If MMA has a purgatory, it might just be in the form of a Strikeforce championship belt. Ask Gilbert Melendez, I’m sure he could tell you as much.

It’s not that the champs are not worthy of their crowns, or that Strikeforce’s belts are not prestigious. Quite the opposite is true. But yet, there’s a lot of pressure in being a Strikeforce champion. The question of whether the fighter would rather be fighting under the UFC banner inevitably comes up, as does the whisper of doubt in whether the champ truly stands shoulder to shoulder with his belt-holding peer in the UFC.

One current champion and three championship hopefuls will vie for the chance to get—or extend, in the champ’s case—their taste of that purgatory when Strikeforce visits the Rose Garden in Portland, Ore., this Saturday, July 14.

Middleweight kingpin Luke Rockhold surprised some when he defeated Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza for the strap. Since then, he’s cemented his spot at the top of the middleweight mountain with a successful title defense against Keith Jardine, a credible opponent thanks to his long tenure in the UFC. Now, Rockhold defends against Tim Kennedy, a longtime Strikeforce middleweight who almost edged out Souza for the crown.

Meanwhile, former UFC middleweight contender Nate Marquardt returns to fight under the Zuffa umbrella of promotions after enduring banishment by UFC President Dana White after failing his pre-fight physicals due to issues arising from his use of testosterone-replacement therapy. Marquardt’s return comes at welterweight, and his first bout involves championship gold, as he locks horns with prospect Tyron Woodley.

Rounding out the main card, Strikeforce has assembled two middleweight tussles, possibly in the hopes of unearthing a new contender for the winner of the headlining battle between Rockhold and Kennedy. In the first of the two bouts, Jardine meets Roger Gracie. The second contest pits Lorenz Larkin against Robbie Lawler in what is sure to be an entertaining striking war.

The action kicks off with the preliminary card on Showtime Extreme at 8 p.m. ET and heads over to Showtime’s flagship network at 10 p.m. ET for the main card.

This week, veteran panelists Richard Wilcoxon and Bryan Henderson are joined by the debuting David Massey for an in-depth breakdown of the main card fights and a quick look at the prelim lineup.

MW: Lorenz Larkin (12-0) vs. Robbie Lawler (19-8)

Wilcoxon: Lorenz Larkin against Robbie Lawler is a great way to kick off the television broadcast. You are all but guaranteed a stand-up war that will leave someone unconscious. Together, the two fighters have notched 24 knockout victories.

Larkin (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Lawler is a longtime veteran of the sport. He is a wrestler that fell in love with striking. As he has evolved, his wrestling is now used almost entirely defensively, as he will look to sprawl and brawl with all comers. Lawler has always possessed big power in his hands.

On the other side of the cage is Larkin. He joined Strikeforce as a heavyweight, and after only one fight at light heavyweight, he is dropping down to middleweight. As a former amateur boxer, he also looks to keep the fight standing where he can unleash his own barrage.

While Lawler is only 30 years old, it feels like he has been around forever. It looks like his career is also starting to wind down. Since joining Strikeforce, he only has a 3-4 record, but, to be fair, he was one of the faces of the promotion and has been matched with most of Strikeforce’s top stars.

This is a step up in competition for Larkin, no doubt about it. However, it is a necessary step if Larkin wants to be relevant. My biggest concern is that the weight cut can go very wrong the first time and could zap Larkin of his cardio and strength. Since he has already dropped a weight class once, I think he can do it the right way. Larkin wins by second-round TKO.

Massey: I think middleweight will be a better fit for Larkin. He will gain speed, which should only enhance his great striking, and hopefully the cut will not lessen too much of his knockout power.

Richard makes the point that Larkin needs to beat better competition if he wants to stay relevant, and I agree. Unfortunately, Lawler is not the best match for him, as he has problems with wrestlers and opponents that bring the fight to him. Larkin won his fight against the strong wrestler Gian Villante, but he spent the first round on his back before coming back with his superb striking to take the next two rounds. Another strong wrestler, Muhammed Lawal, held onto Larkin and brutalized him with punches from the top. Larkin works a suitable rubber guard, but it is apparent that his ground game needs work if he is to beat better competition.

Obviously, Lawler prefers to head-hunt rather than show his skill in wrestling. Given Larkin’s footwork, Lawler will be in for a long night of eating kicks if he is content on waiting to find that one big punch to put Larkin’s lights out. Larkin defeated Nick Rossborough before losing to Lawal, but his opponent had success pressuring Larkin and interrupting his flow of strikes. Lawler would be smart to implement the same approach of heavy pressure.

