Tim Kennedy wasn't the least bit insulted when Strikeforce middleweight champion Luke Rockhold used his Jan. 7 post-fight interview to ask that UFC contenders be brought in to challenge him next. Kennedy agreed with him.
"If I was in his position, I'd be saying the same thing," said Kennedy (14-3), who's currently ranked as Rockhold's No. 1 challenger. "When Luke and I eventually do fight, a lot of people will think its two B-level promotion guys that are fighting each other for a belt they think is irrelevant."
That's a perception Kennedy and Rockhold (9-1) want to change now that 10 months have passed since Zuffa LLC., the owners of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, purchased the smaller, but growing promotion in an industry coup last March.
"[Zuffa] owns both divisions. They want to build Strikeforce. I think bringing over some top contenders could validate how good and tough we are in Strikeforce," said Rockhold. "There are too many people who have a block when it comes to looking past the UFC."
Throughout the sport's eighteen-year history in the U.S., the UFC has always been seen as the top echelon among fighters and fans. The UFC brand is so synonymous with the sport that every other promotion has struggled to get out from under its shadow.
In early 2009, when Strikeforce signed into a broadcast deal with Showtime and CBS, it became a viable second option for high-caliber athletes who didn't sign with the UFC. That all changed with the 2011 acquisition, which merged the world's two strongest fighter rosters under one ownership.
In December, Zuffa and Showtime renewed Strikeforce's broadcast agreement for multiple years, but not before Zuffa plucked three of Strikeforce's champions and moved them to the UFC (two have become No. 1 contenders in quick fashion). With the extension announcement, Zuffa decided to merge the show's two heavyweight divisions, a justified decision given that both groups needed fortification amid a notoriously thin weight class.
The other Strikeforce divisions are in various states of development. In the middleweight division, Kennedy, Souza and the recently re-signed Robbie Lawler are arguably the only immediate prospects within the organization who are ready to challenge Strikeforce champion Rockhold. One thing is irrefutable: the Strikeforce fighters left untouched in the wake of the deal have an uphill battle ahead in getting the public to start assessing them among UFC fighters.
UFC fighters haven't exactly helped that cause. Answering a challenge made by Strikeforce light heavyweight Mohammed "King Mo" Lawal earlier this month, former UFC champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson said fighting in Strikeforce would be a "step down" in his career. In another interview, UFC middleweight Michael Bisping feigned ignorance when asked about critical comments Strikeforce's Kennedy had recently made about him.
"Who's he?" asked Bisping. "I've never heard of him."
Media rankings are another factor which perpetuate the stigma that Strikeforce fighters are inferior to their UFC counterparts, said Kennedy and Rockhold.
Looking at three recent sets of recognized rankings, Strikeforce middleweights hold only three of the 30 slots. Champion Rockhold holds two of those spots, but doesn't even make the third list. UFC middleweights inhabit 24 of the 27 remaining slots.
"Between Jacare, Luke and myself, I think that we could take on seven out of the top 10 guys in the UFC in our respective weight class, but almost all of the media and the fans disagree with us," said Kennedy, who's won back-to-back fights in Strikeforce. "I've said it my entire career that I just want to fight the best guys. Now I add the caveat that now I want to fight the guys that everyone else thinks are the best fighters."
Kennedy said it was frustrating to watch Demian Maia (15-4), who's been recognized on all three rankings lists in the past, lose to unranked newcomer Chris Weidman during the UFC's second FOX broadcast last Saturday. Weidman took the bout on 11 days notice and cut a whopping 30 pounds to make weight for it. Kennedy, who said he's been training to fight at Strikeforce's next event on March 3 should an opening arise, vigorously campaigned for the vacancy and was disappointed that he was "never seriously considered" for it.
"I still feel the Strikeforce tier-one fighters could have put on better performances than every fight on that main card last Saturday," said Kennedy.
Rockhold agreed that Maia, who's lost two of his last three fights, gets more credit than he should.
"I don't see how people can see Demian Maia above Jacare," said Rockhold, who bested Souza in a championship bout last September. "Jacare has a better jiu-jitsu background. He's tougher; has better striking and wrestling. I don't see how you can keep Jacare way outside the top 10 and keep a guy like Maia inside. Michael Bisping. Brian Stann. They're tough guys but you just can't keep ranking these guys above us."
Specifically, Kennedy and Rockhold have targeted the bottom half of the middleweight top-10 rankings for a reason.
