The UFC is undoubtedly the juggernaut of MMA. Thanks to Dana White's vision, and the deep pockets of the Fertitta brothers, the UFC is by the most lucrative MMA promotion on the planet. Generally speaking, the UFC does have the best fighters. Nobody can argue that Cain Velasquez is the best Heavyweight in the world or that Jon Jones is the best Light Heavyweight. The same can be said for Chris Weidman and almost all the other champions in the UFC. But this school of thought doesn't necessarily apply when it comes to the top contenders in the divisions.
The UFC is a marketing machine, and they're more similar to WWE than they'd like to admit. They have the ability to promote a fighter and make him look better than he is. For example, Michael Bisping was marketed as a top contender in the Middleweight division for years. There were even times where he was only one win away from a title shot. But the reality was that the UFC's middleweight division was horrendous. Strikeforce was projected as second tier by the UFC, but if that's the case, then why have their fighters firmly taken over the rankings in the Middleweight division? Tim Kennedy and Luke Rockhold both easily defeated Bisping, leaving us scratching our heads and wondering who else the UFC tricked us about. Another example is Gilbert Melendez, who is a Strikeforce import. The UFC's Lightweight division has been pegged as murderer's row (and it is, to a degree). But the fact of the matter is, Melendez has been atop of the division since his arrival and is already on his second title shot in a year and a half.
Let's take a look at the top 11 Strikeforce fighters to cross over to the UFC. Please note that this list will not include fighters that started in the UFC, went to Strikeforce and then ultimately returned to the UFC a la Nick Diaz, Robbie Lawler etc...
11 Tarec Saffiedine
Yeah, he got dummied by Rory MacDonald in his last outing, but everyone's looked bad against him recently. It's his five wins before the defeat to MacDonald that are impressive, even beating veteran Nate Marquardt for the Strikeforce Welterweight strap last January. All five of those victories came by way of decision, which is usually met by a yawn from the fans. However, he's not your modern day MMA fighter that will score a few take downs and try to preserve the lead. He's constantly pushing forward and possesses extremely nasty leg kicks. He releases the kicks with such velocity, that oftentimes his opponents don't even have time to check them. His leg kicks were in full force in his UFC debut against Hyun Gyu Lim, as he battered him to the point where he could hardly support his own weight.
10 Jorge Masvidal
Jorge Masvidal is a sleeper in the Lightweight division, as he's quietly won five out of his six UFC fights. It's not as if he's fighting slouches either, as his last three wins have been unanimous decision victories over Pat Healy, Daron Cruickshank, and James Krause. Masvidal didn't start out as a prototypical modern day MMA fighter. He took the Kimbo Slice approach and was involved in street fights when he was young, and even has two recorded street fights in Miami, ironically defeating Kimbo's protégé, Ray. He hasn't made a fraction of the money that Kimbo has made in his career, but unlike Kimbo, Masvidal is actually turning himself into a successful mixed martial artist and has a bright future in the UFC.
9 Ovince St. Preux
The heavy handed St. Preux has also won five out of six fights in the UFC. He was a successful fighter under the Strikeforce banner, but four out of his seven contests went to the judges scorecards, including a loss to Gegard Mousasi. Under the bright lights of the UFC, he has suddenly become a finisher. Not only is he winning fights, but he's putting his opponents away in devastating fashion. His latest victim was the legendary Mauricio "Shogun" Rua at UFC Fight Night in Brazil, knocking him out in just 34 seconds.
The problem with St. Preux is that he doesn't garner much interest among fans. MMA is in a phase where it's very difficult to "let your fighting do the talking." It's at the point where the lines are getting blurred between pro wrestling and actual fighting. You do have to have a winning record, but you also need to be able to stir the pot like Conor McGregor and Chael Sonnen. Recently at a press conference, St. Preux and Ryan Bader politely concurred that it was in both their best interests to fight each other, so they did...that won't cut it anymore.
8 Jordan Mein
Mein is one of the new breed of MMA fighters, where he/she starts off at a gym and learns all the aspects of MMA and gradually progresses, rather than spending years mastering one discipline. We're past the days of the "style vs. style" fights, where a wrestler didn't know how to strike, and a striker didn't know how to wrestle. As the sport evolves, everyone is well versed in each aspect of fighting.
Mein oozes with talent and has a ton of upside. He displays a scary "kill or be killed" style of fighting, which bodes well with the UFC brass, as they've made it abundantly clear that they don't like fights that go to the scorecards (it's actually posted: "never leave it in the hands of the judges" as you walk into The Ultimate Fighter training center). The only issue with Mein is that it's unknown at this point whether or not he will reach his full potential. He's dealt with injuries in the past year and hit a minor speed bump when he was finished by Matt Brown. He seems to have turned the corner, scoring wins over Hernani Perpetuo and Mike Pyle. Barnburner alert: his next fight is scheduled against Thiago Alves at UFC 183.
7 Tim Kennedy
Many people still consider Tim Kennedy undefeated in the UFC as he truly got shafted in his last outing against Yoel Romero. Romero couldn't answer the bell at the start of the 3rd round and spent an extra 10 seconds on his stool. If a fighter can't answer the bell for the next round, the fight is over, it's as simple as that. This notion applies for any combat sport. Unfortunately for Kennedy, the fight was allowed to continue and Romero rallied for a 3rd round TKO.
Despite the loss, the former war vet has looked great in the UFC, boasting a 3-1 record. His most notable victory came against Michael Bisping. Bisping is a boisterous fellow that has stated on numerous occasions that he considers Strikeforce fighters to be second rate. As mentioned above, "The Count" has now been mauled by two of them and is stuck in no man's land in the middleweight division.
