Johnston on MMA: Strike-farce matchmaking

September 6, 2012, 10:32 PM

Some of the matchmaking in Strikeforce of late, at least with matchups involving their champions, has been a farce, a Strike-farce so to speak (apologies to fans of clever puns).

Don’t get me wrong, Strikeforce is a great organization; they more often than not put on very exciting shows and unquestionably have some of MMA’s top talent. But they must start giving their champions better matchups or they run the risk of having their champions look completely inferior to their Zuffa peers in the UFC.

The latest example of this is the organization matching their middleweight champion against Lorenz Larkin, who has only fought once at 185 pounds.

Larkin has done well in his young MMA career — he has 13 wins in four years, eight of them by TKO/KO — but he isn’t deserving of a title shot. Not yet. Sure, he is coming off a somewhat impressive unanimous decision win over Strikeforce staple Robbie Lawler in July in what was his middleweight debut. And technically he is unbeaten, something Strikeforce can use to market the fight.

Still, Lawler is his only notable win and in January he was brutally knocked out by Muhammed (King Mo) Lawal — even though the loss was later changed to a no-contest after Lawal tested positive for Drostanolone. Doesn’t it seem a bit disconcerting that Strikeforce is giving Larkin, who is on a forgettable one-fight win streak, a shot at Rockhold’s belt at this point?

The promotion got some flak earlier this year after matching up their lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez with gritty veteran Pat Healy (they fight on Sept. 29). Healy has won five in a row, eight of nine overall, and is one of the most underappreciated lightweights in MMA. Many hardcore fans are looking forward to the fight but very few mainstream fans are excited.

Perhaps one reason Strikeforce sets up these fights is to make their champions look good. The organization might figure Rockhold should beat Larkin and extend his impressive nine-fight win streak which means they can continue to brand him as a top-five middleweight. If his win streak grows, so will his stardom and that’s good for business.

But at a certain point the business of MMA should not outweigh the integrity of the sport.

A champion’s next opponent should always be the No. 1 contender in the division — barring injury or mitigating circumstances of course. (Does the UFC 151 fiasco ring a bell?) Rockhold should be fighting Ronaldo (Jacare) Souza because the Brazilian is clearly the top contender.

Jacare, the former champion, is coming off two straight impressive finishes — an arm-triangle submission over Bristol Marunde in March and a devastating 41-second KO of Derek Brunson in August.

Rockhold originally won his belt by defeating Jacare by unanimous decision in September 2011, but by no means was it a complete domination. Saying Jacare does not deserve a rematch, especially after two excellent stoppage wins, would be like saying Urijah Faber didn’t deserve a rematch against Dominick Cruz after their competitive five-round title bout at UFC 132 (okay, that rematch never took place but that’s only because Cruz got injured).

Before Jacare put Brunson to sleep with a beautiful counterpunch, Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker had said he thought if Jacare won in dominant fashion he would be in a position for a rematch. Coker echoed those sentiments after the fight as well but clearly it never came to fruition.

Now, Strikeforce could (and should) be trying to set up a Jacare vs. Roger Gracie No. 1 contender’s bout in what would be a battle between two grappling wizards. If that’s the case then the Rockhold-Larkin fight makes more sense in the big picture.

What this situation points to, though, could be a troubling fact for Strikforce. The divisions are simply top-heavy and just aren’t deep enough. Where the UFC has an abundance of contenders, Strikeforce struggles to find suitable opponents for their champions.

Headlining the Rockhold-Larkin card is Strikeforce Grand Prix champion Daniel Cormier taking on former UFC champion Frank Mir.

Fans are excited about this fight and maybe it’s a formula Strikeforce should begin to follow.

If there is no suitable, deserving No. 1 contender for a Strikeforce champion to fight then bring in a quality UFC contender. It will grow both brands and get fans more excited for Strikeforce events than they otherwise would be.

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