Lawler (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Lawler has lost against the best competition Strikeforce has offered, but he is knocking guys out on the way to the big fights. I don’t see the trend changing—this is Lawler’s comfort zone. I wouldn’t bet on Lawler taking Larkin down often in this fight, but we might see him tying up Larkin and wearing him down against the cage. Lawler is the veteran here and he will be too proud to let this one slip away.

Henderson: Lawler’s wrestling won’t come into play in this contest, unless he’s using it to stuff a takedown attempt from Larkin. As Richard pointed out, Lawler has fallen in love with striking. He prefers to stand and look for that one powerful knockout blow.

Larkin’s mission here has to be one of protecting his chin. Lawler uses flashy strikes to get knockouts, but there’s not much else to his game. He’s not going to hunt for a submission and won’t shoot for takedowns unless he’s rocked.

What this boils down to is a slugfest where Lawler and Larkin both pack a lot of power. Lawler has not been one to fall to knockouts in his career, outside of a 2004 defeat to Nick Diaz. Larkin will have to stretch this to a decision and use his technical boxing skills to out-point Lawler. Meanwhile, all Lawler has to do is land one punch. I’m betting on that one punch—Lawler by second-round knockout.

MW: Roger Gracie (4-1) vs. Keith Jardine (17-10-2)

Massey: Roger Gracie will have a tough fight on July 14 with the grizzled veteran Keith Jardine. That is, if he allows himself to be lured into a brawl.

Gracie (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Gracie brings world-class jiu-jitsu and submission wrestling to the cage, but his level of striking is worrisome against a brawler like Jardine. Muhammed Lawal handed Gracie his first loss with one punch to the side of the head, which exposed his weakness against heavy-handed strikers. Gracie would be wise to not make the same mistake of giving his opponent a puncher’s chance.

Gracie prefers to use his jab to keep opponents at bay and will occasionally engage on the feet, but he is best served taking the fight to the ground. I wonder how Gracie will respond to an aggressive flurry by Jardine, who is known to overwhelm unsuspecting opponents. Always durable, Jardine is never out of a fight, but his killer instinct hasn’t been showcased effectively in recent outings. A draw against an opponent such as Gegard Mousasi on short notice proves Jardine’s grit, but a decisive TKO loss to Luke Rockhold reminds us how long it has been since he was upsetting fighters such as Forrest Griffin and Chuck Liddell.

Jardine will be looking to bring the fight to Gracie, but if Gracie keeps his cool and uses the clinch effectively while finding takedowns, he should fare well. No one should ever count Jardine out of a fight. He could end it quickly by pressuring his opponent with flurries, which is his best bet, because I doubt we will see him trying for takedowns against a submission ace like Gracie. If Gracie can keep a cool head and stick to his game plan of takedown and submit, while weathering Jardine’s storm, I see him winning with a submission by the second round.

Henderson: Let’s be realistic here: Gracie is a submission specialist who displayed his improving striking against opponents on the downside of their careers. He can strike with the likes of Trevor Prangley and Kevin Randleman, but he lost via knockout to Lawal. He’s a decent striker…for a guy who specializes in submissions.

Jardine is indeed a scrappy, tough brawler. After beating Liddell, though, he just hasn’t found a way to win consistently. His fight with “Rampage” Jackson was fun to watch, but Jardine fell short. He even managed to fall out of the UFC and then lose a split decision to Prangley. That’s the most disconcerting mark on his record. Even in Strikeforce, all he has managed is a loss and a draw. Yet, still, I find a big part of me having faith in the idea of Jardine outclassing Gracie.

Jardine has never been submitted. So unless he completely implodes, I don’t see Jardine getting put in a bad spot on the ground. Instead, this is likely to be a battle between Jardine’s ring savvy and brawling style and Gracie’s developing technical boxing skills. I just can’t find it in me to side with Gracie in a striking affair.

Jardine (Daniel Archuleta/Sherdog)

With this being Gracie’s first effort at middleweight, the additional cut will also factor in to leave him exhausted as the fight progresses. That’s when Jardine’s heart kicks in, leading him to a late TKO victory.

Wilcoxon: This an interesting fight that will let us know where Gracie is in his development.

We know what we get with longtime veteran Jardine. He is tough, has unorthodox striking, and is decent on the ground.

Gracie is still a relative newcomer to the sport. It just feels like he has been around forever because there has been so much talk about him, even while he was focusing on just BJJ tournaments. As both of my colleagues laid out, he is a submission specialist with average striking at best.

