For now, everyone is keeping up a pretty good poker face.
Fresh off his victory over Jorge Masvidal on Saturday night, Gilbert Melendez maintains that he’s excited and proud to carry on as Strikeforce lightweight champion. Really, what did you expect him to say? Meanwhile, Zuffa brass is holding firm that so long as Strikeforce continues to exist, Melendez will stay put. Given that he’s one of the fight promotion’s last two remaining male champions, did they have any other choice?
That said, if the fight company is serious about keeping Melendez in Strikeforce for the long haul, it’s going to have to provide a serious injection of talent to justify it. With all but a few of the world’s top-20 lightweights already under contract to the UFC, it’s also no secret where that competition is going to have to come from: Somebody (multiple somebodies, probably) will soon be saying goodbye to the Octagon and hello to the hexagonal Strikeforce cage.
Here are my picks for five fighters Zuffa could sub-in as Melendez’s next opponent, without sacrificing guys -- like Melvin Guillard, Jim Miller, Donald Cerrone or Anthony Pettis -- who are still “in the mix” for an upcoming shot at UFC champ Frankie Edgar:
Gray Maynard. If competition is what Melendez needs it couldn’t get much tougher than Maynard, who recently emerged on the short end of a trilogy with Edgar where he twice came within a breath of winning the UFC title. While he’s arguably underrated at No. 5 in the world, it will be awhile before Maynard can work his way back into the logjam of UFC title contenders and that makes him a good candidate to swoop directly into a shot at Strikeforce gold. At the very least, a bout against the powerful wrestler -- who recently ditched Xtreme Couture for the American Kickboxing Academy -- would tell us where Melendez truly stands.
Kenny Florian. In the wake of his loss to Jose Aldo at UFC 136, Florian 86’ed plans to carry on at featherweight and is currently on a lengthy sabbatical while preparing for a return to 155 pounds. After three defeats in title fights, it’s hard to imagine him climbing the UFC ladder yet again, but he shapes up as perhaps the perfect litmus test for Melendez. Florian is a superbly rounded veteran who could likely make things interesting no matter where their fight ended up. As the consummate company man, he’d also probably take an assignment to Strikeforce in stride, especially if it represented his last best chance to win a major championship.
Clay Guida. Melendez’s first Strikeforce title reign began with a split decision win over then-champion Guida back in 2006. Four months later “The Carpenter” embarked on his 15-fight tour of duty in the UFC. Guida saw a four-bout win streak and any chance at top contendership in the Octagon thwarted by Ben Henderson in November and the stage could ostensibly be set for him to return to Strikeforce. His aggressiveness and frenetic pace would test Melendez in a way Masvidal certainly didn’t last weekend and though Guida would likely come in as an underdog, a rematch would make for an interesting measuring stick for both guys nearly six years after their original meeting.
B.J. Penn. Recent losses to Edgar, Georges St. Pierre and Nick Diaz have effectively locked Penn out of the UFC title picture in both the lightweight and welterweight divisions, but at 33 years old it’s hard to believe that “The Prodigy” is truly done with fighting for good. His power striking, otherworldly takedown defense and Brazilian jiu-jitsu skills would make for a compelling matchup with Melendez, so long as the UFC could convince Penn to take the assignment. Heading to Strikeforce would not only give Penn the chance to revitalize his career with a win over a top-5 lightweight -- not to mention win a title -- but it would be great exposure for the Strikeforce brand, too.
Sean Sherk (or, heck, Evan Dunham). The former UFC champion has been beset by injury and defeat in recent years, but Sherk is said to be ready for a return to the cage sometime in early 2012. There had been rumors he’d fight Guida at UFC 143, but that fight hasn’t materialized yet. Another strong wrestler with powerful punches and ridiculous submission defense, Sherk might see a bout with Melendez as a chance to put himself back on the map. Likewise, the once highly touted Dunham is still clawing his way back after back-to-back losses in 2010-11, one of which was a controversial split decision defeat to Sherk at UFC 119. He’s booked to fight Paul Sass in late January and if he wins, why not dispatch Dunham to Strikeforce to see what Melendez could do with him?