It may not have been the biggest fight card to ever hit the Rose City, but Portland got a taste of some surprisingly strong MMA action with Saturday night’s Strikeforce: Rockhold vs. Kennedy event. Now that the belts have been handed out and the cuts sewn shut, who are our biggest winners, losers, and everything in between? I’m so glad you asked.
Biggest Winner: Nate Marquardt
After more than a year out of action, he came back to the cage and knocked out an undefeated up-and-comer to claim the Strikeforce welterweight title. And just like that, Nate the Great is back in the conversation. When last we saw him, he was a small-ish middleweight out-pointing Dan Miller in the UFC. Now he’s a powerhouse of a welterweight with finishing power and the disposition to use it. He looked spectacular as he put away Tyron Woodley with elbows and uppercuts. Maybe he even looked a little too spectacular for a guy who, this time last year, was telling everyone that he suffered from chronically low testosterone levels. If what we saw on Saturday night was Marquardt performing at his natural hormone levels, it’s hard to imagine that he could have ever really been as crippled by testosterone deficiency as he once claimed. It’s also hard not to wonder how many big fights he’ll need to win before his post-TRT career drowns out the controversy that came before it, and whether Strikeforce is capable of supplying him with enough serious contenders to make that possible. If he keeps performing like he did on Saturday, he may cut through the roster faster than Strikeforce can replenish it.
Biggest Loser: Tim Kennedy
He’s one of MMA’s true good guys, so it hurts to admit this, but he might have just seen his last best chance at a major title evaporate in excruciating fashion. I’m not sure if Kennedy really expected to hear his name called when that fight went to the judges. He clearly lost at least three of the five rounds, if not more, and he never displayed a real sense of urgency in the later rounds. The look on his face as the decision was announced seemed to suggest that he thought he got robbed, but that’s becoming a less convincing look the more Kennedy uses it. In his first Strikeforce title fight with "Jacare" Souza, okay, he could make that case. But not here. If Kennedy didn’t know he was down on points, he should have. He also should have known that when you lose two title fights in two years, and when you’re as vocal and as honest about your dissatisfaction with your employer as he’s been lately (not without cause, but still), it might not play well for you in the end. Kennedy needed to win that fight. Failing that, he needed to at least look like he knew how badly he needed to win that fight. Instead, he spent too much time playing catch-up, hanging back and waiting for Rockhold to go first. He had openings here and there, but Rockhold closed them quickly and Kennedy continued to fight as if he had an infinite number of rounds to work with. If that were true, Kennedy the Cardio Machine might be champ right now. But isn’t, so he’s not.
Best Prospect/Best Public Plea: Lorenz Larkin
Here’s the rare situation where a drop in weight might have been precisely what was needed. After being manhandled by Mo Lawal at light heavyweight, Larkin dropped to middleweight and looked great in a decision win over Robbie Lawler. He mixed it up well on the feet, shoved Lawler around some when they tied up or battled on the mat, and even landed several hard shots that might have polished off lesser 185-pounders. Even better, he made good use of his post-fight interview time, getting down on his knees and begging UFC president Dana White to institute the UFC’s bonus system for Strikeforce events. And why not? As long as Zuffa is going to try and sell us on the notion that Strikeforce is not a second-tier promotion, and as long as it’s going to lock down great fighters like Gilbert Melendez and refuse to let them move to the UFC, why shouldn’t these competitors get the same financial incentives to excite and entertain that we see in the UFC? Larkin made the case forcefully, yet without being a jerk about it, reminding the UFC prez that "we’re your family too." You have to admit that he has a point. Even if Zuffa so often treats the Strikeforce fighters like step-children who need only be tolerated a little while longer.
Most in Need of a Change of Scenery: Luke Rockhold
The victory over Kennedy didn’t provide much material for his highlight reel, but that’s almost to be expected. He still notched a fairly clear-cut decision, which is more than you can say for most of Kennedy’s opponents. The question for Rockhold is, as it is for all Strikeforce champs, now what? Sure, he could rematch Souza, but don’t expect that fight to set many hearts aflame. Strikeforce could also promote a middleweight from further down the food chain to come up and get a mostly unearned shot, but that probably won’t make Rockhold happy. Then there’s the persistent pipe dream that some stalled out middleweight from the UFC will come over to Strikeforce and make things interesting. Of those possibilities, the Souza option is probably the likeliest, and also the least compelling. Every Strikeforce champ who holds onto a belt for any length of time has this to look forward to. There just isn’t enough fresh blood to prevent them from quickly dipping into reruns, and with good reason. If you were an up-and-coming fighter, watching from a distance as Strikeforce fighters are trapped and treated like an afterthought, would you want to sign on for it? Or would you rather wait for a shot in the UFC, maybe even Bellator, since that allows at least the hope of moving on to the big show some day? You can’t tell me that if Rockhold were a free agent right now, watching this championship dilemma befall someone other than himself, he’d be eager to join the Strikeforce family. Now that he's already a member, all he can do is make the most of it.
So Close, Yet So Far: Tyron Woodley
His inexperience showed at times, but so did his raw ability. When he had Marquardt hurt, he failed to capitalize. When Marquardt had him hurt, he betrayed it just a little too much, growing tentative and reactive as he waited for something bad to happen. He still proved that he has some punching power to go along with his wrestling skills, and he also showed that he can take some punishment and come back with some of his own. It was probably the most exciting fight of his young career, even if he came out on the wrong end of it. As first losses go, this might have been the best kind to suffer through. Yes, he got knocked out, but he also gained some valuable cage time against a savvy vet. If he takes the right lessons from it, there’s no reason to think he won’t emerge better for having been through it.
Too Tough For His Own Good: Keith Jardine
Roger Gracie took him down, cut him open, but couldn’t put him away. Whether you see that as a consequence of Jardine’s heart or Gracie’s inexperience is up to you, but it seems obvious that Jardine is getting by on more toughness than skill these days. He’s good enough to hang around and take a beating against mid-level opposition, but the best career trajectory he can hope for at this point is a line that falls gradually rather than plummeting straight down. His best years are clearly behind him, so what’s he in it for? Money? A lack of better ideas? Neither is a particularly good reason to keep getting your skull thumped and your face sliced open, especially considering that he’s now pulling in Strikeforce cash rather than UFC paychecks. At the same time, when you see him still there in the third round, still swinging away with whatever he’s got left, it’s hard to tell him that he has to go home. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is more scar tissue than anything else. You’d like to see him retire of his own volition, but then you look around and see how few of his contemporaries possessed the necessary self-awareness to do the same. We care enough about the stars of this sport to sit them down when it’s time, but what about fighters like Jardine? He hasn’t beaten a name opponent in almost four years, and yet he’s got just enough grit and ability to hang around. It would almost be better if he went the Chuck Liddell route and turned into knockout bait all at once. At least then we’d know exactly what we were looking at. This slow, persistent decline of a fighter who never made the big money even on his biggest nights seems so much more painful to watch, and it’s not even over yet.