Photo via Strikeforce
Before we get started, will someone pick up that ball? You know, the one Gilbert Melendez dropped last night?
If Dana White -- and Melendez himself considering his broad, sweeping post-fight challenge -- is to be believed, the Strikeforce lightweight champion is staying put and will likely serve as the new face of the promotion. Melendez is, after all, ranked as a top five 155-pounder and can serve as the anchor for a company looking to avoid being written off as a second-rate league.
If that is in fact the plan, someone in the Zuffa chain of command is going to get a stern talking to on Monday morning because it certainly didn't seem like "El Niño" was privy to it.
Whether Melendez is staying or leaving, last night's main event was extremely important for his career and he turned in a rather uninspired effort. He got the job done, defeating Jorge Masvidal via unanimous decision, however where was the seamless mixing of striking and grappling fans saw in his rematch with Josh Thomson? Where was the brutal ground and pound that took Tatsuya Kawajiri out?
Where was the Melendez that was supposed to take the UFC by storm?
Strikeforce is hurting for star power. It has already lost Alistair Overeem, whose defection to the UFC -- combined with an overall shallow talent pool sport-wide -- gave Zuffa all the reason it needed to cut the weight division from Strikeforce's ranks.
Also gone is Nick Diaz, the former welterweight champion. Here is a man any combat sports company -- be it mixed martial arts (MMA), boxing or pro wrestling -- could build its promotion around. Even Dan Henderson has returned to the Octagon after winning three out of four fights inside the Strikeforce cage. Already well-known thanks to his stint as a coach on The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) and his subsequent decapitation of Michael Bisping, "Hendo" brought that name recognition to San Jose with him but absconded back to Las Vegas with it just as quickly.
The void that the departure of those three men has created is prime to be filled by any number of Strikeforce's stars. New middleweight champion Luke Rockhold has youth and 12 pounds of gold helping him along that path while contender Tim Kennedy can play up his military background to gain more traction with fans.
But no fighter is better suited to become THE guy in Strikeforce than Melendez. Going into last night's bout against Jorge Masvidal, "El Niño" was already a two-time champion with two defenses to his name. An impressive win over "Gamebred" would have sealed the deal for Melendez in one of two ways.
Either he makes the jump to the UFC and puts his top five ranking to the test against lightweights like Ben Henderson, Gray Maynard, and champ Frankie Edgar or he sticks around in Strikeforce and uses his status as a top 155-pounder to help legitimize the rest of the roster while continuing to fatten his bank account.
Despite winning a rather one-sided decision, he was still taken to the limit -- and busted up -- by a fighter who barely registers as a top 25 lightweight. I don't know if that ranking correctly gauges Masvidal's talent; no one does. It's impossible for anyone to get a proper read on his skill level and compare it to the top fighters at 155 pounds as he's been fighting mid-tier talent so far.
In this situation, two lines of thinking arise but only one is given any serious thought. Either Masvidal is for real and last night -- despite losing -- would be looked back on as his coming out party or Melendez -- who couldn't finish off the guy who got upside down choked in Bellator -- just isn't that good.
I'm sure you can figure out which point of view prevails. As unfair as it may be -- to both Melendez and Masvidal alike -- a lot of fans are going to look at last night's performance and decide the Strikeforce champ isn't on par with the top flight of the Octagon.
Wins are important in the fight game; the most important part but perception comes in a close second. "El Niño" had the power to control public opinion with his performance. Friday night, Melendez was seen as possibly being the uncrowned number one lightweight in the world. He simply needed his chance to prove it. Sunday morning, he's the champion of a second-rate promotion who talks bigger than he bites.
Which is true?