Bryan indicated Gracie demonstrated solid striking against fighters on the downside of their career. But isn’t Jardine on the downside of his career? Since 2006, the longest winning streak Jardine has been able to put together is two fights. Since defeating Brandon Vera in 2008, Jardine has not won against a single opponent a casual fan would have heard of. While Jardine will make this fight interesting, the 36-year-old just doesn’t have enough in the tank to pull this out. Gracie wins by a late submission or decision.

WW Championship: Nate Marquardt (31-10-2) vs. Tyron Woodley (10-0)

Henderson: It seems like every time Woodley fights, he’s really facing a steep test. So far, he’s passed. But I wouldn’t say that it’s been with flying colors. He eked out a split verdict over Jordan Mein, used wrestling to dominate a one-dimensional Paul Daley and struggled with Nathan Coy. His knockout win over Andre Galvao is by far his most impressive recent outing.

Woodley (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

While all of those past fights were huge tests, he’s now lined up against a veteran who spent years as a top contender in the UFC’s middleweight division. If not for Anderson Silva, it’s a good bet that Nate Marquardt would have enjoyed a reign at 185.

With Marquardt’s return, there are a few factors that could swing the advantage in Woodley’s favor. This will be the UFC veteran’s first outing at welterweight and his first fight in approximately 16 months. How will Marquardt’s body handle the cut, and how much ring rust will show when he steps into the cage?

The other factor is Marquardt’s recent failures against fighters with strong wrestling and underrated striking. Marquardt dropped unanimous decisions to Chael Sonnen and Yushin Okami in recent UFC title eliminator affairs. Woodley is an NCAA Division I All-American, and his knockout of Galvao proves that he has decent hands.

Although Woodley has some of the ingredients that could spell doom for Marquardt, the Mizzou wrestler is no Sonnen or Okami. He is a young fighter still gaining experience, and one who can tend to get frustrated and winded when things aren’t headed his way. Assuming that Marquardt’s cut goes smoothly and he shakes off the rust in the early moments of this fight, his experience and skill level should allow him to give Woodley fits. Marquardt either finishes this late, once Woodley’s frustration has set in, or takes the fight on the judges’ scorecards.

Wilcoxon: I think this fight is a toss-up. I could flip a coin and make a strong case for either fighter to win.

Bryan very accurately broke down Woodley’s game. He is a top-notch wrestler with some power shots if needed in the stand-up.

Marquardt was one of the most well-rounded middleweights in the UFC. He did everything good, but wasn’t dominate in any one aspect. This served him well at times, leading to him notching 15 knockouts and eight submission victories. However, it also doesn’t leave him with the fall-back specialty that dominant fighters seem to have.

Marquardt (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

I see this fight ending one of two ways: either with a Marquardt stoppage or a Woodley decision. Marquardt’s long layoff coupled with facing a dominant wrestler leads me to lean to towards the latter. Woodley wins by decision.

Massey: I have the same questions regarding Marquardt as Bryan has stated. How will his long layoff and never-before-seen drop to welterweight affect his fight?

The experience edge in this fight easily goes to Marquardt. He has been around the block and faced a who’s who of competition. Marquardt has dealt with the best wrestlers in MMA, and that experience serves him to be prepared for what is to come. As both Richard and Bryan have pointed out, the only aspect in which Woodley has an advantage over his opponent is his wrestling. Marquardt will be giving up his size advantage by dropping down in weight, so I’d assume Woodley should have no problem holding him down.

Woodley has submission wins early in his career to his credit, but his performances lately haven’t won him many new fans. We will get to see him trade with Marquardt, but it won’t be long before he returns to his wrestling roots. Marquardt hasn’t lost by submission since 2003 and has beaten some of the best jiu-jitsu players in the sport. It is hard to think of Woodley being able pull off anything against his opponent other than grinding a decision.

Marquardt’s record proves how well-rounded his game is, and he can easily surprise an opponent with a heavy punch, as he did against Demian Maia and Rousimar Palhares. I can see him winning by TKO, maybe even after a takedown of his own.

MW Championship: Luke Rockhold (9-1) vs. Tim Kennedy (14-3)

Massey: This is a classic striker vs. wrestler match between two of Strikeforce’s best middleweights. The biggest question here is how well Kennedy can implement his wrestling and control Rockhold. For Rockhold, this fight is about finding his kickboxing rhythm while defending takedowns and not being grinded out in the process, especially in the later rounds where his cardio will be tested.

