Daniel Cormier and 5 Strikeforce Fighters Who Could Soon Become UFC Champs
Long before Zuffa, LLC purchased the promotion, all the way back to the days of its inaugural show in March 2006, Strikeforce has served as a breeding ground for potential UFC champions.
Many of those former Strikeforce standouts, like Alistair Overeem, Fabricio Werdum, Nick Diaz, Cung Le and Dan Henderson, made the migration to the UFC shortly after Zuffa purchased the company from founder Scott Coker in March 2011.
In the wake of the departure of some of Strikeforce's biggest stars, a cluster of key players stepped up to shoulder the entertainment load and bring the company to the forefront of the MMA landscape.
Those fighters, like Daniel Cormier, Gilbert Melendez, Luke Rockhold, Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, Gegard Mousasi, Josh Barnett and Tim Kennedy, among others, embodied the Strikeforce banner and did it with pride—akin to how Benson Henderson, Anthony Pettis, Joseph Benavidez and Donald Cerrone symbolized the WEC logo in their tenures with the organization before each joining the UFC.
With Strikeforce running its final show Saturday in San Jose, Calif., fighters like the aforementioned Cormier, Melendez, Rockhold, Souza and Mousasi will each soon find themselves in the advantageous position of awaiting a fight with an upper-echelon UFC opponent in their respective weight departments.
In the case of Cormier, Melendez and Rockhold, they could each soon get to experience something UFC newcomers rarely get to experience—a unification title bout.
Cormier Won't Fight Teammate Cain Velasquez, but He Will Fight Jon Jones
During his brief but extremely electrifying stint with Strikeforce, Cormier made a solid case to inherit top contendership upon his transition to the UFC's heavyweight division.
The former Olympic wrestler prevailed in each of his six fights with the organization, impressively finishing Jason Riley, Antonio Silva and Dion Staring and dominating Devin Cole, Jeff Monson and Barnett, along the way.
The 33-year-old Cormier must now decide whether he wants to chase the light heavyweight or heavyweight strap in the UFC.
Unlike former teammates Jon Jones and Rashad Evans, Cormier and American Kickboxing Academy sparring partner Cain Velasquez have remained adamant about avoiding a fight with one another in the Octagon.
So since a title fight with Velasquez temporarily looks unlikely, Cormier singled out Frank Mir as the man he hopes to square off with first in the UFC in his post-fight interview with Pat Miletich at Saturday's Strikeforce finale (h/t Luke Thomas, MMAFighting.com).
"Right now, I'm telling you, April 20th, on Fox, I signed my UFC contract. Frank Mir, you and me, let's do it."
For an encore, Cormier then offered a candid remark regarding Jones by saying: "I'm going to let Jon defend his belt April 27th, then I'm going to kick his ass in the fall."
Gilbert Melendez Could Pose Problems for Benson Henderson
Melendez has tried his hand in virtually every large promotion except the UFC, leaving a lasting impression in each one. From the WEC to Shooto to Pride, Melendez pummeled renowned fighters in every organization he signed with, only suffering a setback to then world-ranked Mitsuhiro Ishida before joining Strikeforce.
But if it weren't for a loss to nemesis Josh Thomson in a match in Strikeforce in March 2008, "El Nino" may have never matured into the diabolical mauler who today draws comparisons to teammates and brothers Nick and Nate Diaz.
The 30-year-old Melendez claimed the Thomson loss forced him to reevaluate his goals and ultimately alter his preparation rituals to a more organized and professional standard.
Changes following the Thomson loss proved invaluable for Melendez.
The Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy product reaped the fruits of his labor for the next three years in the Strikeforce cage, winning seven straight fights following his defeat to Thomson, including a pair of decision wins over "The Punk" in lightweight title fights.
Melendez also TKO'd Ishida and Tatsuya Kawajiri, KO'd Rodrigo Damm and earned decision wins over Shinya Aoki and Jorge Masvidal.
"We'll see what happens; a lot of things have to happen before we even talk about this. But Gilbert Melendez is the one who deserves the title shot."
