Gilbert Melendez stands to gain from a move to the UFC. | Dave Mandel
The idea of the crossover fight has long proven seductive for the mixed martial arts fan, as countless minutes have been devoted to discussing such matters around the proverbial water cooler. Never was that kind of banter more prevalent than when the Pride Fighting Championships-Ultimate Fighting Championship rivalry was at its height.
When UFC parent company Zuffa purchased Pride in 2007, some fantasy matchups became realities, most notably the title unification bout between Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Dan Henderson at UFC 75 and the long-sought Chuck Liddell-Wanderlei Silva showdown at UFC 79. However, contract disputes kept a number of Pride stars, including Fedor Emelianenko, from planting their flags inside the Octagon.
With the news this week that Strikeforce will merge with the UFC after holding one final event on Jan. 12, armchair crossover matchmakers have sprung into action yet again. Here are 10 potential Strikeforce vs. UFC matchups that could get the blood pumping:
Gilbert Melendez vs. Benson Henderson: No man figures to benefit more from the UFC-Strikeforce merger than Melendez, a perennial Top 10 lightweight who has been a big fish in a small pond for years. On a seven-fight winning streak, the Strikeforce lightweight champion will put his title on the line against the rugged and experienced Pat Healy on Jan. 12 before finally touching down in the Octagon. Henderson will defend the UFC’s 155-pound crown on Dec. 8, when he toes the line against “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 5 winner and longtime Melendez teammate Nate Diaz.
Luke Rockhold vs. Chris Weidman: They are clearly the top two young middleweights in the sport. Based at the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif., Rockhold will defend his Strikeforce championship against the undefeated Lorenz Larkin before relocating to the UFC. The 28-year-old has won nine consecutive fights, finishing seven of them inside one round. The unbeaten Weidman has been nothing short of sensational since joining the UFC in March 2011. Five consecutive wins have followed, placing the Serra-Longo Fight Team thoroughbred on the fast track to stardom. Weidman will collide with Tim Boetsch at UFC 155 on Dec. 29.
Brian Stann vs. Tim Kennedy: No one in MMA carries the torch of the United States military quite like these two. Stann, a decorated Marine who was awarded the Silver Star, has emerged as one of the world’s top middleweights since moving down from 205 pounds in 2010. The 32-year-old former WEC champion owns key wins against Chris Leben, Jorge Santiago and Alessio Sakara. A proud member of the Army Special Forces, Kennedy has twice fought for promotional gold in Strikeforce. The 33-year-old has posted 14 wins in his last 17 appearances.
Josh Barnett vs. Frank Mir: They entered the Ultimate Fighting Championship less than a year apart more than a decade ago, but their paths have never crossed inside the cage. Barnett and Mir have since captured and lost UFC gold, leaving fans to wonder what a matchup between them might look like. Perhaps the answer to that question could come soon. Mir withdrew from a Nov. 3 appearance in Strikeforce with an injury, and Barnett has not competed since May.
Ronaldo Souza vs. Rousimar Palhares: For many, these two Brazilians rank 1-2 on a list of the sport’s most feared submission grappler. Souza enhanced his profile in Strikeforce, pairing middleweight gold with multiple Brazilian jiu-jitsu world championships. The 32-year-old “Jacare” has won six of his last seven fights, finishing four opponents in that span. The gifted but volatile Palhares has injured more than one foe with his vast assortment of leg locks. “Toquinho” will tackle former Bellator Fighting Championships titleholder Hector Lombard at UFC on FX 6 on Dec. 14.
Nate Marquardt vs. Nick Diaz: The once-disgraced Marquardt has enjoyed a resurgence under the Strikeforce banner, capturing the promotion’s welterweight championship with a riveting fourth-round knockout against Tyron Woodley in July. His path to the 170-pound title was cleared in part by Diaz, who vacated the championship when he returned to the UFC. Marquardt will defend the belt against Team Quest’s Tarec Saffiedine on Jan. 12. Diaz will be eligible for reinstatement from a year-long suspension in February.
Robbie Lawler vs. Chris Leben: Mirror images of one another, they have carved out their respective niches through a willingness to brawl, oftentimes to their detriment. Lawler has hit the skids of late, with five defeats in his last eight outings. However, his 16 knockouts -- 11 of them inside one round -- remain a testament to his brutal punching power. Leben will return from a year-long absence on Dec. 29, when he confronts Karlos Vemola at UFC 155 in Las Vegas.
Gegard Mousasi vs. Mauricio Rua: One of the forgotten pieces of the Strikeforce puzzle, the 27-year-old Mousasi has not fought since he took a unanimous decision from Ovince St. Preux 11 months ago. The well-rounded former Dream and Strikeforce champion has tasted defeat only once in his past 22 bouts. Rua will try to clear a major hurdle on Dec. 8, when he squares off with surging Swede Alexander Gustafsson at UFC on Fox 5 in Seattle. Still viewed as one of the world’s premier 205-pound fighters, the 2006 Pride middleweight grand prix winner has not won back-to-back bouts in nearly four years.
Josh Thomson vs. Anthony Pettis: The oft-injured Thomson’s days as an elite lightweight may be over, but few can surpass him in terms of providing consistent entertainment value. “The Punk” remains one of only two men to defeat Melendez and pushed the Cesar Gracie protégé to the limit in their rubber match in May, losing a split decision. Thomson holds a 2-1 mark in the UFC but has not competed inside the Octagon since 2004. One of MMA’s most dynamic fighters, Pettis will be back in the cage on Jan. 26, when he battles Donald Cerrone at UFC on Fox 6.