5 Former Strikeforce Fighters Who Are Threats to UFC Gold

Bradley Popkin@@bradpopkinmmaCorrespondent INovember 12, 2014

5 Former Strikeforce Fighters Who Are Threats to UFC Gold

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    Robbie Lawler is enjoying a career renaissance in his second stint with the UFC.
    Robbie Lawler is enjoying a career renaissance in his second stint with the UFC.USA TODAY Sports

    When the UFC purchased Strikeforce back in March 2011, it was first believed that the organization was going to continue to operate under then-President Scott Coker. But in January 2013, after Tarec Saffiedine became the promotion’s last welterweight champion, big brother brought over a stash of prime Strikeforce talent to stockpile several of its weight divisions.

    Strikeforce had been the No. 2 mixed martial arts organization in America for roughly six years. They fostered elite-level talent, such as Gilbert Melendez and Jake Shields, which helped spark debate over who exactly was the best in the world. Since the takeover, Strikeforce fighters have gone 0-5 in championship fights, with three left to be played out. Those who have failed in their efforts to capture UFC gold include Shields, Melendez, Robbie Lawler and Nick Diaz, who lost twice.

    There are three championship bouts in the light heavyweight, lightweight and welterweight divisions featuring the pride of Strikeforce. Melendez and Lawler are both back at it again—with Melendez facing an entirely different foe this time around. Each lost a close split decision in his initial title fight. The last one on the docket pits Olympic wrestler Daniel Cormier against Jon Jones.

    We are a year and a half removed from the time Strikeforce contracts were transferred over to UFC brass, and they have yet to establish a championship reign. Which fighters have the best chance to become UFC title holders?

    The following set of rankings is composed of the most able—and dangerous—threats to champions. This does not mean that the fighter necessarily needs to be challenging for a belt. Fighters who have fought for a belt prior don't hold an advantage over rising divisional candidates.

    Fighters in the women's bantamweight division are also candidates, however—spoiler alert—none made the list. Here are the five biggest Strikeforce-bred threats to UFC champions—but first, here are a few fighters who failed to make the cut.

Honorable Mentions

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    Tyron Woodley hits Jake Shields with a left body kick at UFC 161.
    Tyron Woodley hits Jake Shields with a left body kick at UFC 161.USA TODAY Sports

    Yoel Romero (9-1)

    Romero is currently undefeated inside the Octagon and is riding a four-fight win streak. With three of those four being finishes, the Olympic wrestler has quickly established himself as a legitimate contender in the 185-pound weight class. The Cuban has shown the ability to withstand pressure from fellow middleweight and Strikeforce alum Tim Kennedy. Romero will likely draw another top-quality opponent in his next bout—perhaps Luke Rockhold or Gegard Mousasi. 

    Tyron Woodley (14-3)

    Woodley entered the UFC following a knockout defeat in which he lost his Strikeforce welterweight championship at the hands of Nate Marquardt. The 32-year-old rebounded in a big way, scoring three KO/TKO victories over the course of 13 months. Woodley has floundered in high-pressure fights, with history repeating itself this past summer, as he turned up an uninspiring performance against No. 1 contender Rory MacDonald in June. But as always, Woodley got back on the winning track, stopping Dong Hyun Kim in a minute, just two months later. 

    Bobby Green (23-5)

    Green may not be a household name yet, but he will be soon. The 28-year-old is on an eight-fight win streak and will take on Edson Barboza later this month. Green, who is ranked seventh in the UFC's lightweight division, possesses some of the best movement and footwork in the division. His propensity for brawling has made him a fan favorite, despite concerns of dirty fight tactics. The best is yet to come for Green, who—with one more win—could throw himself into the pile of potential title contenders at 155-pounds. 

    Near Misses

    Nick Diaz (26-9) returns to the Octagon to face all-time great Anderson "The Spider" Silva on Jan. 31 following a layoff of nearly two years. Stockton's finest has gone 0-2 in title fights, with none expected in the near future. 

    Tim Kennedy (18-5) stumbled in his last outing against Romero, albeit with some controversy. He is now 3-1 in the UFC. Look for him to be slotted with Mousasi.

5. Daniel Cormier

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    Daniel Cormier defeated Roy Nelson via unanimous decision.
    Daniel Cormier defeated Roy Nelson via unanimous decision.USA TODAY Sports

    Daniel Cormier is one of the best wrestlers in mixed martial arts. Cormier is a former collegiate and Olympic wrestler who most recently submitted future Hall of Famer Dan Henderson.

    The current light heavyweight No. 1 contender began his MMA journey in 2009, picking apart opponents for a 7-0 record before landing in Strikeforce's Heavyweight Grand Prix. Cormier battered Jeff Monson for three rounds, put Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva to sleep with a sharp uppercut and then had his way with Josh Barnett. 

    Throughout his career, the undefeated Cormier has become much more than just a wrestler. The 35-year-old has accumulated wins over dangerous submission artists and stand-up fighters like Frank Mir and Dan Henderson. He's also showed that, despite his size and limited reach, he can get on the offensive and challenge even the most game opponents. 

