January 08, 2012

There was Dana White, standing cageside being interviewed, talking brightly about the future of Strikeforce. And the presence of the UFC president at one of these events, even 10 months after the fight promotions became family, had an odd vibe to it. Perhaps that's because ever since the UFC's parent company took over, the No. 2 mixed martial arts organization has been disappearing before our eyes. So White was talking about a mirage.

The story of Saturday night's Strikeforce event in Las Vegas was not who was there, but who and what were not.

Yes, the promotion's middleweight champion, Luke Rockhold, was there at the Hard Rock Resort and Casino, putting on a robust performance in the main event. But his first-round TKO would have been a lot more impressive if not for one thing: Absent from the title bout was even an infinitesimal level of competition. Keith Jardine, who had earned his shot by fighting to a draw in a different weight class in his only previous Strikeforce bout, was a 36-year-old UFC castoff with two victories in his past eight fights.

Also missing: the 19 pounds "The Dean of Mean" was said to have had to shed in the final 24 hours before Friday's 185-pound weigh-in, along with the considerable energy sapped by having to cut to a weight the fighter says he hadn't seen since freshman year of high school. Interviewed on the Showtime telecast, a rehydrated but not re-energized Jardine said, "I'm excited." He said it with all of the joie de vivre of Steven Wright.

Absent as well -- or at least fading to invisible -- were the ghosts of Chuck Liddell and Forrest Griffin, the two biggest-name fighters Jardine beat during his UFC days. Those are notable notches on the resume, but they are worn-out old notches. When Jardine TKO'd Griffin back in 2006, he was a rising contender with a 13-2-1 record. On Saturday night he stepped into the cage as 17-9-2 old news, a familiar face being fed to a young champion with a need to add some known notches of his own.

Rockhold did what he had to do, and Jardine did what he could. The challenger looked slow and plodding, and while it's true that he used to look slow and plodding even back when he was at his best, this was different. Once known for an awkward fighting style capable of throwing opponents off their game, Jardine was unable to sidetrack the 27-year-old Rockhold (9-1) even a little. The champion picked apart the veteran with fists and knees, staggering him with a counter right hand with just under a minute left in the first, dropping him with another right, then pouncing. The end came at 4:26 -- but could have and should have come sooner if not for an unexpected absence: referee Herb Dean, a usually reliable protector of fighters in the cage, stood aside and watched as a defenseless Jardine took a few too many shots.

"He's tough and he came to fight," Rockhold said of Jardine afterward. "Too bad for him, I love fighting. And when the cage door shuts, I feel like it's my world."

What's absent from that world? Competition, it seems. Rockhold originally was scheduled to fight Tim Kennedy, but the U.S. Army Special Forces fighter was injured and had to pull out. So he's the logical next challenger for the Strikeforce belt, right? Rockhold is looking in a different direction. "I like fighting, I like getting paid, but I love competition and aspiring to be the best," he said. "Right now, all of the best guys are in the UFC, at least the top 10 ranked, besides myself maybe in some rankings. Those are the guys I want. I want to climb to the top. I want to fight the best in the world. I think they should bring over some top contenders. Let's see who the true No. 1 contender is, because I believe I am, and I'd love a chance to prove it."

This seems to be a theme these days in Strikeforce: that something is missing. Heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem, light heavyweight titlist Dan Henderson and welterweight belt holder Nick Diaz left for the greener pastures of the UFC. Along with those absences you can lump in lightweight champ Gilbert Melendez, who has run out of challenges in Strikeforce and has talked about wanting UFC top dog Frankie Edgar. And what of the fighters who remain, such as heavyweights Daniel Cormier and Josh Barnett? It was a full four months ago they became the Grand Prix finalists, and we've yet to have a date set.

And then there's the absence of the sport's most dominant fighter, Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos. On Friday, the California State Athletic Commission announced the women's 145-pound champion failed a screening for performance enhancing drugs prior to last month's 16-second demolition of Hiroko Yamanaka. She's been suspended, the Yamanaka fight was changed to a no-contest, and White said he'll strip Santos of her title. Perhaps having "Cyborg" out of the picture for a while will inadvertently invigorate women's MMA, because now there's no one out there who's invincible. But it's foolhardy to subtract an indomitable force like Santos from the roster and try to twist it into a good thing.

But that's the kind of thing you do when the losses and absences mount. Or you talk about the future, ignoring a fading present that might make the future never come.

Questions? Comments? To reach Jeff Wagenheim or contribute to the SI.com MMA mailbag, click on the Email link at the top of the page.

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