The forthcoming Strikeforce: Champions card is just one fighter-withdrawal away from having to re-brand itself in the singular form.

After initially planning to have three title fights on Jan. 12 before closing its doors, Strikeforce has already been forced to pull lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez and middleweight champion Luke Rockhold from the event due to ongoing injuries to both fighters. The one championship fight that remains on the card is welterweight title contest between champion Nate Marquardt and Tarec Saffiedine. The “Champions” moniker does still apply, however, as current heavyweight titlist Daniel Cormier will also be participating, albeit in a non-title affair against Dion Staring.

Regardless of how their absences have impacted the final Strikeforce card, the question now becomes where the two migrating champions will fit among the other fighters in their respective weight classes after they make their way to the UFC.

There is no doubt that both fighters are among the elites in their divisions, and each has obviously experienced enough success to earn himself a fairly significant championship, but does that mean that both fighters deserve a shot to unify the Strikeforce and UFC titles upon their arrival in their new promotional home?

First, let’s look at Melendez. “El Niño” is probably the best active fighter that has never fought in the UFC. His 21-2 record in a career that has lasted more than a decade is extremely impressive, and he has held the Strikeforce lightweight championship since 2009. Melendez has never been stopped and most recently completed a trilogy with fellow lightweight Josh Thomson, defeating “The Punk” by decision in May.

Melendez is a fighter who fans have been itching to watch in the UFC for quite some time. Even before he undertook his current seven-fight winning streak, he was considered one of the best 155ers in the sport. That reverence remains, with Melendez currently seated second in The MMA Corner’s lightweight rankings (and ninth pound-for-pound). Now, Melendez hasn’t faced most of the fighters below him on that list, but his past performances have revealed few weaknesses in his game that could be exploited by many fighters. Such has been Melendez’s level of dominance, in fact, that many questioned why he was not already ported over to the UFC like his fellow former Strikeforcers Nick Diaz and Alistair Overeem.

For these reasons, Melendez probably deserves an immediate title shot as soon as he’s ready to return to action. Sure, he could probably have some decent scraps with the likes of Gray Maynard, Anthony Pettis or Donald Cerrone before getting his shot at lightweight gold, but few people could argue that he’s not top-contender material.

Of course, Melendez’s situation could become more complicated if Nate Diaz is able to wrest the lightweight belt from Benson Henderson on Dec. 8. Should that occur, Melendez would likely take a backseat to his training partner and instead fight the other contenders near the top of the lightweight heap. Even though he has surely wanted his shot at UFC gold for many years, it’s doubtful that he’d sacrifice his relationship with Diaz (or any other Cesar Gracie fighter) to get there. That said, if Henderson ends up retaining his title, his next opponent should be Melendez.

Luke Rockhold’s situation, on the other hand, is not so cut-and-dry. While Melendez has long been recognized as one of the top fighters in his weight class, Rockhold is a relative newcomer in the company of the top middleweights in MMA. A longtime Strikeforce veteran (due in some part, no doubt, to the fact that he trains in San Jose), Rockhold defeated Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza for the promotion’s middleweight title in 2011 and has defended it twice—first against Keith Jardine in January and most recently against Tim Kennedy in July. He was scheduled to face Lorenz Larkin at Strikeforce’s since-canceled Cormier vs. Mir event, and his employers likely hoped they could count on the fight for January’s show. Rockhold, however, will be on the shelf, due to an injured wrist, until after Strikeforce is absorbed by the UFC.

The difference with Rockhold, in comparison to Melendez, is that he will likely not be receiving a middleweight title shot right away. In fact, he’ll probably have to wait quite some time before getting a chance to fight for that belt.

First, there’s the fact that Rockhold is not as highly regarded as Melendez in comparison to the other fighters in his division. Rockhold is currently sixth among middleweights in The MMA Corner’s rankings, and although he is 10-1 in his professional career, he has faced a lower level of competition than his UFC counterparts. (Tim Kennedy was a worthy title opponent, but Keith Jardine was given a shot at Rockhold in his middleweight debut after fighting Gegard Mousasi to a draw.) Rockhold has something in common with fellow middleweight contender Chris Weidman in that both fighters are still looked at as needing to pay their dues a bit more before getting a shot at the belt. Come to think of it, that fight wouldn’t make a bad title eliminator for early-to-mid 2013, would it?

Second, the middleweight division is already basically a mishmash of fighters who could fight for the title next, but none who should fight for the title next. There’s Weidman (undefeated with victories over Demian Maia and Mark Muñoz), Michael Bisping (9-3 as a UFC middleweight who most recently defeated Brian Stann) and Alan Belcher (4-0 in his last four fights, all by stoppage), to name a few. But Weidman still has fewer than 10 pro fights, Bisping lost to Chael Sonnen before his victory over Stann, and Belcher has had injury problems and probably needs another fight with a fellow contender to cement his position in the division. Rockhold fits nicely among these fighters, but certainly does not stand out above them as a more likely candidate for a championship bout.

Finally, there’s the fact that no one knows when UFC middleweight king Anderson Silva will actually defend his belt again. The predominant talk surrounding his next fight has him facing welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre in a superfight. There is also the possibility that Silva will take a lengthy hiatus from fighting before and/or after that fight takes place. Rockhold might be injured now, but eventually he’s going to get healthy, and then he’ll want to get paid. When that time comes, it’s doubtful that Silva will be ready to defend his title, against Rockhold or anyone else.

Most likely, Rockhold will end up facing one of the fighters listed earlier, if only to help sort out the jumble of middleweights crowding the area directly underneath their division’s champion. He could very well get a title shot sooner than later, but it won’t be right away.

All of this says nothing of the other Strikeforce champions. Cormier will probably get a shot at the UFC heavyweight champion, unless he loses to Staring, but Nate Marquardt is supposedly on Dana White’s blacklist, so who knows what will happen if he is successful in January. The Strikeforce champion who currently commands the most attention, though, is women’s bantamweight titlist Ronda Rousey, around whom the UFC will build its first female division. (There is no Strikeforce light heavyweight championship, for what it’s worth.)

Whatever happens to these fighters, it will certainly be very exciting to see the addition of Strikeforce’s most talented fighters to the UFC’s roster.

Photo: Strikeforce Middleweight Champion Luke Rockhold (Phil Lambert/The MMA Corner)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.