Every year, one narrative seems to step up and dominate the UFC year.
In 2011, the incredible rise of Jon Jones was clearly the “Story of the Year” in the UFC, as the prodigious light heavyweight talent earned four victories in the span of ten months, rising to the top of the division with his win over Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in March before defending the title twice over the final four months of the year.
Last year, rather than a fighter stepping out as the biggest story, the rash of injuries that tore through the roster, producing innumerable lineup changes and the first event cancellation in UFC history was the most discussed narrative.
Though we’re just three months into the year, the success of former Strikeforce fighters inside the Octagon is already emerging as a clear early favorite to be the dominant talking point of 2013.
FIRST QUARTER IMPACT PERFORMERS
Any discussion of the impact arrivals from Strikeforce has to start with the UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey. The former Olympic bronze medalist is a promotional force of nature, and equally as impactful inside the cage as well.
The build-up to her UFC debut was covered more extensively than any fight in recent memory, and her headlining turn with Liz Carmouche atop the UFC 157 Pay-Per-View was a complete success. In addition to retaining her title with another first round armbar victory, Rousey established herself as a legitimate headlining act in the UFC, and a certified star in the sport.
The spotlight isn’t going to wane any time soon either, as “Rowdy” will get her wish to serve as a coach on The Ultimate Fighter next season, leading a mixed cast of bantamweights opposite the winner of the upcoming Miesha Tate-Cat Zingano fight in April on FX.
While the women’s bantamweight champ has made the biggest splash of any crossover competitor so far this year, the unbeaten Rousey isn’t alone on the list of former Strikeforce fighters to have already delivered big things inside the Octagon in 2013.
Last Saturday night in Montreal, young Canadian welterweight Jordan Mein added his name to the growing list of UFC first-timers to make an impression in the opening months of this year. The 23-year-old Lethbridge, Alberta native announced himself as someone to watch in the welterweight division by escaping an early armbar to become the first man to stop veteran Dan Miller.
After more than seven years away from the Octagon, Robbie Lawler made a successful return to the UFC last month, earning a first round knockout win over Josh Koscheck at UFC 157 in Anaheim. That same night, Nah-Shon Burrell and Yuri Villefort opened up the show with a wildly entertaining back-and-forth battle, displaying a tremendous sense of urgency from the opening bell to the final horn.
UFC 156 produced three wins for former Strikeforce competitors.
The last man to beat Mein, Tyron Woodley, also made a splash in his UFC debut in the opening stages of the year, knocking out Jay Hieron in just 36 seconds. With the win, “The Chosen One” inserted himself in the thick of the chase in the welterweight division, and the former University of Missouri wrestling standout will be looking to take another step up the rankings this summer when he takes on another Strikeforce alumnus, Jake Shields, at UFC 161 in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Lightweight veteran and Team Jackson-Winkeljohn product Isaac Vallie-Flagg outworked Yves Edwards to push his unbeaten streak to 12 and collect his first UFC victory, while Bobby Green captured Dana White’s attention with his third round submission win over Jacob Volkmann. White could not stop praising Green after the event, lauding his ability to overcome a questionable referee’s stand up and his drive to finish Volkmann in the third to ensure he earned the win.
MORE NAMES TO WATCH ON THE WAY
While there is no question that several fighters that have migrated to the UFC since the collapse of Strikeforce have already impressed, there are even more talented athletes who have yet to make their first appearance in the Octagon who could easily add their names to the list of impact arrivals from the closed down company in the coming months.
Gegard Mousasi makes his debut early next month in a headlining turn opposite Alexander Gustafsson in his hometown of Sweden. The former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion has the chance to halt the surging Swede’s climb towards a title shot, and inject himself into the conversation at the same time with a victory.
Once considered a can’t miss prospect, injuries have hindered Mousasi in recent years; he missed all of 2012 after suffering a torn ACL, and dealt with various maladies in the year before that as well. He’s still only 27 years old, however, and already has a great deal of experience under his belt, so it’s quite possible that he could return to make an immediate impression in the 205-pound ranks.
In the co-main event of next month’s FUEL TV fight card in Sweden, second-generation UFC competitor Ryan Couture squares off with former Ultimate Fighter winner Ross Pearson. Coming off a controversial split decision win over KJ Noons on the final Strikeforce event, a win over Pearson would extend Couture’s winning streak to five and give him strong footing to start his climbing in the treacherous lightweight division.
