In a perfect world, Luke Rockhold and Chris Weidman would exist under the same promotional banner, two talented prospects in a heated race to be the eventual heir to Anderson Silva’s middleweight throne.
In the real world, Rockhold punches the clock in purgatory, while Weidman appears to be on the fast track to superstardom. They achieved the biggest wins of their relatively young careers last week. However, while Weidman’s second-round knockout of Mark Munoz at UFC on Fuel TV 4 led to a groundswell opinion that the Serra-Longo Fight Team representative might just be the next legitimate threat to “The Spider,” Rockhold’s decisive five-round verdict over the tough-as-nails Tim Kennedy at Strikeforce “Rockhold vs. Kennedy” on Saturday was met with apathy.
Sure, the diehard fans of the sport are well aware of the talents of Rockhold, an athletic striker with underrated jiu-jitsu and better-than-average takedown defense, but what about everyone else? A week ago, people who do not usually watch fights planned their evenings around the blockbuster rematch between Silva and Chael Sonnen. In the middle of the week, some -- those with access to the channel, anyway -- flipped to Fuel TV because they recognized the Ultimate Fighting Championship brand. On Saturday, many of those same people probably asked this question: “Luke who?”
It is a shame, because Strikeforce put on yet another solid event, one that rivaled both of its big brother’s most recent efforts in terms of depth and quality. If two title fights at the top of the bill was not enough, the card achieved a nice balance between interesting prospects and relevant veterans throughout the rest of its lineup. What it lacked was hype and promotion, and it is the fighters that will continue to suffer as a result.
These days, a Strikeforce event is a platform to plead for a better existence. After beating Jorge Masvidal in December, Gilbert Melendez requested a matchup with a UFC opponent in his hexagon. What he got was an unwanted trilogy with Josh Thomson. It was a pleasant surprise that the bout turned out to be closer than expected, but a glaring lack of viable lightweight contenders in the promotion means that a fourth meeting with “The Punk” is a legitimate possibility; rumors of such a matchup were floating around this past week, but it now appears that Pat Healy will be the next opponent for “El Nino.”
On Saturday, Lorenz Larkin made a plea to UFC President Dana White that Strikeforce fighters receive post-fight bonuses like their UFC counterparts.
“We’re your family too,” he said, dropping to his knees.
Perhaps, but with Showtime as an unyielding middleman, Strikeforce has essentially been relegated to black-sheep status, and things are not changing anytime soon. In a recent interview with Sherdog.com’s Jack Encarnacao, Showtime Sports President Stephen Espinoza sounded optimistic about mixed martial arts programming -- preferably Strikeforce -- remaining on the network beyond 2012. The future gets a lot murkier when the talk turns to cross-promotional fights, however. Zuffa’s recent deal with Fox only serves to complicate matters, as the UFC might have a difficult time explaining to its new partners that it wants to loan talent to a recent acquisition.
“There’s some possible structures in which maybe a fight like that can happen. I don’t want to foreclose the possibility that at the end of the first year of the relationship, and I’d say, a year roughly [into] the relationship both with Fox and our relationship, that adjustments could be made,” Espinoza said. “I think the bottom line here is that both Zuffa and Strikeforce management and Showtime are committing to finding the best available talent and the best competitive matchups for their champions. The conversation we have with Gilbert, with Luke, with Ronda [Rousey], with everybody, if it’s signing new guys, if it’s figuring out some flexibility in the UFC-Fox relationship, if it’s bringing in foreign fighters, the talent pool is so deep that I’m confident we’re going to find a large number of very competitive matchups for our top-tier fighters.”
Thus far, matchmaker Sean Shelby has managed to make the most of a barren roster. Strikeforce undercards, which were once a wasteland under the pre-Zuffa regime, now feature matchups that feel like they are building toward something, while each main event this year has been meaningful. Still, outside of the signing of Nate Marquardt, the influx of talent has been limited, and notables such as Paul Daley and Muhammed Lawal have been released from their contracts. The proliferation of “Ultimate Fighter” shows does not help matters by reducing the talent pool from which Strikeforce can sign fighters.
Make no mistake, Saturday’s card was the promotion’s best in recent memory, even if the main talking point was that nobody was actually talking about it. At the end of the night, however, the event still felt like a late-night trip to a fast food establishment: satisfying at the time but with no tangible, long-term benefit. For as long as its champions have no obvious destination from month to month, Strikeforce will remain the empty calories in an MMA fan’s diet.
That brings us back to Rockhold. Lack of recognition aside, the American Kickboxing Academy product is more than just a surfer who can throw a punch; he is a legitimate Top 10 middleweight, probably closer to Top 5, no matter the promotion. Kennedy would make life difficult for any number of UFC 185-pound title hopefuls, and Rockhold took four of five rounds from the former Army Ranger.
Rockhold could be headed toward a rematch with Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, the man he took the middleweight title from in September. The other possible foes Rockhold mentioned during a post-fight interview with Showtime Sports, Larkin and Roger Gracie, are coming off 185-pound debuts and could use more seasoning. In Strikeforce terms, that probably means one more fight.
Meanwhile, in stark contrast to Rockhold’s situation, Weidman has seemingly limitless options for future opponents in the UFC, even if he is not given an immediate title shot against Silva. Given their considerable skill sets and performances to date, these two could very well be the standard bearers in the division for years to come. But Rockhold and Weidman headlining a card together? That’s a distant speck on the horizon. Seeing them fight on the same week is as good as it gets for now.