Kennedy (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

We might see a similar game plan from Kennedy as in his fight with Robbie Lawler. He stayed on the outside of his opponent’s punches, countering shots with a takedown and controlling Lawler to take the rounds. When he had Lawler down, Kennedy took his back several times and looked for chokes. The Army veteran’s large size and strength work very well with that approach, and it will be the perfect way to zap the champion’s energy and will.

We haven’t seen much of Rockhold’s ground game in Strikeforce, as far as submission defense and spending time on his back, and Kennedy could test this. “Jacare” Souza was able to take Rockhold down multiple times in their championship fight, but Rockhold quickly worked his way back to his feet by using the cage. If Kennedy can stay on top of Rockhold in the center of the cage, that could mitigate Rockhold’s ability to get back up with the help of the cage wall and leave him in bad spots.

Rockhold has the clear advantage in the stand-up game. He dazzles audiences with switch kicks, head kicks and spinning back kicks, all of which can be used to attack Kennedy on the outside. His kicks were most recently used to pick apart Keith Jardine, and that is not the position Kennedy will want to find himself in. Rockhold starts off aggressive and walks his opponent down. Interrupting that flow is key for Kennedy if he doesn’t want to be on the receiving end of punch and kick combinations early in the fight.

Kennedy can dish out just as many punches as his opponent, but there is a definite lack of inflicted damage in his power shots. In his 2010 fight with Souza, the exchanges were fairly even, but the visible damage to Kennedy’s face compared to Souza’s could have swayed the judges’ scoring. The same could be said for his fight with Lawler—if he had not controlled the fight with wrestling, his face was so busted up compared to Lawler that a fan just tuning in could have reasonably thought him the loser.

Another problem Kennedy has with his stand-up is his tendency to initially move straight back from his opponent’s attack. When Rockhold gets in Kennedy’s face with combinations, Kennedy could find himself with his back against the cage with nowhere to dodge Rockhold’s fierce attack.

The potency of Rockhold’s attack will test Kennedy from the beginning of the fight, and once he starts taking shots is when we will see the wrestler emerge. The question is how well Kennedy can control the champion while scoring with his own attack. As the fight goes into the championship rounds, it will favor Kennedy, but I see Rockhold unrelenting in his attack on the way to scoring a TKO in the fourth round.

Wilcoxon: This is a fight I am really looking forward to seeing. Rockhold is currently ranked No. 7 in The MMA Corner rankings, and this will be a good test to see where he belongs.

Kennedy is a tough guy and a tough match-up for anyone. He holds submission victories over some solid competition, and also has shown he has an iron chin and will bang with even the most dangerous strikers.

Rockhold will hold the striking edge in this fight, both in the diversity of strikes he will throw and the power of those strikes. However, the biggest counter for a good striker is a wrestler who can get them to the ground. I believe Kennedy will have the superior wrestling. Once the fight is on the ground, both have solid submission games and will probably be pretty even.

Rockhold (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

I think this fight all comes down to Rockhold’s takedown defense and ability to get back up. I think Kennedy will get him down during this fight, and if Rockhold can’t find a way back up, then Kennedy will steal rounds and maybe the fight. With that said, Rockhold has more ways he can win. I see him retaining the belt and getting his hand raised at the end of the day.

Henderson: I share Richard’s excitement for this match-up. After several years of watching Rockhold and Kennedy steadily climb through the Strikeforce ranks, it’s great to see the two competing to be king of the promotion’s middleweight mountain.

Kennedy has found the most success against strikers with a deficient ground game. Throw him in against a grappler with decent striking, and he runs into problems. He suffered a loss to Souza and even dropped a bout to Jason “Mayhem” Miller.

Rockhold’s striking has been the talk of this round table, but I still think of him as a grappler. The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu brown belt did win world championships at both blue and purple belt, and if you look beyond his last few outings, you’ll see a fighter who built his career around first-round submissions. He also participated in judo and wrestling earlier in his life, and he’s spent years training with a talented group of fighters at the American Kickboxing Academy.

Kennedy has been tentative with his striking in the past, and if that’s the case in this outing, Rockhold will eat him alive. However, I don’t hold as much faith in Rockhold needing to stuff takedowns; even if the bout hits the mat, Rockhold should be well-suited to defend from the bottom and offer an offensive attack from his back.

All of that makes it sound like I have no confidence in Kennedy, but that’s not the case. A ground battle here would be intriguing, as the combination of these two fighters could lead to a grappling clinic. However, much like Richard, I just feel that Rockhold has more ways of securing the win. In the end, Rockhold takes this one by submission in the championship rounds after battering Kennedy with strikes in the early going.

