Nobility can be an odd concept. It is most often a play on status and not necessarily something that goes hand-in-hand with legitimacy. As it relates to MMA, we often perceive any fighter in the UFC as being the sport’s royalty based on brand recognition.

It confuses our comprehension towards any other promotion, such as Bellator and (formerly) Strikeforce, as being inherently lesser. Now that we’re seeing more and more acquired Strikeforce fighters hold their own in their new home in the UFC, it begs the question that maybe the other guys, namely anyone that has operated outside of the UFC, don’t get the respect they deserve from the doubting Thomases of the MMA world.

For the years leading up to its demise, many fans criticized Strikeforce as being the B-league of MMA and that its fighters and champions weren’t UFC material.

The criticisms never failed to point out that any of Strikeforce’s “good” fighters were always in squash matches booked for the sake of the entertainment that a mismatched fight would bring. And the rest of the guys and gals in the respective divisions were just unknowns that should simply be thankful for their employment in a promotion that was broadcast on television.

But if the last handful of UFC events have proven anything, it’s that Strikeforce was very much a quality organization full of talented fighters that had gone overlooked.

Sure, like any promotion, Strikeforce had its drawbacks, but now that we are seeing how well a lot of its former fighters are doing in the UFC, hindsight has allowed us to reflect on the past criticisms of the organization and realize that they were a tad bit unwarranted.

So what was it that had people scoffing at the notion of Strikeforce as a viable promotion in its heyday? Was it simply the stigma of being a North American MMA organization not branded with the UFC name? Now that a lot of Strikeforce fighters are infiltrating the UFC’s ranks, does that suddenly make them better fighters than when they were in Strikeforce?

There’s no doubt that the former Strikeforce fighters are better off now that they are in the UFC. They’re seen by a much wider audience, earn better pay and have a better selection of competition. But the fans who criticized these fighters before they were ever in the Octagon should recognize that a promotional brand doesn’t determine a fighter’s level of talent.

Last Saturday’s UFC on Fox: Henderson vs. Melendez featured seven Strikeforce veterans, and their performances showed us why they’ve always deserve to be in the UFC even when they weren’t. We’ve seen enough of its fighters transition into the UFC now to understand that it wasn’t a question of how good they really are, but how they can prove it when given the chance.

Half of the main-card fights featured seasoned Strikeforce fighters. Apart from the much-hyped fight between Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix winner Daniel Cormier and former UFC champ Frank Mir, those bouts didn’t disappoint.

Jordan Mein’s fight against Matt Brown kicked off the Fox broadcast, and it delivered exciting action. Mein was not even a month removed from an impressive Octagon debut in which he became the first man to starch Dan Miller in a professional MMA fight. Meanwhile, Brown was looking to continue his exciting winning streak. Brown came out on top, but both walked away with an extra $50,000 “Fight of the Night” bonus. It was another excellent start to a UFC on Fox card, and that was in part due to the efforts of the former Strikeforce fighter, Mein.

With that fight, Mein is now seen as an exciting fighter by a wide audience of people that had no idea who he was when he was doing the same on Showtime. It’s not that he finally grew into the promise of his career, but even in a losing effort, the 23-year-old, who already has 36 fights under his belt, showed that the promise was always there. It’s just that a large segment of the MMA world didn’t care about him when he was just some no-name Strikeforce guy.

Next on the card, former two-time Strikeforce lightweight champion Josh Thomson returned to the UFC. His previous three-fight Octagon stint ended in 2004. Since then, he has primarily called Strikeforce home and has fought 13 times under the Strikeforce banner. His name had become synonymous with the Strikeforce brand and its lightweight title picture.

Thomson always had the look and the skills to be plenty marketable, but has suffered through many lingering injuries in his MMA career. But all that misfortune was temporarily washed away with his TKO win via head kick and punches over UFC fan-favorite Nate Diaz on the Fox card.

It appears that “The Punk” was given a new lease on his career with his transition to the UFC. He’s an example of another Strikeforce vet that has always been a good fighter, but is now more universally praised after one fight in the UFC on the Fox network than over an entire career for his former San Jose-based employer. Given how well challenger Gilbert Melendez did against champion Benson Henderson, Thomson’s own close fights with Melendez in Strikeforce should also factor into his legitimacy moving forward.

Next came Daniel Cormier’s introduction to the UFC crowd in a fight with Frank Mir. It had been a highly anticipated match since it was first announced for a Strikeforce card slated for November of last year. An injury forced Mir out of the fight, Cormier eventually competed against Dion Staring on the final Strikeforce card and the bout was only rescheduled once Cormier transitioned to the UFC. When they finally clashed on Saturday, the result wasn’t exactly spectacular, but we saw another Strikeforce vet establish himself as a top UFC fighter.

