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Seven Ways of Looking at Strikeforce: Melendez vs. Masvidal

Gilbert MelendezThe grand Strikeforce experiment will continue, whether fighters like it or not. Zuffa's other organization takes its next step tonight in San Diego with Strikeforce: Melendez vs. Masvidal, and it's already been a whirlwind week for the company that Scott Coker built. Below, a few questions, concerns, and comments heading into Saturday night's event on Showtime.

I. That silence you hear? Yeah, that's one reason why guys like Gilbert Melendez can't wait to get out of Strikeforce and into the UFC. Fighters may not care how many articles get written about them in the lead-up to a fight, but they are still risking their health and whatever remains of their good looks in the cage on fight night, so they would prefer if people gave a damn. When it comes to Strikeforce these days, not many do. Maybe that's why Melendez still talks openly about how much he'd like to move to the UFC, trying to paint this title defense against Jorge Masvidal as if it's the last perfunctory step in the job application process for a UFC lightweight. Can you blame him? There's no buzz for Saturday night's event -- not among media or fans. Dana White can "make it right" for Melendez by cutting him a check to compensate him for being stuck in Strikeforce, but he can't make people care.

II. Money might help to make it right, but only for so long.
Sure, Melendez's desire to get to the UFC is partially motivated by financial concerns, and that's the part White can help with. But don't underestimate the role of ego here. Melendez wants to get paid, but he also wants to know that he's testing himself against the best in the world, and on the biggest stage in the sport. He's not getting the chance to do that right now, and he knows it. Nothing against Masvidal, but a win over him doesn't do much to boost Melendez's status in the lightweight rankings. It's a fight where he has far more to lose than gain, in other words. The longer he stays in Strikeforce, the more of those he's likely to have.

III. So what is Strikeforce, now that it's not going away any time soon?
Stephen Espinoza of Showtime Sports insisted on this week's media call that "Strikeforce is not a secondary brand. ...This is a top-tier organization." If that were even close to true, however, you probably wouldn't need to say it. People would just look at the fighters and the fights, and then they'd know. But what we see when we look at Strikeforce is an organization with a few very good fighters and a diminishing cast of also-rans to match them up against. It's true that Melendez isn't a second-tier fighter, but what does it matter if Strikeforce can't find first-tier opponents for him? It's like White has said about the UFC for years, usually when he wants to disparage the accomplishments of someone like Fedor Emelianenko: the UFC is the place where the best fight the best several times a year. Strikeforce might have some great champions, but they aren't fighting the best right now. Melendez could make his case as one of the world's best lightweights, but Jorge Masvidal can't. Luke Rockhold is an excellent middleweight, but Keith Jardine isn't a middleweight at all yet, much less a top contender in the division. It would be utterly unthinkable for Jardine to get a crack at Anderson Silva's middleweight title. But in Strikeforce? Sure, why not. That probably tells us everything we need to know about whether this is a top-tier organization.

IV. Cris "Cyborg" Santos had to wait a year and a half to get another fight in Strikeforce. If she rolls right over Hiroko Yamanaka the way most people are expecting her to, how long will she have to wait for the next one? The answer to that question probably depends on whether she could realistically cut to 135 pounds or not. There simply aren't enough opponents to keep her on a steady diet of challengers at 145 pounds, but you take one look at her frame and it's hard to see where the excess pounds would come from. At the same time, if she stays put she's not going to have much to do.

V. For a guy who hasn't lost in nearly two years, Gegard Mousasi sure needs a win in a bad way.
He's 3-0-1 since dropping the title to Mo Lawal, but all three of those victories have come in Dream, against fairly unimpressive competition. He should have stomped an aging journeyman like Jardine, but instead ended up with a disappointing draw. If Mousasi is going to live up to his initial promise, he needs to start putting some wins together against opponents who matter. Beating up-and-comer Ovince St. Preux would be a good start, but it would only be a start. That's what makes this such a tough fight for Mousasi. He has to win. OSP just needs to look good and stay competitive.

VI. Now that Zuffa runs Strikeforce, is KJ Noons in danger of getting cut if he loses his third straight fight?
It's hard to believe that the guy who was Nick Diaz's nemesis and Gilbert Melendez's would-be challenger now finds himself on a two-fight losing streak. In fairness, the first was a decision loss to Diaz, and there's no shame in that -- especially when you're fighting out of your natural weight class to begin with. But then Noons dropped a decision to Masvidal in a bout he was favored in, so he now finds himself in a must-win situation against Billy Evangelista. Or does he? While the UFC might not have much use for serial losers, Strikeforce needs anyone with a name and even a modicum of drawing power. Noons still has both, so maybe that would be enough to justify holding on to him even if he loses. At least that's one way Strikeforce's peculiar status could actually work for fighters rather than against them.

VII. Justin Wilcox and Roger Bowling make you wonder: is it better to star on Challengers, or fight in the shadows of the Strikeforce prelims? For the last few years Strikeforce has used the Challengers shows to highlight up-and-comers (and occasionally down-and-outers), while using the prelims of its other events to sell a few tickets with local draws. But now that Challengers is disappearing, it seems as though guys like Wilcox and Bowling will get stuck on Strikeforce prelims instead, which seems both good and bad. For one thing, Challengers wasn't ever a ratings winner, and the association had a certain negative connotation, like being on the JV squad. On the other hand, at least Challengers fights were on TV. At least they were the show, rather than the unaired show before the show. They might have thought they were playing to a tiny audience before, but now they're really knocking down trees in a lonely forest. If you put on a great fight and nobody sees it, does it really make a sound?