"I think it would further substantiate the impression that we're the second league if we're getting the guys that the UFC is cutting or feeding to us after bad losses," said Kennedy.
Both fighters agreed that when Rockhold ran through aging UFC castoff Keith Jardine in under one round earlier this month, it did little for his standings or his championship title. Judging by fans' disdain for the matchup when it was announced, it's a valid point to make.
There has been a glimmer of hope for the Strikeforce middleweights recently, though.
When asked a week ago what he thought of Strikeforce fighters "calling out" their UFC foils, UFC president White didn't dismiss the idea.
"I want these guys. If there's a certain fight they want, I want them to call it out. I get it," White told MMAjunkie.com.
Stephen Espinoza, who became the Executive Vice President and general manager of Showtime Sports in November, said the relationship between the premium pay cable network and Zuffa is a new one, but that both entities are "on the same page" in providing viewers with "the best talent matchups possible."
Espinoza said he's not sure how this mutual goal will exactly manifest itself going forward, but he stressed his opinion that matchmaking should be left largely to the fight promotion. Espinoza did confirm that Showtime has had internal discussions about welcoming UFC talent should Zuffa present that as an option.
"It hasn't been discussed with [Zuffa] yet," said Espinoza. "Will it continue to be discussed? I believe so. My hope is that in a year, we'll be having this conversation the other way where the pendulum has swung so much and we've done such a good job developing talent that we've got Strikeforce guys in the top five and there are UFC fighters who want to fight them."
Rockhold views the proposition of intermingling the middleweight divisions intermittently as a great opportunity for the world's top promoter among both brands.
"They're recycling guys over there, too," said Rockhold. "They're recycling guys to fight Anderson [Silva] and then they're going to start recycling guys to fight me. Why not mix in some top-caliber guys over here, like Michael Bisping or Mark Munoz? Those are two fresh guys who haven't fought Silva yet. Let me fight them and let me validate myself. Then later we can push to having some mega events. If I could get two big wins, I think I might be capable of challenging Silva. They want to sell pay-per-views. I think that could be a huge storyline for them."
Logistically, there are other considerations for the UFC and Strikeforce matchmaking teams should they decide to mix their middleweight rosters. In Rockhold's case, Zuffa hasn't shown a proclivity toward nontitle bouts involving champions. If a UFC contender were to beat Rockhold, would he be asked to stay with Strikeforce to defend his title?
Like Showtime's Espinoza, Rockhold said he understands that the new UFC-Strikeforce relationship is still fresh and will evolve. He's already started to see Zuffa promote him more, from a quick nod his way cageside during a UFC broadcast to an upcoming feature story in the promotion's own magazine. However, the 27-year-old champion is itching to get over the perception hump and doesn't believe that will happen anytime soon if he continues to fight Strikeforce fighters alone.
"I don't think I'm stuck in Strikeforce. I love Strikeforce," said Rockhold. "I just want the fans and media to be able to see past the UFC and believe in us. There's no better way to do that than bring over a proven fighter from the UFC. No matter how many of us jump into the UFC and beat good guys, the rest of us are still getting no love."
For Kennedy, now 32 years old and wishing to eventually return to his post as a Green Beret Ranger-qualified Special Forces sniper for the U.S. Army, time is more of the essence.
"I'm not going to fight forever," said Kennedy. "I want to fight the best guys and still have time to go back into the military and reciprocate the support they've given me while I've been out of it fighting. I don't want to wait another two years for a deal to run out before I can go fight some other guys that everybody thinks are the best."
As it stands, Rockhold's next challenger will be Kennedy. However, the timing remains up in the air as Rockhold is out of play with a broken hand until June, and Kennedy remains ready to fight any comer the promotion offers now. It's not this fight that Kennedy and Rockhold are concerned about, though. They're looking to the fights that come after and how they will be able to propel themselves to the top talent they feel they are capable of facing now.
"If they are serious about legitimizing Strikeforce as an equivalent promotion that has the same caliber of athletes, then they have to demonstrate that," said Kennedy. "Dana said the fighters over at Strikeforce are just as good as the fighters in the UFC, which they are. He needs to demonstrate that."
Lavar Johnson, a former Strikeforce heavyweight who made his successful UFC debut last Saturday as part of the two divisions' recent merger, might have unintentionally made the strongest argument of them all for the cross-pollination of talent between the two shows.
"We're all in the same game; we've been in the game for a long time," said Johnson, when asked about his UFC move in a post-fight interview. "We all belong on one playing field and that's better for the fans."