The Best of Strikeforce Part 1: The Fighters

On Saturday night, one of the most prominent MMA organizations in the world will stage its final event. After a seven year run that spanned 63 MMA events, Strikeforce is set to fold after Saturday's card. What started as a local promotion in San Jose California grew to become a force in the MMA scene, and saw some of the greatest fighters in the history of the sport step inside its six sided cage.

In the upcoming week which leads up to the final Strikeforce event, I will look back at the best of the best in the promotions history, counting down the best fighters, fights, and iconic moments. I'll start with the top ten fighters in Strikeforce history.

Let me start by saying that the criteria used for this list is not only achievement in the Strikeforce cage, but how influential they were to the promotions success. For example, Fedor Emelianenko, while most would agree he had the greatest career of any fighter who stepped in the Strikeforce cage, went 1-3 in Strikeforce, so he won't be on the list.

10. Daniel Cormier

This was a pretty tough spot for me to fill, because I was going back and forth between Alistair Overeem, Fabricio Werdum, and Cormier, who eventually got my pick. While any of these three would be a suitable choice, I went with Cormier for the following reasons. While Overeem fought sporadically in Strikeforce and was never quite committed to the promotion, and while Werdum had a solid run but did lose, Cormier was all Strikeforce from the day he started his career to the time the promotion ended. Not only that, but he never lost, and grew from an Olympic level wrestler making his MMA debut to a top five heavyweight in MMA that many are ready to see challenge for the UFC heavyweight title, all without having fought a single fight in the UFC. That's saying something about his time in Strikeforce. Cormier's first career MMA fight was in the Strikeforce Challengers series, and in total he went 7-0 in the promotion, winning the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix by defeating Josh Barnett in the finals.

9. Luke Rockhold

The man who will retire the Strikeforce middleweight title earns the number nine spot on my list. Like Cormier, Luke Rockhold started in Strikeforce as a nobody and ended his time in the promotion as a champion and someone who most believe has a real chance at making a big splash in the UFC. In his third pro MMA fight, Rockhold made his Strikeforce debut in 2008 on the second Strikeforce: Young Guns card, and never fought for another promotion again. He would go 9-0 in Strikeforce and while much of that time was spent on the undercards or on the Strikeforce: Challengers series, he made a huge statement when he won the middleweight title from top five ranked Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza in his first fight on a major card. Consecutive title defenses over Keith Jardine and Tim Kennedy have lead many to believe that Rockhold is one of the men along with the likes of Chris Weidman that will carry the UFC middleweight division in the post Anderson Silva-era.

8. Frank Shamrock

Frank Shamrock did not find the success of the previous two names on the list, but his influence on the success of Strikeforce may be greater than just about anyone. Shamrock came out of a three year retirement to fight in the main event of the very first Strikeforce card in March of 2006. Not only was this event historic for being the first Strikeforce card, but it was the first ever regulated MMA event in the state of California, taking place in what would become the home base for Strikeforce, the H.P. Pavilion in San Jose. No one really believed at the time that his opponent, Cesar Gracie, had any chance at defeating him, but the draw of the Shamrock vs. Gracie rivalry was enough to make the first ever Strikeforce event a massive success. In fact the event set a then record for largest attendance in North American MMA history, with over 18,000 fans packing the arena. Shamrock would go on to easily knock out Gracie in twenty seconds, and Strikeforce was off and running. In his next fight in Strikeforce, Shamrock would defeat Phil Baroni to win the inaugural Strikeforce middleweight title. Shamrock would lose that title to Cung Le in what was the biggest fight in Strikeforce history at that time, drawing another huge crowd in San Jose. The fight was exciting and still stands as one of the best in the promotions history. When Strikeforce absorbed Elite XC and debuted on Showtime, it was Shamrock who was again chosen to headline the history making event. He lost to Nick Diaz, in the fight that arguably made Diaz a star in North America. Finishing 2-2 in Strikeforce and serving as a commentator for the rest of their events, Frank Shamrock is arguably the most influential fighter in Strikeforce's success.

