The big 5: Strikeforce vs. UFC
After Showtime and Strikeforce jointly released to the press a statement on Strikeforce’s final show on the network, many people presumed Strikeforce was dead. There was no official statement, of course, until Dana White officially confirmed Strikeforce’s demise at a post-press conference media scrum for UFC 155. The result is clear. The UFC is in an amazing position. They get to poach the best fighters not in the UFC, to shore up the ranks of their own divisions. All this within the confines of the Zuffa umbrella.
This is not to say that the UFC is shallow in any division. The exception is heavyweight, a traditionally shallow division in combat sports as a whole. But considering that from middleweight down there’s an exorbitant amount of strong and diverse talent, adding the best of Strikeforce almost seems unfair. It’s virtually an embarrassment of riches.
What to do with the Strikeforce roster is a nice problem to have for Joe Silva, Sean Shelby and Zuffa matchmakers. There’s a multitude of matchups that could make fans salivate for potential Octagon fireworks, but the five best matchups are going to come from the five best fighters remaining in the now defunct promotion.
Daniel Cormier vs. Frank Mir or Jon Jones
Cormier has been a mainstay at heavyweight and Mir is the best first opponent for him. Mir is elite still and the barometer for fighters in the heavyweight division; you beat him and you’re one of the top four in the division.
There is a wrinkle here with Cain Velasquez winning the UFC heavyweight title at UFC 155. Cormier and Velasquez are friends, have trained together and Cormier has said in the past that he does not want to fight Velasquez. To avoid that, Cormier has previously suggested he’d take a shot at trying to make 205. Granted, it nearly killed him in the Olympics when he tried to make 211, as he had to withdraw as he started to go into renal failure due to a bad weight cut, but you can’t fault a guy for trying to do it again in a healthier way.
If Cormier tries a test cut and winds up in the hospital he’ll be at heavyweight. If he can get down to 205 without frying his kidneys again, Jones is the matchup he likely gets. If he can’t, then look for Mir to get a call.
Gilbert Melendez vs. Benson Henderson
When it comes to divisional rankings the only fighter with a legitimate claim to being in the top three in their division is “El Nino.” Melendez is Strikeforce’s lightweight champion and a member of the Cesar Gracie Fight Team. Gil’s the only fighter who deserves a title shot right away besides Daniel Cormier. If he doesn’t get a title shot right away look for him against someone like Jim Miller or Jamie Varner as his debut fight. Maybe even Jake Shields. The key will be the timing of his entry, the health of his shoulder and the result of Cerrone vs. Pettis in Chicago; a spectacular win by one of the former WEC champions and a bum shoulder for Melendez could cause him to get a debut fight against a contender first instead of an immediate title shot.
Luke Rockhold vs. Yushin Okami
Rockhold passes the eyeball test of being an elite middleweight, but hasn’t quite fought his way into a title shot like Melendez or Cormier. Okami is potentially a fight or two away from Anderson Silva and Rockhold taking him on makes a ton of sense. This is where he’d be naturally if he was in the UFC. If not Okami, there are other options. Hector Lombard would make for an interesting matchup as could Mark Munoz. Rockhold is such an exciting fighter, and one who will be in the title picture after the Anderson Silva era ends. He’s going to be around for a while.
Nate Marquardt vs. the winner of Jon Fitch vs. Demian Maia
Marquardt was an elite middleweight who was small for the division, making 170 apparently fairly easy in his debut against Tyron Woodley. He looked great, and presuming he defends his title successfully he’s in a similar spot as Rockhold; he passes the eyeball test of being a potential Top 10 fighter but hasn’t shown it against the elites of the division yet. He’ll get someone in a similar spot which is where Fitch vs. Maia comes in. The winner of that is a win or two away from Georges St-Pierre, the exact spot that Marquardt should be contending for. Marquardt can find himself in the title picture sooner than later because he’s already a known commodity, just not in the welterweight division.
Josh Thomson vs. Ross Pearson
When Josh Thomson isn’t injured he looks like one of the top three lightweights in the world in the gym. The guy has all the tools to be a UFC champion at lightweight; the problem is that he’s never been healthy. He nearly beat Gilbert Melendez with a badly banged up knee going into their trilogy fight. He doesn’t just walk into fights bruised up; he walks in with injuries many fighters wouldn’t fight with. It’s a testament to his abilities that he has managed to maintain the appearance of being on the cusp of being elite while never actually being there. Pearson is in a similar spot, never having quite put it together despite having all the tools to be the lightweight version of Michael Bisping for UK fans. Thomson might be in the best spot among Strikeforce lightweights; he’s not going to start out being tossed into deep waters, but he won’t be facing TUF prospects that haven’t found their ceilings yet, either. He’ll have the chance to put together a multiple-fight win streak and gradually move up the ranks, hopefully taking advantage of reduced expectations.