    As Cormier gets set to face Jon Jones for the 205-pound strap in January, he faces the task of solving the hardest riddle in the UFC today: how to defeat the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Jones, who will now make his eighth title defense, has engaged in a hotly contested feud with Cormier that boiled over into a promotional event melee

    These theatrics may come back to haunt Cormier, who faces an equally talented wrestler in Jones. The only man to take the champion down has been Alexander Gustafsson. In the past, Cormier might have been able to revert back to his boxing game, but that won't be as easy against Jones. It's hard to replicate, let alone plan for, Jones' unorthodox style of striking. 

    Gustafsson laid a blueprint for how to beat Jones, but Cormier is far from Gustafsson. Not to say that he's a better (or worse) fighter, but Cormier will have difficulty getting inside on the much longer Jones and will have to work hard at changing levels for takedowns. Cormier faces much more of an uphill climb in his title bout than Gilbert Melendez or Robbie Lawler, which is why he checks in at No. 5.

4. Luke Rockhold

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    Luke Rockhold defeated Michael Bisping via guillotine choke in the second round at UFC Fight Night on Nov. 8.
    Luke Rockhold defeated Michael Bisping via guillotine choke in the second round at UFC Fight Night on Nov. 8.Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

    What's not to like about Rockhold? He's good looking, personable, sometimes outspoken and can put on a good fight.

    Rockhold ran rampant through Strikeforce, compiling a 9-0 record. Then, in his UFC debut, he fell victim to Vitor Belfort's path of destruction and was halted midway through the opening round of their fight. Since that point, Rockhold's record is 3-0 with three finishes, including a second-round submission win over Michael Bisping. 

    The 30-year-old is a balanced fighter, capable of ending the fight on the feet or on the ground. The American Kickboxing Academy product had four straight, rear-naked choke victories back in Strikeforce and is an International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation champion. However, he usually keeps the fight standing (a scenario in which he is one of the most intelligent fighters in the middleweight division).

    Rockhold gives back twice the punishment he receives from opponents with a 3.60:1.86 strikes landed per minute to strikes absorbed per minute ratio. We have yet to see many holes in his game, with the closest anybody has come to defeating Rockhold—besides Belfort—being Tim Kennedy. Despite being taken down in their fight, Rockhold took very minimal damage on the bottom. 

    With one more win, the California native can make his case for a shot at the 185-pound champion. Rockhold called out dangerous Brazilian Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, a fighter he holds a previous win over. The bout isn't likely to materialize, however, as Souza's manager stated that they would like a fight at 205-pounds next. Potential competitors for Rockhold in 2015 include Yoel Romero or the winner of Lyoto Machida/CB Dollaway. 

    Rockhold's ability to dictate where the fight takes place against many of the world's best 185-pounders earns him the fifth spot on this list. He could have been ranked higher on this list if it weren't for a few noteworthy No. 1 contenders. Still, Rockhold is a top-five middleweight and has more experience in high-profile bouts than Romero. 

    Rockhold's stand-up game now rivals his ground game, which doesn't bode well for Chris Weidman or Vitor Belfort, a man he would love another crack at.

3. Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza

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    Ronaldo Souza unloading lefts on a grounded Francis Carmont.
    Ronaldo Souza unloading lefts on a grounded Francis Carmont.USA TODAY Sports

    Souza is arguably the scariest middleweight in the UFC outside of Chris Weidman and Vitor Belfort. 

    The former DREAM and Strikeforce competitor rode a three-fight win streak into the Octagon and has since defeated the likes of Yushin Okami and Gegard Mousasi. Souza's complete arsenal was on display in the Mousasi fight, blitzing the Iranian fighter with left and right hooks, which set up his takedowns. On the ground is where the Brazilian truly shines—Souza is a world champion in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and submission wrestling—submitting Mousasi with a guillotine choke in the final frame. 

    The victory over then-No. 7 middleweight Mousasi sets Souza up for a shot at UFC gold. However, it looks like he may tangle with Dan Henderson or Yoel Romero first. The 34-year-old Souza would undoubtedly be the favorite in both bouts. With the amount of injuries piling up in the UFC today, one might question his decision, but with Weidman expected to fight Belfort in late February, it's not such a a far-fetched idea. 

    The Judo black belt has few to no flaws in his game. To find any would mean having to revisit his title loss against the aforementioned Rockhold on this list. In that fight, Rockhold's takedown defense allowed him to keep the fight standing the majority of the time. Rockhold, who's on a hot streak of his own, has voiced his opinion about the UFC middleweight rankings. The 30-year-old, who has finished his last three opponents, certainly has a valid point. 

    Does it seem odd that Souza's camp would fail to mention Rockhold as a potential fight candidate? Yes, and they could be looking to preserve their fighter's path to a title shot.