As mentioned earlier, Miesha Tate has the opportunity to not only earn a rematch with Ronda Rousey when she faces off with Cat Zingano on the Ultimate Fighter 17 Finale card, but a victory would also place the former women’s bantamweight champion opposite the current titleholder as a coach on Season 18 of the long-running reality TV competition as well.
Midway through the month of April, the UFC heads to San Jose, where, fittingly enough, a number of Strikeforce alums will make their UFC debuts.
After scoring a unanimous decision win over Robbie Lawler in his middleweight debut, Kung Fu fighter Lorenz “The Monsoon” Larkin looks to maintain his unbeaten record in a pivotal bout on the fringes of contention with French-born, Montreal-based Francis Carmont.
Lightweights Jorge Masvidal and Josh Thomson have a chance to quickly establish themselves as players in the UFC’s deepest division, as “Gamebred” and “The Punk” square off with Tim Means and Nathan Diaz respectively, the former on the preliminary portion of the card, the latter on the four-fight main card broadcast on FOX.
In the co-main event of the evening, Strikeforce World Heavyweight Grand Prix winner Daniel Cormier makes his highly anticipated debut in the Octagon, squaring off with former heavyweight champion Frank Mir. It’s a fight that Cormier specifically asked for, having been originally lined up to face the submission specialist on the final Strikeforce show before Mir pulled out with an injury.
Unbeaten through the first 11 fights of his career, many view the two-time Olympian as a serious championship threat in either the heavyweight or light heavyweight division, but first he’s got to get through Mir.
Headlining this year’s second UFC on FOX event is Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez, who will go toe-to-toe with Benson Henderson in a “Champion vs. Champion” clash. This is the chance “El Nino” has been waiting for: an opportunity to not only prove that he belongs amongst the best in the division, but that he is the very best in the world in the lightweight division.
A winner of seven consecutive contests dating back to April 2009, extending his winning streak to eight with a championship victory over last year’s Fighter of the Year Henderson would leave little room for argument that the “Skrap Pack” member is indeed tops in the 155-pound ranks.
A week later at UFC 159, Pat Healy, the man Melendez was twice supposed to face under the Strikeforce banner, will get an opportunity to establish himself as a contender in the UFC with a main card matchup opposite perennial contender Jim Miller in New Jersey.
The durable veteran Healy has won six straight and nine of his last 10, defeating the likes of Maximo Blanco, Caros Fodor, and Mizuto Hirota along the way. While a date with Melendez never ended up materializing, “Bam Bam” could make a big first impression with a win over Miller on his home turf at the end of April.
In May, the last two Strikeforce middleweight champions head to Jaragua do Sul, Brazil for their UFC debuts, looking to make waves in the deep end of the 185-pound division.
Luke Rockhold, the last middleweight champion, will headline UFC on FX 8 opposite Vitor Belfort on May 18, while the man he defeated for the title, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, takes on streaking contender Costa Philippou in the co-main event of the evening.
Another in the long line of elite competitors from the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Rockhold boasts a 10-1 mark overall, and has won nine straight outings. Getting to double digits by defeating a former title challenger and respected veteran like Belfort would make the 28-year-old Californian an immediate player in the middleweight title chase.
The same goes for Souza should he be able to halt Philippou’s recent run of success. “Jacare” has rebounded from his championship loss to Rockhold with a trio of wins over Bristol Marunde, Derek Brunson, and Ed Herman, and he has the chance to step right into the top 10 with a win over the Serra-Longo Fight Team member in May.
Former lightweight and welterweight title challenger KJ Noons enters into the thick of the fray on Memorial Day weekend at UFC 160 in a bout with Donald Cerrone that is guaranteed to produce fireworks, while middleweight standouts Tim Kennedy and Roger Gracie will look to do the same as part of the Fourth of July fight card at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
The last remaining Strikeforce convert waiting on a UFC opportunity is welterweight champion Tarec Saffiedine, who is still awaiting a dance partner for his UFC debut.
Though he was flying under the radar heading into his breakthrough win against Nate Marquardt in final Strikeforce fight ever, the Belgian kickboxer won’t be sneaking up on anybody in the welterweight division whenever his initial opportunity comes.
With a number of outstanding performances already in the books through the first three months of the year, and another four months worth of intriguing opportunities already lined up, it certainly looks like the arrival and immediate impact of the Strikeforce alums is going to be a central storyline in the UFC for the remainder of 2013.