While the fights on this weekend’s Strikeforce: Marquardt vs. Saffiedine card will certainly be exciting, what might be just as exciting is the aftermath. Specifically, it will be very interesting to see which of the night’s participants will be brought over to the UFC, since Saturday’s card will be Strikeforce’s last.

There are champions like Nate Marquardt and Daniel Cormier who are basically guaranteed a spot in the UFC, even if they lose. There are also a number of other pretty well-known fighters on the card—Josh Barnett, Gegard Mousasi and Tim Kennedy, to name a few—whose fame and past success will probably earn them a spot in the Octagon.

But then there’s a third group of fighters, ones for whom a win on Saturday does not guarantee them adoption into the UFC’s roster and for whom a loss will almost certainly mean a trip back to MMA’s “minor leagues.” This group of fighters includes a former member of that elite roster who will be competing for the first time in a year and a half, and whose time in Strikeforce exemplified wonderfully the difficulties mixed martial artists can have between finding success in the cage and finding success with the fans and with management.

When we first met Jorge Gurgel, he was a welterweight participant on the second season of The Ultimate Fighter. Introduced as coach Rich Franklin’s best friend and training partner, the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt served as a de facto assistant coach that season and established himself as a force to be reckoned with on the ground. Gurgel didn’t win the season—he was eliminated by Jason Von Flue in the sixth episode—but he dropped to the more fitting lightweight division and was retained by the UFC. And that’s where things started to get a little strange.

Despite his impressive grappling game (his nine pre-UFC victories were all by submission), Gurgel was unable to coax a tapout from any of his opponents in his seven UFC bouts. Instead, he many times chose to remain standing and brawl. While this tactic seemed appealing to the more bloodthirsty side of the sport—and earned Gurgel two “Fight of the Night” bonuses—it also resulted in a 3-4 record inside the Octagon. Gurgel was soon handed his walking papers and began fighting for Strikeforce in 2009.

Second verse, same as the first, as the saying goes.

In five Strikeforce fights, Gurgel has gone 2-3 and has again shown a preference for the stand-up game. Like in the UFC, his losses have mainly been by decision, but he did suffer a TKO defeat after attempting to exchange with K.J. Noons (the owner of an 11-win pro boxing record). The one time he did manage to secure a submission victory, he did so in 44 seconds. This is probably a coincidence, but it does speak to Gurgel’s potential on the mat.

On Saturday, Gurgel returns to competition for the first time since Aug. 2011 to face Adriano Martins on the unaired preliminary portion of the Strikeforce card. Martins has 23 professional wins, including 11 by KO or TKO, and will definitely be looking to increase his fame in the United States with a win over a moderately well-known fellow lightweight. Martins has also never been submitted, so Gurgel will have his work cut out for him regardless of where the fight goes. Compounding these already difficult circumstances for Gurgel are his lengthy layoff and the fact that he’s 35 years old.

So how should Gurgel proceed?

He could do like he’s been doing and keep his fight with Martins standing. Sure, he hasn’t had a ton of success in the win/loss column with that strategy, but it has won him two post-fight bonuses. He could be relying on the fact that the UFC often rewards “exciting” fighters with extended stays, even in the face of a losing streak, as it has with Leonard Garcia. Better to lose an exciting stand-up battle than try to take it to the mat and end up either getting pounded out or losing a boring, mat-based decision, might go Gurgel’s thinking. Then again, he does have that third-degree BJJ black belt, so he might as well put that to use. If Gurgel is able to submit Martins in dominant fashion, that would definitely prove advantageous in his quest to return to the UFC’s ranks.

Of course, all this assumes Gurgel’s extended absence from combat has not left him so ring rusty that he will simply be a stepping stone along Martins’ path to success stateside. If Martins stops him early, Gurgel can probably rule out any chance of a future with the UFC. The same could probably be said for an unimpressive decision victory.

This leaves Gurgel in a bit of a difficult position. Does he stand and trade and hope for the best, or does he rely on the part of his MMA game that has proven successful in the past, even though doing so lowers the excitement quotient against Martins?

Since Gurgel’s ultimate goal is a spot on the UFC’s roster, expect him to stick to the former strategy. He could connect with a fortuitous combination and finish Martins standing or put him on the mat with punches en route to a submission. Even without such success, an exciting stand-up loss (provided it’s not by KO) could warm the hearts of UFC executives such that they find a place for Gurgel on a preliminary card. Regardless, Gurgel has been reluctant to use his BJJ as his primary offensive strategy for many years, so don’t expect him to suddenly have a change of heart in the twilight of his career.

Fighters in Gurgel’s group must be extra nervous for this weekend’s card. Not only do they have to deal with the usual mental anguish that comes with being a professional mixed martial artist before a fight, but they’re also participating in their UFC tryouts. A successful performance Saturday will mean a ticket to the big stage, but failure will mean a trip back down to the lower paydays of the sport’s regional circuit.

There is no middle ground for fighters like Jorge Gurgel, and his position is certainly unenviable. We’ll see what he decides to make of what could be his last shot at glory.

Photo: Jorge Gurgel (Esther Lin/Strikeforce)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.