Prelims Quick Picks
LW: Ryan Couture (4-1) vs. Joe Duarte (10-2)

Wilcoxon: Duarte has put together a nice winnign streak recently, but Couture is MMA royalty. Of course I’m kidding, but Couture is building his career the right way—stepping up in competition each time out and, of course, implementing a solid game plan. I actually think his last opponent was tougher than Duarte. I look for Couture to win by second-round TKO.

Henderson: I have to agree with Richard. I don’t think Couture is a world-beater, or even close, at this point, but he is developing at a steady pace. His win over Conor Heun was impressive, and Duarte is another tough but beatable foe. Couture waits until the third round to score the TKO finish.

Massey: This is a pretty even match-up. Both men are capable of finishing and can stick to a game plan; however, I like Duarte here. His smart performance against Jorge Gurgel leads me to believe he can handle whatever the young Couture will throw at him.

WW: Jason High (15-3) vs. Nate Moore (8-2)

Henderson: High tends to fly under the radar due to losses to Charlie Brenneman, Marius Zaromskis and Jay Hieron, but that level of opposition speaks volumes to his edge in this one. In addition to those losses, High has posted a number of impressive wins and he should add another one here, outworking Moore to take the decision.

Massey: I think Bryan is right to assume High will outwork Moore to a decision win, but it’s important to note that Moore is a finisher with solid wrestling defense. High is bigger and stronger, but Moore will be looking for a KO—and submissions, if put on his back. Controlling opponents with wrestling is High’s bread and butter, but Moore is a firecracker and if he can’t keep the fight standing, he might surprise fans with a third-round submission.

Wilcoxon: Moore has not been to a decision since his first pro fight. He wins big or loses big. High is the polar opposite. He lives by winning decisions. High has faced much better competition in his career, and while it isn’t exciting, I see High grinding out yet another decision.

WW: Jordan Mein (24-8) vs. Tyler Stinson (23-8)

Wilcoxon: Mein has faced better competition and defeated better fighters than Stinson. Recently, Mein has only lost to big-time wrestlers, something Stinson is not. Mein wins this by a second-round submission.

Massey: I agree with Richard here. Mein has beaten proven opponents and most recently dropped a split decision to a surging Tyron Woodley. He’ll need to watch the heavy hands of Stinson, but he should take this.

Henderson: Make it three in favor of Mein. Stinson has put up some impressive wins too, though his don’t stand out quite as much as those of Mein. This fight should be fun on both the feet and the ground, and after a hard-fought war, I’ll say Mein takes the decision.

LW: Pat Healy (27-16) vs. Mizuto Hirota (14-4-1)

Massey: These two fighters share a similar “grinding” type of fighting style. They both prefer to get in their challenger’s face, hold them against the cage, shoot for singles, and use controlled bursts of strikes to put themselves up on the scorecards. Healy is on a winning streak in Strikeforce right now and coupled with the “home” advantage over his foreign opponent, his confidence will be high. Fireworks are expected, and while both are capable of finishing, a decision win for Healy is the likely outcome.

Henderson: All I need to look at here is the fact that Hirota has never fought outside of Japan and is now headed to U.S. shores. How often does that end well for Japanese fighters under the Zuffa banner? Hardly ever, and with Healy as his foe, things aren’t looking up for Hirota. Healy by submission, early in the second round.

Wilcoxon: Make it unanimous. Healy is on a winning streak, fighting in his home country, and is used to the Strikeforce cage. After some feeling out, Healy wins by submission.

LW: Jorge Masvidal (22-7) vs. Justin Wilcox (11-4)

Henderson: This one comes down to how effective Wilcox can be with his takedowns. Should the former NCAA Division I wrestler choose to stand with Masvidal, he’s going to get out-boxed. Masvidal is another fighter on this card with experience on his side. He’ll stuff Wilcox’s takedown attempts and put the bodybuilder away with a first-round knockout.

Wilcoxon: This is a tough one for me to call. Wilcox, other than that quick KO last time out, is a pretty consistent fighter who utilizes his strength, wrestling and ground game to win. Masvidal, on the other hand, seems very inconsistent. Masvidal hasn’t done anything except go to decisions since the beginning of 2010. That will give Wilcox plenty of chances to steal this one, but he will come up just short as Masvidal squeaks out a close one.

Massey: Wilcox is a powerhouse and his best bet is to put Masvidal on his back. Wilcox is coming off a knockout loss, so he’ll probably start the fight defensively against the striker Masvidal, which means utilizing his wrestling. Richard calls it close for Masvidal, but I’m going the other way here. Wilcox should score enough points in securing takedowns to get a decision.

Top Photo: Luke Rockhold (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)