6 Gegard Mousasi
It's almost unbelievable that Mousasi has already had 42 career MMA fights at the age of 29! He set the MMA world on fire when he burst onto the scene in 2003. The sport was still relatively young at the time and Mousasi was one of the few fighters that did not have a detectable hole in his game. He scored wins over the likes of Hector Lombard, Denis Kang, Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza (yep, that happened), Mark Hunt and Renato "Babalu" Sobral. He hit a bit of a wall when he lost a decision to "King Mo" in 2010, losing the Strikeforce Light Heavyweight championship, but it didn't deter him much as he went on to rattle off six wins in a row (and one draw) between then and 2013.
As incredible and decorated as his career has been, his UFC tenure hasn't been as great. He stands at two wins and two losses. Granted, his two losses have come at the hands of top contenders. But the question is, can he rebound from this like he did after his loss to King Mo or will his performances continue to taper off?
5 Tyron Woodley
Woodley has all the traits that a fighter would want. He has devastating power in his hands, he's quick as lightning, and when he's not feeling comfortable in the striking game, he can bank on his Division 1 wrestling to take a fight to the ground. Woodley has been a prominent Welterweight for years. Under the Strikeforce banner, he earned wins over Jordan Mein, Paul Daley and Tarec Saffiedine. All those names are more than formidable opponents. The problem was, the wins didn't mean much at the time because nobody knew who Saffiedine and Mein were. At the present time, Mein and Saffiedine are both well established UFC fighters, so, looking back, we can now appreciate how impressive those wins actually were.
He kept his foot on the gas when entering the UFC, demolishing veteran Jay Hieron in 36 seconds. He then went on to finish former top contenders, Carlos Condit and Josh Koscheck. A win over Rory MacDonald probably would have put him in line for a title shot, but MacDonald got the win and displayed why he just may be the next GSP.
4 Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza
Many fans were clamoring for "Jacare" to get the next crack at Chris Weidman's Middleweight belt, and it's hard to argue with their logic. He's been on an absolute tear since he made his UFC debut in 2013. He's riding a four fight win streak and has displayed sheer dominance. He blasted former #1 contender Yushin Okami and avenged his loss to Gegard Mousasi, finishing the fight via guillotine choke. Meanwhile, Vitor Belfort was awarded the title shot, despite his failed drug tests and that fact that he hasn't fought in a year.
Whether he's submitting you with his Jiu-Jitsu, or launching you across the octagon with his world class Judo, "Jacare" is a handful for anyone in the Middleweight division. There is however one man in the division that bested him in 2011, and while many feel that Souza would win in a rematch, a win is a win. That man is Luke Rockhold.
3 Luke Rockhold
Rockhold is a product of the ever growing American Kickboxing Academy. He has a very unassuming look, as if a non MMA fan saw him, they'd probably think he works an office job. The fact of the matter is that Rockhold is one of the most lethal fighters that walks the planet. He has a 85% finishing rate among his victories. He has 13 career victories, and 11 of them have come by way of TKO, KO, or submission. Pretty darn impressive.
This begs the question, why hasn't he been offered a title shot yet? The shot went to Vitor Belfort, the man who handed Rockhold his one defeat in 13 fights. There has been an ongoing debate in the MMA world over the legitimacy of Belfort's win. He's looked remarkable in his last three outings, scoring three TKO victories, but since the last time he's fought, testosterone replacement therapy has been completely banned and the commissions are much more strict in regards to drug testing. Needless to say, Belfort failed his drug test and has been on the shelf for a year. It's unknown whether or not he'll be able to compete at the same level. Either way, Rockhold has a legitimate beef.
2 Gilbert Melendez
This is a rare case of a fighter winning a contract negotiation against the UFC. Dana White even tried to use his usual bully tactics, stating last February that he was "done talking" to Melendez: "If Gilbert wants to fight in the UFC, he should call Lorenzo quickly and he should also start looking elsewhere." According to mmafighting.com, "El Nino" seriously cashed on his deal. Not only did he score a lucrative contract, but he also secured an immediate title shot along with it. Way to stick it to the man, Gil!
Why did Melendez have so much leverage? It's simple, Melendez is one of the best Lightweights in the world and the UFC needs him. The Cesar Gracie black belt has some credentials to boast. He has the most wins in Strikeforce history (11) and the most championship fights (10).
There's one thing that puts Melendez ahead of Rockhold on this list. As dominant and destructive as Rockhold has been, it's hard to imagine him beating current champ Chris Weidman at any point, whereas Melendez has a good chance to beat Anthony Pettis and be wearing UFC gold in the very near future.
1 Daniel Cormier
He's one of the most raw talents the sport has ever seen. Cormier is a former Olympian in freestyle wrestling. He left the sport of wrestling in 2008 and was lost as to what his next step was in life. He decided that he would try out this MMA thing and see where it would take him. Fast forward two years, and he entered the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix tournament as a replacement for Alistair Overeem. Under normal circumstances this would be considered a suicide mission. The tournament still involved the likes of Josh Barnett, Antonio Silva, and Sergei Kharitonov. Cormier ended up winning the whole thing, as he mauled Josh Barnett in the finals.
In a nutshell, an Olympic wrestler, that decided to give this "MMA thing" a try, ended up winning a tournament with the most dangerous Heavyweights in the world. His undefeated streak continued into the UFC, as he's riding a four fight win streak in the promotion and is 15-0 in his MMA career. He's now entering the biggest fight of his life against rival (and #1 pound for pound fighter) Jon Jones. Experts, and fellow fighters alike, are basically split down the middle as to who they think will win this one. It's a fight that has that "irresistible force vs. immovable object" feel to it, but one of them will have to bend.