Challenges still exist for Rockhold in SF

LAS VEGAS -- Well. That proved nothing.

As expected, Strikeforce middleweight champion Luke Rockhold ran through Keith Jardine Saturday, posting a first-round TKO victory in his first title defense.

This is what happens when a legitimate contender in the prime of his career faces a tough, yet technically lacking veteran entering the twilight of his. Jardine had never fought as a middleweight until Saturday. The matchup was flawed from the beginning.

Immediately after the fight, Rockhold (9-1) begged for better competition, asking Zuffa, parent company to Strikeforce and the UFC, for a shot at UFC talent.

“I like fighting and I like getting paid, but I love competition,” said Rockhold, on the televised broadcast. “Right now all the best guys are in the UFC. Those are the guys I want.”

Rockhold’s frustration is warranted, as are his comments. He’s wrong though, in suggesting there are no challenges left for him in Strikeforce. That might hold true for lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez -- but Rockhold isn’t there yet.

True, the win over Jardine didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. But Rockhold’s next fight in 2012 will.

And it sounds like he knows that. Once the emotion of the fight with Jardine wore off, Rockhold admitted that Strikeforce middleweight Tim Kennedy (14-3) is a well-deserving challenger to his belt.

He also said a rematch against Ronaldo Souza (14-3) would be of interest to him. Rockhold defeated Souza in a tight, but unanimous five-round decision in September.

“Tim Kennedy is the most valid challenger right now,” Rockhold said. “I’d more than welcome that fight. Tim poses a lot of problems. He’s a great wrestler and jiu-jitsu guy, but he lacks in the standup realm.”

That he still has challenges at Strikeforce doesn’t change the fact Rockhold is deserving of a shot against UFC talent. At this point in his career, he’s demonstrated enough skill to hang with the likes of a Chael Sonnen, Mark Munoz and Vitor Belfort.

Fair or not, however, those fights are unlikely to materialize. Regardless of how many times Rockhold challenges a UFC contender to enter the Strikeforce hexagon, it’s not happening right now.

“These fighters want to test themselves and prove they are No. 1,” said Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker. “But Tim is going to be back shortly. Robbie [Lawler] is in the mix. We’ll have a lot of fights for Luke moving forward.”

Rockhold was terrific Saturday. He established his range immediately, which isn’t necessarily easy against a durable brawler like Jardine. He controlled the pace of the fight, which is one of his greatest strengths and he finished it decisively.

Should he be fighting in the UFC? That case can be made. But has he, after Saturday, cleaned out the Strikeforce middleweight division? Not yet.

“If that’s the plan, that’s the plan,” Rockhold said. “I’ll make the most of what we’ve got here.

“I want to fight the guys who earn their shot.”