    It appears that this may be a case of what have you done for me lately? Rockhold has one loss inside the UFC, while Souza has zero. Souza has also fought one more time than the American. 

    Rockhold can say he's "grown more" and that he wasn't "very technical" in the pair's first bout, but Souza has grown too since that fight. About one year after their original bout in September 2011, Souza put together a string of four straight first-round finishes. Plus, Rockhold hasn't necessarily given fans hope that he can defeat an explosive Brazilian. Leave what's in the past in the past, Rockhold.

2. Robbie Lawler

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    Robbie Lawler exchanges with Matt Brown in their Fight of the Year candidate.
    Robbie Lawler exchanges with Matt Brown in their Fight of the Year candidate.USA TODAY Sports

    Surprise, surprise. 

    By now, you've heard the tale of "Ruthless" Robbie Lawler and his redemption story. Lawler reinvented himself at 170-pounds, blazing a trail through one of the UFC's deepest divisions. 

    His style of fighting is rather simple: hit them until they fall down, hence the nickname. At middleweight, Lawler often looked sluggish—he missed weight twice—and was out of shape. He would always trade a win for a loss, stopping any momentum he could gather right in its tracks. Granted, he did fight highly credible opponents in guys like Tim Kennedy and Jacare Souza. 

    Barreling into the UFC off an embarrassing loss to Lorenz Larkin, Lawler drew former contender Josh Koscheck as his debut opponent. After getting taken down twice, the American Top Team fighter turned the tide, flattening Koscheck with a vicious left hand. The rejuvenated Lawler added Bobby Voelker to his list of KO victims and followed that up with a hard-fought decision win over current top contender Rory MacDonald.

    Up next for Ruthless was a title fight headliner at UFC 171 against Johnny "Big Rig" Hendricks. In a fight that could have gone either way, the judges sent home Hendricks with the coveted welterweight belt. Lawler wouldn't let the loss deter his focus as he went right back to work two months later, finishing Jake Ellenberger, then taking a decision victory over Matt Brown in a potential Fight of the Year candidate. 

    Lawler will get his second crack at the belt in under nine months on Dec. 6. With talk of being tentative in the Hendricks fight, he will look took finish the job this time around. Lawler has the chin to withstand Hendricks' shots and keep moving forward. He also has the gas tank now. The earlier Lawler opens up, mixing up combinations with body and high kicks, the quicker he will gain confidence heading into the championship rounds. 

    Kicks can be Lawler's best friend, if he chooses to use them. With both men coming in as southpaws, you can be sure each fighter will have his right hand up to block incoming left-handed missiles. A stick and move approach—Lawler owns a five inch reach advantage over the champion—might work against a power puncher like Hendricks, but it would make him more susceptible to a takedown. 

    Lawler has an excellent shot of dethroning Hendricks, but it just seems like Hendricks' time, since he was upset by the pound-for-pound great, Georges St. Pierre. When compared to the men on this list, Lawler is probably the most dangerous out of any of them—but this is where his Cinderella story ends.

1. Gilbert Melendez

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Upset alert: Melendez comes in ahead of Lawler with the best chance to knock off a UFC champion. The main reason he takes the top spot over Ruthless is because Hendricks has already got a good look at him. If he can shore up some of the holes in his stand-up, Hendricks should start to build upon a championship resume, come Dec. 6. 

    Not long ago, the man Melendez is gunning for, Anthony Pettis, was in a similar situation: He was a fighter looking to prove his worth in the biggest MMA promotion. After coming up short in a previous title loss verses Benson Henderson, the Mexican fighter will square off with the lightweight champion Pettis at UFC 181. 

    Melendez was arguably Strikeforce's crown jewel. The 32-year-old made a name for himself by masterfully wearing down his opponents with crisp boxing and knockout power. Melendez's career in the now-defunct promotion wouldn't be the same without Josh Thomson. The pair had an epic trilogy of fights that ended in a debatable split-decision victory for Melendez. 

    Pettis has endured a long layoff, due to a knee injury and the coaching gig opposite Melendez on The Ultimate Fighter. Both he and Melendez are excellent stand-up fighters. However, each holds a distinct advantage over the other. While Melendez is the more seasoned of the two, defending his Strikeforce lightweight title seven times, Pettis has the quickness advantage on his feet. This should stifle Melendez's game plan mightily, as Pettis won't play into the brawl-for-all contest that he so desperately wants. 

    Henderson didn't fall for the scrap pack member's tricks in their title bout. If Melendez isn't able to get it done with his striking, he should look to utilize his top-level ground game, which we so very rarely see. It's not so much that he's one dimensional, it's just his mentality. Never count the California native out of a fight. If Melendez can put forth a more calculated effort, and close off the angles of Pettis, his chances of leaving Las Vegas with gold increase. 

    People forget about just how good Melendez was in Strikeforce. He helped make the promotion an entity by fending off over a half dozen would-be title challengers. He established himself as arguably the best lightweight in the world around the same time B.J. Penn's reign in the UFC was up. Give it up for El Nino.