Gegard Mousasi Is the Most Underrated Fighter in MMA
Just glance at his record and you'll see that any expert could quickly run out of superlatives while attempting to describe Mousasi's upside.
A tremendously diverse fighter who has flourished at heavyweight, light heavyweight, middleweight and welterweight, Mousasi possesses a killer instinct and one of the most well-rounded skill sets in the business.
In a span between November 2006 and December 2009, Mousasi won 15 straight bouts and highlighted the run by disposing of UFC vets Hector Lombard, Denis Kang, Mark Hunt, Renato Sobral and Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou.
With excellent striking chops, equally impressive submission skills and a solid wrestling game, the 27-year-old Mousasi has looked nearly unbeatable since surrendering his Strikeforce light heavyweight title to Muhammed Lawal in April 2010.
"The Dreamcatcher" hasn't tasted defeat in six fights, collectively outstriking those opponents 366-57.
It's unclear what division he intends to invade, but Mousasi, in an interview with MMA Fighting's Shaun Al-Shatti, made his goals in the UFC evident:
"The prospect of going to the UFC and maybe fighting one day for the belt, it's motivating. It's something new. So every fight I see now is more important to me because I have a goal, going for the UFC belt."
Jacare Can Hang with Any Middleweight in the World, Including Anderson Silva
Known for the submission prowess that aided him to a pair of gold medals and a pair of silver medals at the Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships, Souza holds notable wins over jiu-jitsu legends Roger Gracie, Marcelo Garcia, Robert Drysdale and Demian Maia, among many others.
But lately, the former Strikeforce middleweight champion's ground game has taken a back seat to his maturation as a Muay Thai practitioner.
With influence from his Black House MMA trainers and teammates, Souza has rapidly gained respect and made the metamorphoses from novice striker to dangerous and capable sniper.
Granted, four of Jacare's seven Strikeforce victories came via submission, but the 33-year-old needed every ounce of his new-found striking dexterity to notch decision wins over Joey Villasenor and Kennedy.
And in his last two fights, Souza impressively KO'd Derek Brunson and then used his striking aptitude early in his fight against Ed Herman to set up a takedown and then later a submission.
Jacare's lone setback in Strikeforce came at the hands of the once-beaten Rockhold in a razor-thin decision loss in September 2011.
Despite winning the grappling battle (Jacare had five takedowns to Rockhold's none), Souza came up short in the standup war, getting outstruck 104-63, including 45-28 in the championship rounds.
In the post-fight presser following Saturday's Strikeforce finale, Jacare, via an interpreter, gave MMA Junkie's John Morgan and Matt Erickson a modest prediction regarding his future in the UFC:
"I believe I'm going to do pretty well there (in the UFC). There's a lot of good opponents there. But I'm going there to break some people down."
Luke Rockhold Hasn't Tasted Defeat Since 2007 for Many Reasons
Like Cormier, his AKA teammate, Rockhold didn't need many pro fights to rise to stardom and garner a world title.
In just his ninth career bout, Rockhold used slick strikes, a never-ending gas tank and tremendous takedown defense to outlast Souza for the Strikeforce middleweight title.
The 28-year-old Rockhold has since defended his belt with imposing wins over Keith Jardine and Kennedy, two victories that essentially stamped his status as a world-ranked middleweight.
Rockhold capitalized on his height (6'3") and reach (77 inches) advantages in his last five fights to collectively outstrike Jesse Taylor, Paul Bradley, Souza, Jardine and Kennedy 237-143.
With a build and reach similar to that of "The Spider" (Silva stands 6'2" and has a 77.6-inch reach), Rockhold could potentially prove a tantalizing challenge for the longtime middleweight champ.
In interview with Fight Hub TV, Rockhold had this to say about a possible unification bout with Silva: "I'd take a pay cut (to fight Silva). You only live once and I live to fight the best. Anderson Silva is hands down the best in the world, and to fight Anderson Silva in his prime would be a dream come true. I'm not scared of anybody. I want those fights. I want that fight."