Almost one month after Zuffa confirmed that Strikeforce would be extending its stay on Showtime, the former San Jose-based promotion returns for its first card of the year, headlined by an intriguing — albeit a tad nonsensical — middleweight title fight. After upsetting Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu ace Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza to capture the title, American Kickboxing Academy‘s Luke Rockhold confirmed his status as one of MMA’s most promising prospects. Strikeforce’s shallow roster coupled with the state of its middleweight division left them scrambling for contenders, and it ultimately came down to former UFC light heavyweight contender Keith Jardine, who will be making his middleweight debut. Also on the card are the likes of Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal, Robbie Lawler, Tyron Woodley and Tarec Saffiedine.

Preliminary Predictions:

* Chris Spang to defeat Ricky Legere by TKO in Round 2
* Estevan Payan to defeat Alonzo Martinez by Decision
* Gian Villante to defeat Trevor Smith by Decision
* James Terry to defeat Nah-Shon Burell by TKO in Round 1

Main Card Predictions:

* Tarec Saffiedine to defeat Tyler Stinson by Submission in Round 2
* Tyron Woodley to defeat Jordan Mein by Decision
* Muhammed Lawal to defeat Lorenz Larkin by Decision
* Robbie Lawler to defeat Adlan Amagov by TKO in Round 1

Middleweight Title Fight: Luke Rockhold (c) vs. Keith Jardine

A great illustration of a well-rounded mixed martial artist who is good at everything without being particularly brilliant at one single aspect, Rockhold was able to live up to his potential with a hard fought — albeit controversial — win over Jacare Souza in September. While that bout didn’t tell much about Rockhold that wasn’t already known, the AKA product did demonstrate an ability to go the distance and actually get better as the fight progresses.

In this one, Rockhold will certainly possess the speed advantage, in addition to having the more polished and technically sound striking. His jab as well as lead left hook looked particularly impressive against Souza, and he also displayed a variety of kicks, many of which were used to finish off combinations. Staying busy, pumping the jab, and throwing combos is essential against Jardine, as the Team Jackson fighter is at his best when he is the one setting the rhythm and fighting at his own pace.

For all the talk about Jardine’s “unorthodox” style, it is defensive deficiencies that have marred his career. While his awkward technique, odd angles and unusual timing can throw opponents off, these aspects have turned into major liabilities in the past few years. Dropping his hands and implementing a weird stance was only going to trouble elite fighters for so long, and it was only a matter of time before most of them picked up on Jardine’s habits. In particular, his vulnerability to a specific strike — the left hook — has proven costly. This — quite literally — plays into Rockhold’s hands, as said strike happens to be one of his most prominent punches. And while he doesn’t quite possess dynamite power in his hands, Jardine’s chin is hardly impossible to crack.

That is not to suggest that all is doomed for Jardine in the striking game, as despite his many flaws, he is deceptively dangerous on the inside. When he steps into the pocket, Jardine is more than capable of putting heavy leather combinations together, and finishing with trademark leg or body kicks. Those kicks have been Jardine’s real claim to fame, as they famously propelled him to a memorable victory over Chuck Liddell back in 2007. And while that sensational win is but a distant memory, Jardine is still gritty enough to make a fight out of any contest that he’s in.

Jardine doesn’t get enough credit for his ability to take opponents out of their game and turn the fight into an “ugly” affair, where he is at his best. That however, is a twofold issue for “The Dean of Mean”, as while forcing opponents to abandon game plans in favor of a brawl is good in theory, this prospect becomes far more ominous when factoring in his historically shaky chin. As such, Jardine needs to be extremely prudent after letting his hands go, as his habit of dropping his hands after throwing, coupled with his lazy footwork has gotten him in serious trouble in the past.

To his credit, Jardine is a competent wrestler, both offensively and defensively, and he will undoubtedly look to take the fight to the ground at some point, as he often does when the striking game isn’t going his way. While he lacks a good shot from the outside, Jardine will be comfortable enough to close the distance, clinch up, get underhooks, and look for the takedown from there. Rockhold however, has proven to have excellent defensive wrestling himself, and is very difficult to control in the clinch. If he is to be taken down, then a sudden level switch from the outside is the way to go; an ability that Jardine most likely lacks.

If Rockhold gets on top however, and he will certainly get his chances the deeper the fight goes, he can seriously put a number on Jardine from the top. While the latter’s ability to get back to his feet is underrated, even a short amount of time on top will give Rockhold the window he needs to land some punishing ground-and-pound. In fact, Rockhold’s entire top game will be problematic, as his guard passing skills and submissions from the top are enough to give Jardine something to think about.

Jardine may have been an underwhelming choice for a challenger, but he’s still a decent enough fighter to not only make this competitive, but have a chance to actually come out on top. He has the power to potentially put his opponent away with a barrage of punches, and he is seasoned enough to potentially have a few tricks up his sleeves. That however, is unlikely to be enough against the younger and more dynamic Rockhold, as the champion wins a competitive but clear-cut decision.

Official Prediction: Luke Rockhold to defeat Keith Jardine by Decision