It’s fight week, and it’s flight week. No more Strikeforce after Saturday night. No more wondering if and when we’ll be sold on Josh Thomson-Gilbert Melendez IV. No more decagon, and no more second-class citizenry.
At long last, the long road ends. Hey, we’ll always have Frank Shamrock’s cosmetic dental braces.
Since it was a slow, awkward demise, Strikeforce’s last show comes as a relief. Bittersweet? A little. But this wasn’t like the cult of Pride. San Jose wasn’t far-off Japan. Lenne Hardt wasn’t involved, even if Fedor Emelianenko was. Some of Pride’s vital pieces were re-imagined as Strikeforcers (after stints, in some cases, as Afflictioners). In many cases, their myths came down long before the curtain.
And even still, there are some big names coming over to the UFC, fighters who will deepen the divisions. While Sean Shelby was struggling in 2012 to make fights out of whatever he could find in the nearly bare cupboards on Strikeforce’s roster, Joe Silva in 2013 has more pieces than he knows what to do with.
Here’s a look at five impact fighters who, as of Jan. 13, become the latest UFC intrigues.
The late-bloomer Cormier comes over with momentum. For starters, his gradual ascension from wrestler to professional MMA fighter got a boost when Alistair Overeem was plucked from the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix. In went Cormier (the third alternate), who’d handled Jeff Monson in an understudy bout to stay loose. What did he do in the tournament? He destroyed Antonio Silva in the semis, for starters, with speed and power on the feet. Then he dominated Josh Barnett to cap things off. He’s part of the Strikeforce swan song this weekend, and still needs to get by Dion Staring, but it’s generally believed that Cormier is a threat to win the UFC title. The problem is a familial one: His AKA training partner Cain Velasquez currently holds the belt, and Cormier doesn’t want to trade punches with his friend. Conditions, conditions, always conditions.
Impact factor: High. The UFC’s heavyweight division isn’t as deep as some of the others, and with his tool set -- wrestling, hands, surprising agility for a hydrant -- Cormier feels like storm clouds gathering overhead.
Current welterweight champion Nate Marquardt will be back in the UFC, where he never got the chance to debut at 170 pounds. How will he look there? That’s a good question. For one thing, Marquardt has barely fought in the past three years (elevated testosterone, injuries, the never christened BAMMA promotion thing), and has competed only once as a welterweight (his title-clinching win over Tyron Woodley in July). He’s 33 years old, and he’s won three of four fights. But he is coming into a weight class that is so congested at the top that UFC 158 was created just to sort it all out. Remember, Marquardt fought for the middleweight title back in mid-2007, and six years later he’s vying for another chance. Six. Years. Later. And this time he’s doing it as a welterweight, where Georges St-Pierre rules.
Impact factor: Moderate. After a 16-month absence, Marquardt looked great in his title fight with Woodley. But he has looked great in spots throughout his career, only to come up short. Maybe he’ll be revitalized as a welterweight and make a historic run, but the only thing he’s sustained in the past half-decade is inconsistency.
Oh yes, ol’ Gil. Melendez quickly became a martyr figure in the spiraling Strikeforce ordeal. Remember, UFC president Dana White promised that Melendez would be happy as a clam with the types of elite opponents they’d dredge up for him in Strikeforce. That was right after he signed his deal. Turns out that was a bit of unfounded optimism (though Thomson III was fun). Now the partition comes down between Melendez and that brooding cast of elite 155ers in the UFC. Stick Melendez in there against any of the top names and it’s instant drama. Gray Maynard? Cool. Donald Cerrone? Sick fight. Anthony Pettis? That barn will burn. Benson Henderson? Let’s see who’s the best in the world. Face it: Melendez is the one guy everybody wanted to see fighting in the UFC. Now it’s a reality.
Impact factor: High. Melendez’s knock is that he hasn’t fought the best guys on the planet. But he’s beaten the guys who have stood in front of him, and is ranked as one of the best pound-for-pound in the world. He carries a seven-fight win streak into the UFC. No reason to believe he can’t compete for (and win) the UFC gold.
Jacare, the former Strikeforce middleweight champion, is a quiet, sudden menace (much like his cousin, the alligator). He does work on the ground like nobody’s business. Yet in spot duty in 2012, he took care of Derek Brunson in 41 no-nonsense seconds with punches -- 41 seconds that Chris Leben likely studied in building up optimism toward his own fight with Brunson. Is standing with “Jacare” a little like playing with a grenade? Wouldn’t that be fun for one of the world’s best jiu-jitsu practitioners. Souza’s stock could soar if he gets by Ed Herman similarly in the final Strikeforce card. Do that and he enters the UFC as a top-10 middleweight. And the UFC’s 185-pound division, if you haven’t noticed, lacks challengers.
Impact factor: Moderate to high. Granted, Souza is 33 years old, but he will be trouble for anybody he faces. He didn’t get a second fight with Luke Rockhold in Strikeforce, but that possibility opens up for him in the UFC. He’s won six of seven fights, and really, since 2004, his only other loss was to Gegard Mousasi (via upkick).
Somebody had better call up Tony Rubalcava and ask how he solved Rockhold back in 2007, Rockhold’s only loss to date. Not that it would do you any good. Rockhold has steadily progressed for the past five years in all areas; he’s become more precise, he’s stronger, he’s good in a scramble, his striking has become more formidable, his ground game solid, his head cool at all times. Along the way he won a title over Ronaldo Souza, treated a recharged Keith Jardine as a has-been and worked Tim Kennedy for five punishing rounds. Can he compete with Anderson Silva? It’s time to find out. But that’s my attitude. ESPN’s Brett Okamoto has Rockhold pegged as the next middleweight champion in the UFC, and Okamoto isn’t one for going out on foolhardy ledges.
Impact factor: High. Rockhold has only gotten better over the course of his career, a testament to training with the talent-rich cast at AKA. He’s a sinewy 6-foot-3, and he blends up violence and smarts. Bottom line is he’s a live wire at middleweight and that just happens to be a division in need of live wires.