7. Cung Le

If one argues that Shamrock isn't the most important figure in Strikeforce history, the only other name to consider would have to be Cung Le. No fighter that stepped in the Strikeforce cage was as popular in San Jose as Cung Le. Le and his mother came to San Jose from Saigon under extreme circumstances during the Vietnam War. Learning traditional martial arts at a young age, Le became a star in the San Jose circuit long before Strikeforce ever started promoting MMA. After winning championships in both Kickboxing and Sanshou, Le made his MMA debut at the inaugural Strikeforce event in 2006, and was immediately a star in the San Jose area. He went 5-0 to start his career, with all fights taking place in San Jose and all ending by some form of knockout. This lead to the aforementioned showdown with Shamrock, whom Le defeated to win the Strikeforce title. A surging film career lead Le away from the martial arts, and when he finally returned almost two years after winning the title he had since vacated, he was defeated in one of the most stunning comebacks ever by Scott Smith. Le would avenge that loss by TKO'ing Smith, and has since not only landed bigger movie roles, but gone 2-1 in the UFC at the ripe age of 40. With a flashy style that incorporates the traditional martial arts unlike any other and one of the most likable personalities in all of professional sports, Le may be the biggest Mixed Martial Arts star in the state of California.

6. Dan Henderson

Dan Henderson didn't make his name in Strikeforce like Rockhold and Cormier. He didn't help build the promotion like Shamrock and Le. But just like he did in every other promotion he fought for, Dan Henderson created some of the best moments in the organizations history in the time he spent there. After knocking out Michael Bisping in the most prolific fight of his career at UFC 100, Henderson signed with Strikeforce after contract disputes lead to a falling out with the UFC. This was historic as Henderson was the first major star to leave the UFC for the six sided cage, which in some ways legitimized Strikeforce a major player in MMA. His first fight in the promotion was a dud though, as he lost a one sided decision to Jake Shields in a fight for Shield's middleweight title. Many thought that his performance in the fight was a sign that Strikeforce hadn't got all they had bargained for when they signed Hendo, but boy where they wrong. Henderson went on a three fight win streak that saw him score three huge knockouts in main event fights. He first KO'd Renato Sobral, and then starched Rafael "Feijao" Cavalcante to win the promotions light heavyweight title. However it wasn't until Henderson went all the way up to heavyweight in July 2011 to fight the legendary Fedor Emelianenko that he truly solidified his place amongst the greatest in MMA history. Henderson, a natural middleweight, came back from early trouble to knock out the greatest heavyweight of all time in the first round. It was arguably the crowning achievement in Henderson's career, and one of the greatest moments in Strikeforce history.

5. Jake Shields

Hardcore fans always knew that Jake Shields was one of the best welterweight fighters in the world when he first stepped in the Strikeforce cage in June 2009. What no one knew was that he could translate that success in the middleweight division. When Shields was matched with then top ranked middleweight Robbie Lawler in a special 182 pound main event, most thought Lawler's wrestling would neutralize Shield's takedowns, and from there it would be a slaughter on the feet. Shields proved everyone wrong, submitting Lawler with a guillotine choke in the first round. Shields was then matched with Jason "Mayhem" Miller in a matchup for the vacant middleweight title. The fight aired live on CBS to a huge television audience, and while most criticized Shields for not fighting the most exciting fight, it was a classic Shields performance, as he utilized superior grappling to get a win in a competitive but decisive bout. Shields capped his Strikeforce run by defeating Dan Henderson to defend his title in the main event of the final Strikeforce event on CBS. Although he was rocked early by Henderson's power, Shields showed great resolve by coming back and completely dominating one of the all time greats for the final four rounds to win a decision. While guys like Shamrock and Le were the drawing cards, Shields was really one of the first Strikeforce fighters to rank amongst the top UFC fighters in the divisional rankings.

4. Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos

Cristiane Venancio, or Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos as she was known before splitting with her husband Evangelista Santos, precedes Ronda Rousey as the first truly dominant female fighter in MMA. After losing her pro debut, she would win six straight, leading her to a Strikeforce debut in 2009. She smashed highly ranked Hitomi Akano, which set up the biggest fight in women's MMA history, a showdown with superstar Gina Carano. The fight made history as the first ever women's fight to headline a major MMA card ever, and drew a massive number on Showtime, which still ranks among the best Strikeforce ever did on the network. In the fight itself, Cyborg stopped Carano in the first round of a rather one sided fight, winning the Strikeforce women's featherweight title and establishing herself as the greatest women's fighter in MMA history at that point. Although she would never fight in a main event again, she would defend her title three more times, finishing Marloes Coenen, Jay Finney, and Hiroko Yamanaka, although the win over Yamanaka was turned to a no contest when Cyborg tested positive for a PED. Some may remember her only for the steroid controversy, but you can't take away from Cyborg the dominant wins she scored without testing positive for anything, including the win over Carano which will live in MMA fame forever. When remembering the legacy of Strikeforce, you can't deny that Cyborg was one of the most dominant fighters to ever fight in the promotion.

3. Ronda Rousey

After Gina Carano left MMA for a career in the movies, many people thought women's MMA would fade into obscurity. Sure, there were high level talents like Sarah Kauffman, Marloes Coenen, Miesha Tate, and Cristiane Cyborg who ruled over them all, but none of these women brought attention to WMMA like Carano did. Then along came Ronda Rousey, an Olympic judo bronze medalist who took the ball that Carano left and ran with it. She became such a big star and was so dominant that the UFC, after twenty years of operation will finally stage a women's fight, and it's solely because of Ronda Rousey. The fact that she is has found so much fame and success in only six pro fights, with only two of those fights coming on a stage of any real significance is groundbreaking. Rousey won three amateur fights and her first two pro fights all in less than a minute, and all by armbar. She was then signed by Strikeforce and won two fights in the Strikeforce: Challengers, by armbar, in less than a minute. At 4-0, Rousey was then positioned to challenge Miesha Tate for the women's bantamweight title, and for the first time since Carano vs. Cyborg, the women were set to headline the card. Many didn't think Rousey was a legitimate contender, seeing as how she had only fought four times as a professional, while there were other contenders out there with far more experience, like Sarah Kauffman. Regardless of what the doubters thought, there was no question that the fight was drawing serious interest. The trash talk between the two became so heated that the fight was without question the biggest in WMMA since Carano-Cyborg three years prior. When the two got in the cage, Rousey proved that she was without question the best female fighter in MMA, dominating the number one ranked Tate and submitting her by armbar in the first round. Rousey's popularity soared, as her combination of good looks, charismatic personality and domination in the cage made her one of the biggest stars in the game. She was featured on the cover of ESPN Magazine the Body Issue, and she was the first ever MMA fighter to get a solo feature in Sports Illustrated. In her final Strikeforce fight, she submitted top ranked Sarah Kauffman by armbar in less than one minute. Rousey is now ready to make history in February, headlining UFC 157 in the first ever women's fight in the octagon. No matter how she fares in the UFC, one thing is for certain. Rousey will always be remembered for her unrivaled streak of incredible first round armbar wins in Strikeforce and mainstream popularity that took WMMA to places some thought it would never go.

