Though this isn’t major news in itself, it’s a turnaround that beats nine months of involuntary limbo. Action is good. If nothing else, we can cling to silver linings.
Now the question becomes "against whom?", and Strikeforce is spinning the mystery wheel right now to determine that. Will it be Josh Thomson, who went to Columbus under the presumption that if he beat K.J. Noons (which he did), the title shot would be his? Will it be a darker horse like journeyman Pat Healy, who put in a yeomen’s effort against Caros Fodor to make it four wins in a row? Or will it be ... wait, nope ... the other slots on the mystery wheel are all whammies.
It’s Thomson or Healy.
Or, something far bolder if Zuffa is feeling charitable. Is it possible that the UFC will lend out one of its top 10 fighters to challenge Melendez in the hexagon? It’s a sister promotion, after all, and there are starving contenders. The UFC’s lightweight title picture has had only four people in it for the last two years -- Frankie Edgar, B.J. Penn, Gray Maynard and now Benson Henderson. For anybody else, the summit has been closed off. You can see how the temptation might be there to open up an alternative pass to its second peak.
Is anyone really clamoring to see Josh Thomson, above, fight Gilbert Melendez again?
And why not? A cross-promotion fight that falls within the same company is all that makes sense for Melendez (who’s been promised big challenges) and fans (who’ve grown suspicious of that promise). Currently, there are some top-selling lightweights available for a Melendez clash.
If you follow Melendez’s manager Cesar Gracie’s Twitter feed, you know he’s dropping a couple of names right off the bat -- Anthony Pettis and B.J. Penn. Both of these look compelling (read: available) for “El Nino.” One just had a title shot snatched from his purview, and the other is semi-retired and in the process of self-discovery. Either would make for a fascinating challenge against Melendez, the only pound-for-pound top 10 fighter that spends so much time in quarantine.
In the special case of the former lightweight champion Penn, it might take a dangling carrot to motivate him -- here would be a chance to add to his collection of UFC belts with a gravy Strikeforce strap. Who knows what happens if he wins, but in some ways, who cares? He will either defend that belt in Strikeforce or expedite himself back into the UFC lightweight picture with a case of unification. Seems like a win/win, should he win. And should he lose, he’s in no worse a situation than he is now.
Pettis’s case is interesting, too (though his manager Mike Roberts says they haven't been approached). He’s 25 years old and not overly concerned with the long haul. Twice since coming over as the reigning WEC champion he’s been right there for a title shot, and twice he’s been thwarted. I have sort of campaigned that he should do what Edgar was being asked to do, that of dropping down to 145 pounds to challenge Jose Aldo for the featherweight belt. Maybe he will. That fight would be a crazy indulgence of some of the game's most dynamic strikers. It would be big business for the feathers.
A bout between Gilbert Melendez and Jose Aldo, left, would be explosive.
And of course, Gray Maynard and Clay Guida are also out there. If they aren’t turned on each other, either could be a candidate for Melendez.
But there is one more option out there that that might not be as far-fetched as it seems. What if Aldo came up to challenge Melendez in Strikeforce while the featherweight picture sorts out? He has been tempted to dip his toe at 155 pounds anyway, ever since the weight cut nearly ruined him when fighting Mark Hominick. With Hatsu Hioki not quite ready enough (or marketable enough) for a title shot, and Chan Sung Jung/Dustin Poirier slated for a May fight of their own, can you imagine the potential for fun there? Would that not make for creative matchmaking?
Either way, whoever Zuffa is thinking of putting against Melendez, you have to wonder if there’s a trick tucked away up their sleeve. Because right about now there are so many good fights for Melendez that a marquee of “Strikeforce: Melendez vs. Thompson III” in San Jose can’t help but feel a little cheap by comparison.