Recapping a Turbulent 2010 for Strikeforce (and 2011 Isn't Looking Much Better)
In the latter half of 2009, Strikeforce made a huge power play in the world of mixed martial arts promotion when they outbid the Ultimate Fighting Championships for not just their own middleweight contender, Dan Henderson, but also the legendary heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko and a network television deal with CBS. This launched what had been a regional promotion onto the national scene, appearing to fans and fighters alike as a rising challenger to the UFC’s near-monopoly of high-level American MMA.
While 2010 closed with a bang in St. Louis, where Strikeforce produced back-to-back-to-back-to-back knockouts, the promotion has struggled to live up to the expectations it brought upon itself.
Strikeforce made three big marketing pushes in 2010 for their fight cards, and in each of those marketing pushes, Strikeforce made no bones about which fighter they were pinning their hopes on. I’m sure if you watched any of the CBS coverage of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, you saw an ad for Dan Henderson’s debut in Strikeforce, and nowhere in those ads did an image or the name of the defending 185-lb champion, Jake Shields, appear.
In the lead-up to Fedor’s second Strikeforce appearance, media spots were made with no mention of his opponent, and the same happened for the charismatic champion, Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal.
In all three of these matchups, the fighter who Strikeforce had invested their advertising in lost in very convincing fashion, leaving casual fans, who were drawn to watch by all the attention, scratching their heads. Insult was added to injury when, after defeating Henderson, Shields took his Strikeforce welterweight and middleweight titles and went to the UFC.
Strikeforce has also attempted to create media draws out of questionable fighting prospects. Strikeforce has gathered several outstanding young talents like Shane del Rosario and Tyron Woodley, but buried them on their under-published, under-reported Challengers cards. This is largely because they have limited card space on their CBS and larger Showtime cards, and have devoted card slots to fighters like Herschel Walker and Bobby Lashley. This approach again backfired on them when Lashley was defeated by largely unknown fighter Chad Griggs.
While these have been embarrassing for Strikeforce, it would hardly be damaging to future prospects of the promotion. What has been Strikeforce’s biggest problem is their ability to make fights happen. This is a function of several problems: their deals with CBS and Showtime combined with their rather limited ability to control their workforce.
This is an aspect of promotion that the UFC has been very underrated for: Besides a few instances in which teammates would not fight each other, there are very few fights that Joe Silva and Dana White can’t make happen. Strikeforce has struggled to find compromises that allow them to both make the executives at CBS and Showtime happy and find fights for all the fighters on their roster.
Many in the MMA world speculated that Strikeforce was making a deal with the devil when they signed the co-promotion deal with M-1 Global to bring in Fedor, and it is hard to disagree with those skeptics now. Since Fedor’s submission loss to Fabricio Werdum, the Russian has been completely inactive and seems in no rush to fight again. Likewise, M-1’s other big name, Gegard Mousasi, has not fought in Strikeforce since his April loss to King Mo.
But these are hardly the only fighters giving Strikeforce headaches. Glibert Melendez, the lightweight champion, has not fought since his win over Shinya Aoki in April. Most notably, Strikeforce’s heavyweight champion, Alistair Overeem, has only defended his title once in the last three years and, after defending his title, left to participate in K-1 and now wants to remain in Japan to fight for the DREAM heavyweight belt.
Overeem’s complete disregard for Strikeforce’s wishes also opens up the problem of the belts being completely meaningless. Overeem’s only defense since 2007 came against Brett Rogers, who was coming off a KO loss to Fedor. A Strikeforce executive actually referred to Wedrum as the champion in a press conference. Scott Coker and company give very little meaning to what it means to be a champion or contender in their promotion.
When creating cards for Showtime, Coker is also burdened by executives involved with Showtime’s boxing programs looking over his shoulder to make sure matches are "marketable." Showtime is also said to be very strict about what bouts can be shown on their network and would not approve "prelim" fights to be shown on their network because it is a product they don’t have a hand in creating and could possibly hurt their Challengers cards.
The result is Strikeforce loading their undercards with 1-1 or 0-2 local fighters and not being able to use their prelims as a reserve of developing fighters, as the UFC is able to do.
Strikeforce’s biggest ace up their sleeve is their agreement with CBS: It is a marketing platform no other promotion is currently able to offer fighters. But since the "brawl" following the Nashville card, CBS has been reported to be very hesitant about putting MMA back on their airwaves. Strikeforce is still insisting they will be back on CBS, but no date has been set.
With the CBS TV deal on thin ice and the lack of card space, Strikeforce is starting to see the results in their ability to retain and sign fighters. Shields never looked back at leaving the promotion that basically counted him out when he was the sitting champion. Very talented and accomplished Jay Hieron, who was rumored to be in the title picture at 170 lbs, left Strikeforce to join the Bellator Fighting Championships. Likewise, super grappling talent Andre Galavo, instead of re-signing with Strikeforce, chose to leave and try out for the next welterweight season of TUF.
Also, when it comes to finding new fighters, Strikeforce is now hobbled. Take super European prospect Gunnar Nelson, for example. He is a very talented kickboxer/jiu jitsu black belt who is currently 8-0-1 in his pro career. The UFC has a very close eye on him, but wants to let him develop in Europe a little longer because they know there is no threat from Strikeforce, with its tightening roster, to jump in and sign this young fighter.
With Bellator a quickly rising promotion getting a regular cable TV deal, and Zuffa announcing that a merger of the WEC with the UFC will not reduce the number of cards or fighters they intend to carry, Strikeforce is facing a changing market in 2011.
Don’t be shocked if, in the second half of 2011, Strikeforce is having problems paying fighters and honoring their contracts. I think CBS is already regretting their half-informed decision to sign a deal with Elite XC and then allowing it to transfer to Strikeforce. Right now, they may just be looking to minimize the damage to their network’s name this mistake will cause them. The new year will be a very telling one for Scott Coker and the Strikeforce brand.
Originally Posted on Sprawl and Brawl
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