I hear from a lot of knowledgeable sources that Nick Diaz sits among the sport's elite cagefighters. Joe Rogan believes this to be true, and I absolutely value that man's opinion on all things MMA. At an early UFC 129 press conference recently in Toronto, Dana White admitted that he believes Diaz to be the pound for pound best outside of the UFC.
Tough to argue, given Diaz's nine straight wins, only one of which went to decision. In a similar boat, Gilbert Melendez recently went on record saying he believes he's not simply the best lightweight, but that he's the best fighter out there.
"I think it’s important for me to dominate now. I really truly believe I’m the No. 1 fighter in the world."
While I certainly don't agree with Melendez's assessment of himself as best on the planet, he's a talented fighter who's shown the ability to get better with each fight and execute excellent game plans in the cage. Regardless of the talent both Melendez and Diaz possess, the fact remains that neither fighter can even make a concrete case for No. 1 in their own weight classes, let alone best in the world, unless they jump ship and swim in UFC waters.
It's a simple problem of competition faced, and competition available to face. In the UFC, Frankie Edgar knocked the man many believe to be the greatest lightweight of all time, B.J. Penn, off his perch twice, and then come back from one of the worst first round beatings I've ever seen in a fight to draw Gray Maynard.
Win or lose in the rematch, the fact is that Edgar will swim with the sharks for the rest of his career, barring some strange lapse in ability (not likely, considering his work ethic). For these reasons, it's impossible to make a case against Edgar as one of the top two lightweights in the world.
There isn't much of a drop off in talent in the UFC's lightweight division after Edgar and Maynard either, and that's exactly what makes their accomplishments so good and futures so bright. Maynard has run through some of the top lightweights out there in Jim Miller, Nick's brother Nate and Kenny Florian. All of them are respected names that hover around the top, and could certainly be title holders at some point in their careers.
While nobody is thrilled by a fighter who continuously goes to decision, the results can't be argued with. Winning is winning, and Maynard knows that feeling well.
Melendez, on the other hand, has done a great job avenging his loss to Josh Thomson and taking out the most dangerous lightweight across the globe in Shinya Aoki. Impressive though these two victories may be, they pale in comparison to the accomplishments of Edgar and Maynard, and through the extension he recently signed with Strikeforce, he's assured himself of facing, at best, slightly above average competition for the next few years.
His name doesn't deserve to sit at the top, and his past and future victories make him no more than a pack runner with the likes of Miller, Florian, Guillard, Sherk and a plethora of other lightweights fighting under the UFC banner. Additionally, the quality of opponents left for Melendez has nearly already run dry.
A rumored rematch with Tatsuya Kawajiri since Melendez beat him in Pride over four years ago does nothing to boost his stock like besting any of the UFC's lightweights would. Japanese MMA hasn't been on par with its American counterparts since the Pride days, and in fact has steadily grown farther apart each year.
Furthermore, Kawajiri's recent loss to Aoki does nothing but damage Melendez's ability to keep his name atop the lightweight rankings, should he best Kawajiri again. Given all this information, how can Melendez sit at the top now, and how can he possibly expect to continue to sit at the top as his career progresses? While he may continue to win, his opponents aren't among the game's elite.
Strikeforce's other golden boy, Nick Diaz (who I can't believe I just referred to as a "golden boy"), is one of my favorite fighters to watch, but is dealing with a similar problem. He's trashed has-beens like Frank Shamrock, UFC could-not's like Scott Smith, and had trouble with the likes of K.J. Noons and Evangelista Santos.
I'm well aware he pulled off a phenomenal arm-bar submission of Santos, but the fight was back and forth before that moment and Santos landed some great shots, as well as took Diaz to the ground before being submitted.
Diaz is slowly coming to a crossroads in his career. He's likely looking at bout with Paul Daley next, a fighter who couldn't get anything going against Josh Koscheck, and assuming he comes away with a victory, he will either have to face Jason Miller once and for all, or find himself back in the UFC to face the talent he'll need to face in order to be legitimately considered one of MMA's pound for pound best.
I'm hoping for the latter and given that Diaz seems to be uncharacteristically ducking Miller, signing back with the UFC seems to be his best course of action. There simply isn't anyone left for him to face and as noble his continuous cries to fight Georges St. Pierre may seem, he knows as well as anyone that won't happen unless he's a UFC fighter.
In the UFC welterweight division, there's a whole pool of fighter's scrapping with each other hoping to be the next casualty for GSP. I won't say with any certainty that Diaz would lose to fighters like Martin Kampmann or Jon Fitch, but that's exactly the point. We have no idea and so long as Diaz can't fight them, it's tough to make a case that his name belongs at or near the top.
Boring though his fights may be, Fitch has only been taken apart by one man, St. Pierre, and has otherwise shown an ability to take out every other welterweight thrown at him. That's a far more impressive accomplishment than beating up Marius Zaromskis and Hayato Sakurai back to back, and for that reason alone, Fitch gets a higher ranking.
Gilbert Melendez and Nick Diaz are top shelf fighters who put on exciting fights and finish opponents. As impressive as they continue to appear, however, it doesn't change the fact that their inclusion at the top of the rankings for lightweight and welterweight, respectively, is and will continue to be nothing but speculation to this point.
The UFC has done an outstanding job of hoarding the best talent available in almost every division that exists in MMA, which means their fighter's are continuously facing the best talent in each other. For that, the UFC deserves a tip of the hat.
Unfortunately for the likes of Melendez and Diaz, fighting outside the UFC means there is a ceiling they can't break through, talented as though they may be. Sadly, there's no reason for Dana White and company to cross promote with Strikeforce, and if the lightweight and welterweight kings of everything non-UFC wish to be counted among the elite, they'll have to jump ship and swim with the sharks.