Last night it was reported that Strikeforce Middleweight champion Luke Rockhold will defend his title against “The Dean of Mean” Keith Jardine on Saturday, January 7th.
The news was met online with an avalanche of ellipses and “wait, what?”
Rockhold won the Middleweight title from Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza in September. Jardine was a contestant on the second season of “The Ultimate Fighter” and is most famous for knocking out Forrest Griffin in 2006 and defeating UFC Hall of Famer Chuck Liddell by split decision in 2007. After the latter upset, he went 1-5 in the UFC and was let go after a loss to Matt Hamill. Jardine’s most recent outing was his debut for Strikeforce, where he fought Gegard Mousasi to a draw.
If you’re wondering how any of that entitles Jardine to a title shot, you’re not the only one.
But this is the Strikeforce Middleweight Title we’re talking about. That’s not meant to be a knock against Rockhold, a very talented Top 5 Middleweight with strong finishing skills and a lot of depth in his game. But he, especially as champion deserves a better quality opponent.
But that’s the problem with Strikeforce: outside of its Heavyweights, their divisions are anemic. As a result, you’ll see guys like Jardine (and in some cases fighters coming off a loss!) getting title shots.
The thing to understand is that Strikeforce started out as a regional promotion that went national after some high-level signings and its deal with Showtime. Over the last few years they’ve built a roster that, on paper, looks pretty solid to the hardcore MMA fanbase. But its stars are littered across several divisions, meaning that it’s had no shortage of superstars but few fights that could draw an audience outside of its niche. As a result, it has worthy champions who don’t have challengers; in particular Nick Diaz, Luke Rockhold, and Gilbert Melendez, each of whom is a legitimate Top 5 fighter in their respective weight divisions. It wasn’t a problem when the goal of the promotion was, by its own admission, to put on entertaining fight cards.
Now that they’re owned by Zuffa, though, there’s going to be increased scrutiny over its matchmaking and it will face more questions as to its legitimacy and relevance.
In my mind there’s three options. One is to simply absorb guys like Rockhold into the UFC so that they can get the opportunities (and paydays) they deserve. The second would be to simply do away with the title belts and put the focus on having entertaining fight cards. Some might balk at that idea since there’s a prevalent belief that championships are a requisite for any fight promotion. But if MMA can learn anything from professional wrestling, it’s that a title is meaningless and doesn’t add a cent to an event’s live gate if it’s not perceived as relevant, let alone prestigious.
The third option, which is only viable if the UFC plans on keeping the Strikeforce brand and promotion operational in the long-term, is to restructure its roster from the bottom up and start scouting regional promotions for talent. This would, naturally, create the perception of Strikeforce as the UFC’s farm system. Realistically, though, that’s already the case. And being perceived as a breeding ground for UFC fighters is better than its current reputation as a promotion treading water while Zuffa figures out what to do about the Showtime contract.
I’d love to see them go with the third option. Not only do I think it would make Strikeforce’s divisions and fight cards more competitive and intriguing, but it would also make the UFC itself better by weeding out fighters who look great on paper until they’re put at a level they’re not mentally or physically prepared for and wash out. Strikeforce also already has, to an extent, some of the infrastructure required to make this happen. After all, Rockhold himself emerged from their “Challengers” series, which sought to do the sort of thing I’m suggesting they do with the promotion as a whole.
Regardless, something has to be done, because as much as I like Keith Jardine, him as a challenger for a title simply doesn’t cut it.