2. Nick Diaz

Nick Diaz was always the guy you could turn to for guaranteed action. The kid who debuted in the UFC at the young age of 20 had a reputation for being the Stockton bad boy, someone who didn't care what people thought of him and wouldn't mind telling people just that. This anti-hero type personality mixed with one of the most exciting styles in MMA garnered Diaz a legion of fans that he probably wasn't even trying to make. One thing his early career lacked though was consistency. Diaz would win a couple big fights, and then lose a bigger one, and at one point lost three straight in the UFC. In 2009, Diaz was riding a three fight win streak and was placed in the main event of the first ever Strikeforce card on Showtime against Frank Shamrock. Diaz was put in a position to have a star making performance, and he made the most of it, stopping Shamrock in brutal fashion in the second round. It was truly a coming out party for Diaz, who has been considered a main eventer and top draw ever since. Diaz won his next six fights in a row, with five of them in the Strikeforce cage, and all but one by way of stoppage. In the process, Diaz won the Strikeforce welterweight title by defeating then DREAM champion Marius Zaromskis, who was considered one of the most dangerous welterweights in MMA at that time. He defended his title three more times before being signed by the UFC, where he immediately proved that the Strikeforce title was legitimate by smashing BJ Penn in the main event of UFC 137. Although most of the top welterweight fighters were signed to the UFC when Diaz was champion in Strikeforce, his aggressive style and classic fights in the six sided cage made his run in Strikeforce one of the most memorable in the history of the promotion. By the time he signed with the UFC, Diaz was 6-0 in Strikeforce, with wins over Shamrock, Scott Smith, Zaromskis, K.J. Noons, Evangelista Santos, and Paul Daley. Although there were others in the organization who fought better opposition in their weight class, Diaz was the front man in Strikeforce during his two year run there. With a record of 6-0, with five of those wins in the main event and three successful title defenses, Nick Diaz earns the number two spot on the list.

1. Gilbert Melendez

When I was trying to come up with who would rank in what spot on this list, there was no doubt in my mind from the start that Gilbert Melendez was going to be number one. He may as well be nicknamed "Mr. Strikeforce", because not a single fighter spent more time in Strikeforce with as much sustained success as "El Nino". Being a bay area fighter himself, Melendez has been attached to Strikeforce since its inception in 2006, when he was only 23 years old. He in fact fought on that first card headlined by Shamrock vs. his head trainer, Cesar Gracie. He would win that night, improving his record to 9-0, and in his next fight defeated Clay Guida in June 2006 to become the Strikeforce lightweight champion. He won his next three fights, two in Japan's Pride Fighting Championships, and one in Strikeforce, before losing for the first time to Mitsuhiro Ishida in Japan. Melendez would rebound by defending his Strikeforce title for the first time, before losing the belt in a classic fight to Josh Thompson in June 2008. It would be the last fight of his for almost a year's time, and when he returned he did so to a much different Strikeforce than the one he left. Instead of fighting on HDNet, he would now be fighting on premium cable powerhouse Showtime, as the regional based promotion he started off with was now set to debut on a major American cable station. Melendez was reinvigorated, and went on a tear through the lightweight ranks over the next four years. On that first Showtime card Melendez knocked out Rodrigo Damm to win the interim Strikeforce lightweight title. He then avenged his first pro loss to Ishida by stopping him with strikes on the historic Carano-Cyborg card. In his next bout Melendez avenged the only other career loss, defeating Josh Thompson to win back the undisputed title. Melendez finished out his Strikeforce run by defending that title four times, defeating Shinya Aoki on CBS, knocking out Tatsuya Kawajiri, and winning decisions over Jorge Masvidal and Josh Thompson in the pairs rubber match. Although he was never the star of the promotion that his teammate Nick Diaz was, he was only the main event twice out of eleven fights; Gilbert Melendez's success in Strikeforce is unmatched. Melendez is tied for the most career wins in Strikeforce at ten with Josh Thompson, for a total Strikeforce record of 10-1. He has the most successful title defenses in Strikeforce history with six, for a total Strikeforce title fight record of 8-1, with the one loss being avenged twice. Looking beyond just his record, no other fighter in MMA fought 99% of the prime years of their career to date in Strikeforce like Melendez did, and managed to earn a ranking in the top three of most prominent MMA rankings. At a time when almost every top ranked fighter was/is signed to the UFC, the fact that Melendez fought exclusively in Strikeforce during his prime and was ranked as high as number two in some MMA rankings speaks to the level of work he did in the San Jose based promotion. For all his achievement in the six sided cage, I rank Gilbert Melendez as the number one fighter in Strikeforce history.

Published by Jeff Zanatta - Sun, 6 Jan 2013 19:18

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