends his 205-pound crown against UFC and Pride veteran Dan Henderson, and Marloes Coenen puts her women’s 135-pound title on the line against late replacement Liz Carmouche.

The light heavyweight clash will mark Henderson’s second championship outing in only three fights under the Strikeforce banner.   His first shot at gold resulted in a losing effort in a disappointing performance against Jake Shields in the middleweight division.   Now Henderson hopes to fight to a better outcome when he steps into the cage against Cavalcante, who will be making his first defense of the title he snagged from Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal in August 2010.

Meanwhile, Coenen makes her first defense of the title she captured from Sarah Kaufman in October.  Originally set to face Miesha Tate, she now must contend with Carmouche.  Carmouche doesn’t have the experience of the injured Tate, but she is undefeated through five professional bouts and now has her eyes set on scoring the upset to capture the title.

The main card will also feature a middleweight battle between Tim Kennedy and Melvin Manhoef, plus a lightweight scrap between Billy Evangelista and Jorge Masvidal. All of the action goes down at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. The main card will air live on Showtime beginning at 10 p.m. ET.

The MMA DieHards panel of writers – Cameron Chow, Bryan Henderson, Jason Kelly, Joe Rizzo and Rob Tatum – gathered to make their picks for the main card.

One fighter earned a unanimous nod from our panel as a favorite in her fight.

All of our panelists see Coenen (18-4) as the clear favorite over Carmouche (5-0).   While both ladies reside in the top 10 of the 135-pound division of the Unified Women’s MMA Rankings, there’s a large gap in the competition they have faced.  Coenen has over 20 fights under her belt, including title bouts against Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos at 145 pounds and Kaufman at 135.   The Golden Glory fighter has also competed against fellow ranked women Roxanne Modafferi and Cindy Dandois, going 1-2.  Carmouche is undefeated, with two appearances on the Strikeforce Challengers series, but the 8-9 Jan Finney is the toughest foe she has faced and her opponent’s combined record is an unimpressive 10-15.  Carmouche’s only advantage comes through her status as a late replacement.   Whereas Tate is a wrestler who often looks for submissions, Carmouche is a striker.   She’ll have to look for the knockout, but Coenen’s experience and her time spent training at a camp touted for its striking should give her the overall edge over “Girl-Rilla.” Look for Coenen to eventually submit the less-experienced challenger.

The panel was divided on the other three contests, which brings us to the “Counterpunch,” where one of the writers in the minority defends his reason for going against the popular opinion.

LW: Billy Evangelista (11-0) vs. Jorge Masvidal (20-6)
Picking Evangelista: 3 (Chow, Henderson, Rizzo)
Picking Masvidal: 2 (Kelly, Tatum)

Tatum: Masvidal returns to lightweight to take on the undefeated Evangelista.  Masvidal was most recently in action at welterweight in September, dropping a decision to Paul Daley at Shark Fights 13.  Evangelista, on the other hand, last competed in October, picking up a decision victory over Waachiim Spiritwolf.

To me, this fight is a no-brainer.  Evangelista’s biggest wins are over Jorge Gurgel and Nam Phan, both fights that I believe he lost.  Masvidal has the unfortunate designation as being on the end of one of the greatest submissions in MMA history against Toby Imada, but has defeated current UFC fighters Joe Lauzon and Yves Edwards.  Additionally, he has competed in Bellator, Sengoku and Bodog Fight.  In the Daley fight, he gave the Brit everything he could handle, and in my opinion, deserved the victory.

Poor judging aside, the American Top Team-trained Masvidal will be too much for Evangelista.  His experience alone will be more than enough to hand Evangelista his first career loss, and will certainly garner some attention as a challenger for Gilbert Melendez’s lightweight strap.

MW: Tim Kennedy (12-3) vs. Melvin Manhoef (24-8-1)
Picking Kennedy: 3 (Henderson, Rizzo, Tatum)
Picking Manhoef: 2 (Chow, Kelly)

Chow: Manhoef is a devastating striker, that much is for sure.  Now that he has committed himself full-time to MMA, he looks like he is ready to become an all-around threat.  It’s too bad for American MMA fans that national hero Kennedy is the first man to have to face the newly committed Manhoef.

A more well-rounded Manhoef is a Manhoef who should be able to fend off takedowns and submissions better than he ever has in the past.  This means more of an opportunity for the dangerous Manhoef to practice the skill that made him a fighter in the first place: Punching people.  Punching people hard. Very hard.

Kennedy is a dangerous and well-rounded opponent with a lot of heart.  This heart is what could get him into trouble against Manhoef.  If Kennedy is tempted to trade blows with Manhoef, this one won’t go to the judges.  I look for Manhoef to be able to shed more takedowns than he has in the past and be able to keep the fight where he wants long enough for him to finish it.

LHW Title: Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante (10-2) vs. Dan Henderson (26-8)
Picking Cavalcante: 3 (Chow, Rizzo, Tatum)
Picking Henderson: 2 (Henderson, Kelly)

Kelly: Henderson will beat Cavalcante.

Does that statement even need an explanation?  No, but I’ll give you one, anyway.

Henderson has only been submitted by two people over his 14-year, 34-fight career.  Hendo has never been knocked out or lost via TKO.  Cavalcante is known for putting people to sleep with his heavy hands, but Henderson has a chin made out of something similar to granite, and he is no stranger to delivering his own crushing blows.  I also believe that Henderson will use his wrestling to control where this fight goes.

I think “Feijao” is an outstanding fighter, however I don’t see his beating Henderson in this bout.  Henderson by decision.

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