Can 'new' Strikeforce find foes for Cyborg?

Change is coming to Strikeforce.

That we were assured this week by the MMA landscape’s primary architect. And when UFC President Dana White makes bold statements, we’ve grown accustomed to believing them. As Strikeforce unveils its latest incarnation in 2012, prelims will be aired, the heavyweight division and Challengers series will soon be things of the past and the overall production will be improved with a UFC-style facelift.

"Just sit and wait and watch what I do,” White has promised.

What White does will undoubtedly be good for much of the Strikeforce roster and maybe most significantly for female fighters, who now have a solid place to ply their trade for at least another year. Yet, even as the once-struggling promotion races to evolve into something more, MMA fans will want to invest their increasingly precious time in, one of the trickiest questions remains: Can Strikeforce please find some competition for Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos?

After an awkward 18-month period where the organization and its 145-pound champ couldn’t find common ground on what the best fighter in women’s MMA ought to be paid, “Cyborg” returns this weekend to re-stake her claim as the division’s most destructive and compelling force. She’ll do it against an opponent everyone expects her to walk through and in front of a backdrop where promotional brass still struggle to find her convincing foils.

Not their fault, really. “Cyborg” is just that good; obviously the most dominant champion remaining on Strikeforce’s roster. Even the extraordinary Gilbert Melendez is more vulnerable by comparison.

That’s probably the best explanation for why, even with a year and a half to game plan for it, Santos’ Strikeforce comeback this weekend in San Diego reads as yet another squash match.

Make no mistake, Hiroko Yamanaka is no slouch. Several sites see her as the No. 2 fighter in the women’s featherweight division. She’s amassed a 12-1 record fighting in Japan, comes in with a considerable height advantage and could be the best we could hope for in Santos’ first fight back. That said, it only speaks to “Cyborg’s” dominance that Yamanaka will currently fetch adventurous gamblers the opportunity for more than a 5-1 return on an investment in her at the sportsbook.

Few stand to be foolhardy enough to make one, as it seems inconceivable that the challenger could be prepared for the juggernaut she’ll face this weekend. Instead, it’s unilaterally assumed that Santos’ most dangerous foe will be ring rust, after going off the radar in the wake of an ugly beatdown of Jan Finney in June 2010.

Yamanaka may be able to make things look more respectable than “Cuddles” did, at least. Then again, what’s considered success for Santos’ opponents at this point? Not getting completely mauled? Making it to the third round? Emerging with the bones in your face in roughly the same place as when you started?

No, a Yamanaka victory would be one of the most shocking things that could happen on Saturday night, and if women’s MMA is going to stick around long enough to eventually reach its full potential, it needs to aspire to better than that. Miesha Tate, Ronda Rousey and Sarah Kaufman are off to a nice start at 135 pounds, but for female fighting to truly flourish, someone needs to come along who can push the division’s best fighter.

It probably won’t be Yamanaka, but if there is a 145-pound woman walking the earth somewhere who can give “Cyborg” a fight, this “new” Strikeforce would do well to find her. And quick.