For nearly two years now, fight fans and critics have been pondering and predicting how the marquee talent from Strikeforce would match-up in the respective divisions in the UFC.
We’ve openly wondered if Gilbert Melendez would prove himself to be the top lightweight in the world, questioned how unbeaten talent Daniel Cormier would stack up in either of his two possible destinations once the end of the line in Strikeforce arrived, and tried to figure out where middleweight champ Luke Rockhold would fit amongst the likes of Michael Bisping, Yushin Okami, and Chris Weidman as well.
Heading into the final event in the company’s history on Saturday night in Oklahoma City, co-main event competitor Cormier and the aforementioned champions who are absent from the card due to injuries continue to be the focus of those “how will they do?” conversation.
One name that feels conspicuously absent from the discussions is the event’s headlining act, welterweight champion Nate Marquardt.
Maybe it’s because he endured a one-year hiatus following his sudden and dramatic departure from the UFC in June 2011.
Maybe it’s because we think we know all there is to know about Marquardt from his six-year, 14-fight stint as a perennial contender in the middleweight ranks, where he compiled a 10-4 record with wins over the likes of Demian Maia, Rousimar Palhares, and Martin Kampmann.
Maybe it’s because his only fight under the Strikeforce banner came last July against talented, but under-appreciated contender Tyron Woodley, long after Nick Diaz departed and took any interest people had in the welterweight division with him.
Whatever the explanation may be, it’s a mistake.
Marquardt looked like a force of nature during his Strikeforce debut, a bout that was also his debut in the welterweight division, and his first live action in roughly 16 months. While Woodley had his moments, the 33-year-old former “King of Pancrase” showed a potent mix of power and speed in his new division of choice, putting away the previously unbeaten University of Missouri wrestling standout with a four-punch chain of strikes reminiscent of Street Fighter II early in the fourth round.
Saturday night, Marquardt makes his sophomore appearance under the Strikeforce banner opposite another solid, but somewhat undervalued opponent, Belgian striking technician Tarec (Sponge) Saffiedine. While the Team Quest-trained Saffiedine has won six of his last seven, and shown sniper-like accuracy in earning three straight wins over Scott Smith, Tyler Stinson, and Roger Bowling, he’s taking a big step up in competition to share the cage with Marquardt, and could end up being the latest addition to the former UFC middleweight title contender’s personal highlight reel.
The six-foot tall Marquardt was a specimen during his days as a perennial contender in the 185-pound ranks, and though he shed some muscle, “Nate the Great” remains an imposing figure now that he’s relocated to the welterweight division. But it’s not just his stature that will make him a force in the 170-pound weight class once Strikeforce shutters their doors and the cream of the crop descends on the UFC.
Even during his initial run in the UFC, Marquardt was an impressive combination of size, power, speed, and ability. Three of his four losses in the Octagon came to the division’s elite — Anderson Silva, Chael Sonnen, and Yushin Okami — while the fourth, a June 2008 split decision loss to Thales Leites, came after Marquardt was docked two points for a pair of in-fight infractions.
In his debut appearance as a welterweight, he showed that those assets made the move down the scale with him, and appeared quicker and more aggressive than he had during his final few appearances in the Octagon.
While Saffiedine is capable of pulling off the upset and drastically reducing Marquardt’s stock coming out of Saturday’s event, the more likely scenario is that the 32-10-2 veteran retains his title, and heads to the UFC as a darkhorse contender in one of the company’s most talent-rich divisions.
And when he arrives, Marquardt should fit in just fine, and could very well find himself in the title picture by this time next year.
The welterweight ranks have changed since Marquardt first intended to join them following his UFC 128 win over Dan Miller. Though veterans like Jon Fitch and Josh Koscheck remain in the upper tier, a changing of the guard has occurred, with fighters like Johny Hendricks, Carlos Condit, Rory MacDonald, and Jake Ellenberger all positioning themselves in the thick of the championship chase.
Those four will all step into the cage at UFC 158 in Montreal this coming March, and the victorious parties could certainly be potential adversaries for Marquardt upon his arrival. He deserves to be in that group of elite competitors, even if the natural inclination of fans and critics is to want to hold him back because of his relative lack of experience in the division and having faced non-UFC competition.
Sometimes it’s not about where you fought or whom you fought; it’s about how impressive you looked, and there is no denying Marquardt looked great in his welterweight debut. Should he put forth a comparable effort on Saturday night to dispatch Saffiedine and defend his title, he should arrive in the UFC welterweight division as a legitimate title contender, and no more than a win or two away from challenging for the belt.
It’s taken 18 months longer than he expected, but Nate Marquardt is on the verge of being an impact player in the UFC welterweight division, and he shouldn’t be overlooked or dismissed once he finally arrives.