With the opening third of 2013 already in the books (crazy, right?) and another week before action returns to the Octagon, it feels like a good time to acknowledge the biggest story of the opening third of the year in the UFC, and one that should prove to remain a major talking point going forward.
Strikeforce fighters are putting in work, and proving they most certainly belong in the UFC. Belong isn’t even a strong enough word.
Fighters like Pat Healy and Josh Thomson showed that they’re contenders in the deep and dangerous lightweight division with impressive stoppage wins over perennial title threats Jim Miller and Nate Diaz, respectively, on successive weekends.
Homegrown Strikeforce welterweight standout Tyron Woodley needed just 36 seconds to show everyone he’s not to be taken lightly, knocking out veteran Jay Hieron in one of the best UFC debuts of the year.
Jordan Mein and Yoel Romero also deserve to be part of the conversation when we’re talking best freshman appearances in the Octagon. The young Canadian Mein escaped an early armbar attempt to become the first fighter to finish Dan Miller, while the former Olympian Romero landed a perfectly timed flying knee on the chin of Clifford Starks to earn a victory in his maiden trip inside the UFC cage.
Former light heavyweight champion Gegard Mousasi’s debut was expected to be an exciting encounter with Swedish contender Alexander Gustafsson, but an injury turned it into a tutorial on how to use a jab effectively in the cage against Ilir Latifi. Nonetheless, the talented Mousasi remains an intriguing addition to the UFC roster, regardless of which division he chooses to call home once he returns from a knee injury.
Bobby Green’s perseverance over Jacob Volkmann (and referee Kim Winslow) impressed UFC president Dana White to no end.
Robbie Lawler returned to the organization, the welterweight division, and relevance with a first-round knockout win over Josh Koscheck.
Plus, Nah-Shon Burrell and Yuri Villefort went toe-to-toe for 15 minutes in a rare bout between two Strikeforce alums that was wildly entertaining.
All those results are impressive enough on their own to make it rather obvious that, just like we did with the WEC lightweights who migrated to the UFC roster a couple years ago, we under-estimated the level of talent that was housed on the Strikeforce roster.
It becomes even more obvious is when you factor in the strong performances of three of the biggest names to cross over from what once was the UFC’s chief rival.
As much as Daniel Cormier wasn’t happy with his performance – and it wasn’t great – the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix champion still earned a clear and decisive decision win over a two-time former champion in Frank Mir, and established himself as a legitimate threat in the heavyweight division in the process.
His arrival also added further intrigue to the light-heavyweight title picture, as the former two-time Olympic wrestling qualifier has talked about moving down a division. Whether he is going to make the move or not has yet to be determined, but regardless, the possibility has added another layer to the title discussion in the division ruled by Jon Jones.
The highly anticipated arrival of Ronda Rousey and the women’s bantamweight division to the UFC has been nothing short of a home run thus far.
The charismatic and dominant champion successfully defended her title while extending her first-round submission streak to seven with a victory over a game Liz Carmouche at UFC 157 back in February. From there, the Olympic bronze medallist was appointed as one of the coaches on the next season of The Ultimate Fighter, where she’ll lead a co-ed collection of hopefuls.
Opposing her will be Cat Zingano, who collected a come-from-behind third-round stoppage win over Miesha Tate to earn the coaching position on TUF and a shot at Rousey and the title once the show runs its course. Sara McMann made it three fights and three finishes for the females in the UFC with a TKO win over Sheila Gaff at UFC 159.
While Zingano and McMann were not part of the Strikeforce roster prior to their arrival in the UFC, the division they call home was, and they wouldn’t be fighting in the Octagon if not for the breakthrough female star of that promotion, and the UFC’s decision to bring the women’s 135-pound weight class into the fold.
Though most people already knew Gilbert Melendez was one of the top lightweights in the world, the long-reigning Strikeforce champion came within one round on one scorecard of becoming the undisputed best lightweight in the sport. “El Nino” fought tooth-and-nail with Benson Henderson in his promotional debut on FOX, dropping a split decision that everyone agrees was one of the closest main events in recent memory.
There have been some Strikeforce arrivals that came up short – Caros Fodor, Nate Marquardt, Roger Bowling – and some like Luke Rockhold, Ronaldo (Jacare) Souza, and Tarec Saffiedine that have yet to make their debuts, but on the whole, the fighters from Strikeforce have been putting on a show since making their way to the biggest stage in the sport.
Whether it was a case of simply not getting enough credit for their success and performances under the Strikeforce banner or fighting with a chip on their collective shoulders now that they’re taking on “the best in the world” every time out, whatever is motivating these men and women is clearly working.
Two years ago when the WEC lightweights came into the UFC, few expected them to make a serious impact in the 155-pound ranks. After all, if they were really that good, they would have been in the UFC all along, right? Wrong.
That group now boasts the UFC lightweight champion, two perennial contenders in Anthony Pettis and Donald Cerrone, and a handful of tough outs in the middle of the weight class, showing how wrong we were back then.
Now the Strikeforce arrivals are doing the same – delivering exciting and impressive performances nearly every time they step into the cage, proving they’re more than just the new kids on the block.
They’re the biggest story of the year so far, and that probably isn’t going to change over the next eight months either