For the Hardcores: More Thoughts on the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix

Posted on January 15, 2011


An addendum to the blog post I wrote for my space over on the Albany Times Union website about the Strikeforce Heavyweight Tournament.

Part of my reason for posting the occasional MMA piece over at the Times Union (usually on weekends) is to expose more people locally to the sport and, hopefully, help in some small way to advocate for its legalization in New York State.

As such, I write the posts with the idea that my audience is the casual fan with limited exposure to the sport. With that in mind, I didn’t go into greater detail of all the mis-steps and PR follies that have been committed by Scott Coker in the promotion of the Heavyweight Grand Prix because the context would be lacking, and providing it would take up far too much time (for both myself and the reader).

So this post is for those of you who regular read this space, even if I update it with near-comical irregularity.

Let’s be honest: we knew this tournament was going to be a problem as soon as we heard Strikeforce was going to build it on the precipice of a potential fight between a guy who has no interest in fighting MMA because it doesn’t pay his mortgage (Alistair Overeem who makes much MUCH more from fighting K-1 hence his absence from the scene the last three years) and another whose management team screws with Strikeforce and re-negotiates after every single fight (Fedor Emlianenko).

The issues with Fedor haven’t been addressed, though Coker has assured the MMA media that Overeem is locked down for the entire tournament and that his contract stipulates he can’t fight for anyone else, whether it be in MMA or kickboxing, until the completion of the tournament. The problem is that we’ve heard that before: not just the promise that Overeem will fight, but specifically that he’s obligated to fight X number of times for Strikeforce over the course of a certain time frame. It never happens, and until the tournament’s completed with Overeem having fulfilled that promise, we have no reason not to take Coker’s assertion with a grain of salt.

Then there was the whole debacle and controversy over the tournament format.

First there was the situation with the Strikeforce Heavyweight Title. Overeem is the champion, though he’s only defended it once in the last three years. Shortly after the tournament was announced, Strikeforce said that each fight containing Overeem would be five rounds for the title, which must have thrilled guys on the other side of the bracket who were left wondering why they’d be fighting in the first place if that’s the case. Not to mention those in Strikeforce that know it isn’t healthy for a title’s prominence for it to potentially change hands three times in as many fights.

With the way they’ve done business and how long it took Overeem to compete for the promotion, it would’ve made sense for them to just say the tournament is for the title itself. How many people remember a Strikeforce Heavyweight Title even exists, let alone that Overeem is the title holder? Among those who do walk around with this knowledge, would they really take offense if Strikeforce acknowledged its folly in keeping a paper champion? You might argue that Overeem’s people would, but considering his bread isn’t buttered by MMA and his people were willing to put the title on the line for every single tournament fight, it’s safe to say that vacating it for the purpose of this tournament would be a non-issue.

When cooler heads prevailed and that idea was quashed, Coker started putting forth the idea that each and every tournament fight, from start to finish, would be five instead of three rounds. During a press conference call this week, Coker announced that they were scrapping that idea because they “couldn’t get the Commissions” to come together on it. But as ESPN’s Josh Gross discovere after speaking to Commission representatives from the Big 3 (New Jersey, California and Nevada), that wasn’t the case and there would have been no problem in securing a five-round format for the entire tournament. What a lot of people (including some reading this) might not know is that a fight promotion can make any fight five rounds instead of three, usually but not always on the promise of it being a main event. Fight promotions only use five rounds for title fights for the sake of consistency. It’s an industry standard, not a Commission requirement.

As much as I like Scott Coker, he lied through his teeth on this one, which is surprising since he easily could have just left it at not being able to get all parties to agree. It wasn’t the Commissions that were blocking the idea of five rounds for every fight, it was the management of certain fighters, and perhaps rightfully so. Traditionally you only train for five rounds if you’re getting a guaranteed title shot, so it’s really not fair to ask them to change behaviors so radically without the promise of a title.

Besides, we’re talking heavyweights that don’t provide the most exciting decision fights at three rounds, let alone five. Just imagine Barnett and Rogers in the 4th and 5th. I’m breathing a sigh of relief right along with you.

And this is all just the tip of the iceberg.

I may seem to many that I unfairly pile on Strikeforce on this space. However, I only do so because I find their role in the industry fascinating. Whereas the UFC markets and promotes itself with the thought in mind of it being a sport, Strikeforce has much more of a professional wrestling mentality. They have names, not divisions. Just look at the weight classes other than Heavyweight, where they’ll have one legitimate Top 10 fighter for their respective division, if that.

Like so many other aspects of the promotion, the approach makes sense on paper. In practice, however, they’re taking something that’s more acceptable in the mainstream but still a niche sport and marketing fighters that are of interest to only the most hardcore fans within that niche. Theoretically they’re providing an alternative to the UFC that is more focused on the entertainment side, but in reality they appeal to a limited portion of an already small audience.

More importantly, and despite what many readers  might take away from these posts, I want a promotion like Strikeforce to succeed. As much as I’m a UFC apologist (admittedly too much so at times), I also recognize that the sport can only benefits if there is more than one option for its fans. This is not to say that there should be a handful of top tier promotions, which would make things a mess. Rather, I think the sport would only benefit from several sustainable promotions, whether at the regional or national level, that can give exposure on a large stage to fighters that otherwise would only be competing in front of a couple hundred people at a casino ballroom.

With their deal on Showtime and some of the fighters already under contract, Strikeforce can and should succeed as one of those promotions. But it won’t so long as it dilly-dallies with guys like Fedor and continues to make huge promotional missteps like this, where an unwieldy concept is embarked upon for the benefit of a small portion of the MMA community, and for little (actually negative) monetary benefit.