While small-scale gambling on the NCAA basketball tournament is something of an American tradition, I've found it's much harder to get my friends and neighbors involved in a Strikeforce heavyweight Grand Prix betting pool.
That's because a) all my friends and neighbors know that I follow this stuff for a living, while they're still wondering why Kimbo Slice didn't get included in the bracket, and b) the lack of seeding means you kind of have to actually know something about each fighter in order to effectively pick a winner.
Thankfully, online oddsmakers have handicapped Saturday night's opening round for us, so we might as well sift through the betting lines and see if there aren't any egregious errors. Won't you join me below?
Fedor Emelianenko (-525) vs. Antonio Silva (+325)
Just because some little voice in your head is still saying 'I told you so' after you couldn't muster the guts to bet on Fabricio Werdum back when he was a heavy underdog against Fedor, that doesn't mean lightning is going to strike twice. Look at Silva's record and ask yourself, who's the best fighter he's ever beaten? A declining Andrei Arlovski? An undersized Mike Kyle? The point is, he's done nothing to show that he can out-grapple or out-strike "The Last Emperor." Werdum? At least he had submitted some very good heavyweights before shocking the world. Silva has mostly just won the fights he was supposed to and lost the rest. My pick: Fedor. He's still overvalued at -525, since we don't for sure how he'll perform in his first post-defeat loss, but Silva's not worth the risk at these odds. I'm saving it for the parlay.
Andrei Arlovski (+110) vs. Sergei Kharitonov (-140)
There's a reason the line on this fight is closer than any other on the Showtime portion of Saturday's card. While Arlovski and Kharitonov are both big, scary, physically talented fighters, it's hard to say what they might be capable of on any given night right now. Arlovski, for instance, has dropped three straight, beginning with his loss to Fedor in January of 2009. Kharitonov, well, he just hasn't done much MMA lately. He's 2-1 in the last three years, and he looked thoroughly unimpressive in the lone loss to Jeff Monson. Both these men seemed like budding stars five years ago, but neither has completely lived up to that promise. My pick: Kharitonov. If Arlovski were +150 or above, I'd consider it, if only because of his recent stay with Greg Jackson. As it is, his chin is just too suspect.
Shane del Rosario (-215) vs. Lavar Johnson (+175)
As far as long-term implications go, this is the reserve bout that seems most interesting, not to mention the most likely to have some implication on the tournament itself. Del Rosario has been one of Strikeforce's unsung gems for the last couple years, but they just haven't used him enough to get the word out. A fight on Showtime against a credible heavyweight like Johnson could solve that problem, but only if del Rosario turns out to be as good as oddsmakers think he is. Johnson is a big, athletic heavyweight who can hurt you if you take him lightly, but he doesn't seem quite as well-rounded. My pick: Del Rosario. The line is far too high for a straight bet on him. He's still largely untested in MMA, but he's worth a spot in the parlay.
Chad Griggs (+240) vs. Gian Villante (-300)
If del Rosario-Johnson is the reserve bout most likely to impact the actual tournament, this one is the least likely to be meaningful in the end. Both these guys seem like they'd rather fight at light heavyweight, and they'd probably be better off there. Instead, they get sucked into competing at heavyweight, where they're a little out of their depth. Griggs defeated Bobby Lashley mostly by hanging in there and waiting for Lashley to crumble. Villante has been an interesting prospect for some time now, but has yet to face a real test. Oddsmakers like him on athletic ability alone, it seems, and they may be on to something. And yet... My pick: Griggs. It's a major risk, considering his limitations as a fighter, but at the same time he might be the best big underdog on this card. Keep the action small, and pray for Villante to fall apart in a Lashley-esque collapse.
Valentijn Overeem (-170) vs. Ray Sefo (+140)
If you met Valentijn and his brother Alistair in a dark alley (or, more realistically, a European nightclub where you work as a bouncer), you probably wouldn't know who to be more terrified of. They're both enormous, and both look like their first inclination is to smash their way out of any problem. But if you get a look at Valentijn's record (28-25), it soon becomes clear that he's not his brother. Valentijn is tough when he's winning, but when things turn against him he's been known to fold up shop. Sefo, on the other hand, is an experienced kickboxer with shockingly little MMA work. Overeem could easily capitalize on that if the fight goes more than a few minutes, but there's always a chance Sefo will land a hard shot or two and Overeem will lose his will. My pick: Sefo. He's a decent underdog at these odds, and even at almost forty years old he can still swat. Mostly though, I'm betting against Overeem in this one.