In the end, Luke Rockhold just said what we were all thinking.
After shoring up the initial defense of his Strikeforce title with a first-round knockout of Keith Jardine on Saturday night, Rockhold sounded pretty indifferent on the prospect of a bout with Tim Kennedy.
No offense to Kennedy -- he may be the promotion’s only real option as a No. 1 contender in the immediate future -- but even the middleweight champion seemed to tacitly acknowledge that Strikeforce 2.0 will fail without a significant influx of talent from its parent company.
“Right now all the best guys are in the UFC ...,” Rockhold said on Saturday, expertly sidestepping Kennedy altogether. “Those are the guys I want. I want to climb to the top, I want to fight the best in the world. I think they should bring over some top contenders.”
As bad as this makes us all feel for Kennedy -- nobody ever wants to fight him, seems like -- Rockhold is right.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, if Strikeforce is going to live out this year and even see (e-gads!) 2014, it’s going to need more fighters. At this stage of MMA’s evolution, it’s hard to see anywhere those fighters (at least the ones any viewers have heard of before) would come from besides the UFC.
With that in mind, here are five compelling opponents for Rockhold who could all come to Strikeforce during 2012, without really upsetting the balance of power in the UFC 185-pound division:
Brian Stann: Stann shapes up a perfect future foe for Rockhold, given his status as a highly regarded up-and-comer recently knocked out of the thick of the UFC title hunt with an ugly loss to Chael Sonnen. At this point, the bigger fight company wouldn’t really miss him (much), but he’d be a huge addition to Strikeforce. Stann is just 31, a former WEC light heavyweight champion and would certainly have the chops to put up a better fight for the Strikeforce champ on his feet than Jardine did. The million dollar question might be whether Stann could keep the fight standing and -- in the event it went to the ground -- steer clear of Rockhold’s submission game. Up next, Stann is scheduled to meet Alessio Sakara in April in a fight he absolutely must (and should) win to maintain his status as a hot prospect. After that? Anything may be possible.
Alan Belcher: With the uncertainty of a 2010 eye injury now behind him, Belcher kicked off his full time return to competition with an expeditious beatdown of Jason MacDonald in September. He was briefly rumored as a next opponent for Vitor Belfort before Belfort got funneled into a matchup with Anthony Johnson (and then a TUF: Brazil coaching gig) and the UFC has yet to place him with an official upcoming fight. If matchmakers aren’t exactly sure how to pace the talented Duke Roufus-trained striker, a fight with Rockhold could be just the ticket.
Rousimar Palhares: If the UFC balked at sacrificing prospects like Stann or Belcher to Strikeforce, it could always think about somebody like Palhares. The fireplug submission specialist has beaten everyone he’s faced in the Octagon save for Dan Henderson and Nate Marquardt, but the company doesn’t seem to have him ticketed for big things, as evidenced by back-to-back fights against Dave Branch and Dan Miller. He’d be giving up a ton of height to the 6-foot-3 Rockhold, but things might get interesting if he could get the fight to the mat. Up next for him, Palhares fights Mike Massenzio on Jan. 14 at UFC 142.
Tim Boetsch: “The Barbarian” has proved cutting to middleweight was the proper move after unanimous decisions over Kendall Grove and Nick Ring. Still, not sure anyone is yet fully on board with him as a legit threat to the top of the division. That all changes if he beats Yushin Okami next month at UFC 144, of course, but if not? He’d shape up as a compelling litmus test for Rockhold, and a markedly different one than the guys listed above. To beat him, the Strikeforce champ would have to either stay off his back or become just the second man ever to submit him. The first was light heavyweight Phil Davis, which could put Rockhold in rarefied air if he were to pull it off.
Nate Marquardt: Call this one sort of an honorable (but likely impossible) mention. It’s been nearly six months since Marquardt was summarily dumped from the UFC after the summer’s testosterone therapy debacle. He’s finally scheduled to make his BAMMA debut on Feb. 11, taking on Yoshiyuki Yoshida for the British promotion’s welterweight title, but so far he hasn’t exactly started his post-Zuffa career like gangbusters. It’s probably out of the realm of possibility the organization would have him back, but if a change of heart occurred sometime during 2012, he’d make a great test for Rockhold.