Cormier earned his lofty reputation rather quickly. He fought and defeated UFC veteran Jeff Monson in a reserve bout in the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix. Then, when Alistair Overeem left the tournament to join the UFC, Cormier stepped in to take his spot and ended up winning the whole thing by defeating Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva and Josh Barnett. The grand prix was so successful that it wasn’t long before the UFC snagged Strikeforce’s entire heavyweight roster for itself in what would be one of the specific factors leading to the beginning of the end for the promotion. Strikeforce helped to launch one of the sport’s biggest stars in Cormier, but now he’s in the UFC proving that it’s more than his hype that makes him a top fighter in MMA.

His fight against Mir was a blemish on what was a fantastic card up to that point. In fairness, you could say that fans were already spoiled by good finishes—including a spectacular flying knee knockout delivered by Yoel Romero, yet another Strikeforce veteran making his UFC debut—before the main card even began.

Cormier was content to clinch with Mir against the cage, and Mir was equally content to defend himself enough to not get knocked out, but offered little offense before time ran out. It was a listless performance for Mir, but for Cormier, it was an opportunity to showcase himself to the world against a relevant opponent. There’s no doubt that the Oklahoma State Cowboy has a bright future in the UFC with a laundry list of credible competition to face (whereas the best Strikeforce could do on short notice for his last match was set him up with Staring, an unknown European fighter).

Taking Cormier’s time in Strikeforce into account, it makes his win here that much more special. Cormier’s career proves the point that a lot of the guys from Strikeforce are only breaking out from a misunderstood reputation. Now that they’re in the big show, the larger majority of MMA fans get to see how good they really are.

Strikeforce, even when it was operating on life support during its final year, helped to build a few of the UFC’s biggest stars. Those who followed the promotion appreciate how good it really was. Now a lot of those fighters are enjoying their time in the sun. All it took to convince the naysayers that these fighters are legitimate was a switch in the banner they competed under.

Never was that more apparent than in the evening’s main event between UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson and his Strikeforce counterpart, Gilbert Melendez. In Strikeforce, the argument was that the Strikeforce fighters weren’t given a consistent diet of solid competition against which to show fans that they stood shoulder to shoulder with their UFC brethren. Melendez, a longtime Strikeforce champion, stood as the ultimate representative to disprove the notion that Strikeforce’s fighters would be exposed as inferior once they met the UFC’s best.

Melendez’s last nine Strikeforce fights involved a title and most featured him defending his lightweight belt. He was long considered the best lightweight in the world that had never set foot inside the Octagon. Even in a losing effort, “El Nino” silenced those lingering critics that said he never deserved that credit based on his Strikeforce tenure. His walk-on title shot against Henderson proved to the critics that he belongs at the top.

Melendez’s fight with Henderson resulted in a close split decision win for Henderson that was considered controversial by many fans on fight night. Even the MMA media were divided on how the fight should be judged.

Melendez looked great throughout the entire fight, getting right in Henderson face for exchanges and avoiding being dominated by his opponent’s wrestling. When we look at the FightMetric report, we’ll see, however, that Henderson did get the better of his opponent overall striking-wise that night.

Melendez might not have become the best lightweight in the world on Saturday, but he sure showed that he’s still in the top two or three. It’s a spot he’s always warranted, but he hadn’t been able to truly answer his critics’ questions until he fought in the UFC. Finally, we can say he’s one of the world’s best and that he’s facing the best.

Nobility in MMA can be an odd concept when it comes to overlooking guys outside of the UFC. It’s somewhat fair to say that anyone outside of the UFC can’t be the best until they’ve beaten the best in the UFC. But in a way that overlooks how good a fighter, no matter the promotion, really is at his craft.

For the most part, the Strikeforce fighters have done very well for themselves since their move to the UFC. Operating under a new logo doesn’t suddenly make them better fighters. It just gives them the chance to prove they were great all along.

Photo: Josh Thomson (L) throws a head kick (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

About The Author

David Massey
Staff Writer

David Massey studied Humanities and Art History at the University of Central Oklahoma. He first found interest in MMA from the first TUF show and has been hooked ever since. He began posting on mmajunkie then submitting Sunday Junkie entries and that began his interest in writing about MMA. Through twitter David found other MMA enthusiasts and began contributing articles to marqueemma.com. He looks forward to growing as a writer and being a part of the sport he loves.