This weekend seems like a perfect time for a State of the Union-type discussion about Strikeforce.
A few weeks after Nick Diaz vacated his welterweight title to return to the UFC and challenge Georges St. Pierre, the Heavyweight Grand Prix resumed without some of the excitement the initial event in the series carried. Granted, a lot has changed since then to change the perception of the event.
The biggest of those changes, of course, is that Strikeforce is no longer the chief rival of the UFC. Instead, they’re now, well, I don’t know what they are. No one seems to be willing to give a concrete statement on what Strikeforce is now or what they will be in the future. That makes matters very complicated.
At least when the San Jose-based outfit was an organization unto itself, we could enjoy speculating about the winner of the Grand Prix facing the UFC champion to determine once and for all who stood as the top heavyweight in the sport. With Strikeforce now under the Zuffa umbrella, playing “What If?” just raises the obvious question: why doesn’t the winner of the Heavyweight Grand Prix challenge the UFC champion to determine heavyweight supremacy?
Most of the reasons that used to stand in the way of a fight like that taking place have fallen by the wayside.
Diaz’s move to the UFC makes it obvious that the current fighter contracts with Showtime aren’t the major hurdle many expected. His relocation also indicated that when all is said and done, the UFC will be the home of the best talents from their former rival’s ranks as well.
But when asked if the same shift in address could be coming for the tournament winner or lightweight champ Gilbert Melendez, UFC President Dana White has been committed to being non-committal. There have been no concrete answers either way, though history has taught us it’s hard to put complete faith in a firm yes or no from White, no matter what he says. Remember, Chuck Liddell was definitely fighting Tito Ortiz at UFC 115 last summer.
However, the less-than-impressive performances offered by Saturday night’s tournament participants brings into question whether those athletes would make much of an impact in the UFC’s heavyweight ranks either way.
Alistair Overeem’s would-be coming out party turned into a tepid affair that seriously underwhelmed. The Dutch striker spent the entire fight hunting for power shots to put away Fabricio Werdum, but never found the mark. His cardio became a question mark as the fight wore on, and he showed serious holes in his stand-up defense. Conversely, Werdum was so intent on playing jiu-jitsu that he missed the part where he was getting the better of the stand-up exchanges in the first and third rounds. Why he felt compelled to drop to the ground and beg Overeem to enter his guard remains a mystery to me.
My take away from the main event was that neither of these two would make a serious run at the UFC heavyweight title if given the opportunity. While it may not be fair to make that judgment after just one listless bout, I doubt I’m the only one coming to that conclusion today.
We’ve already seen Werdum get blasted by a then-unknown Junior dos Santos, and none of the other heavy-hitting heavyweights would be inclined to play his jiu-jitsu games either. As for Overeem, seeing him lose the stand-up battle to Werdum in the third did nothing to convince me of his chances against guys like dos Santos or Cain Velasquez.
And don’t even get me started on Josh Barnett or Brett Rogers.
The trouble is that those mediocre performances last night from the company’s best heavyweights – and the tremendous performance of lightweight Jorge Masvidal – continue to underscore the bigger problem within the company, which is that Strikeforce remains home to mostly second-tier talent.
For every exception like Melendez, there is Masvidal and K.J. Noons, the man he dominated on Saturday night in what many believed was a title eliminator. Despite the impressive outing, there are few who will be backing Masvidal should a bout with Melendez come to fruition. As good as he looked, I’d would have a hard time taking “Gamebred” against the likes of Ben Henderson, Jim Miller, or Clay Guida; not exactly what you’d like from a company’s #1 contender.
That reality leaves Strikeforce with no clear direction moving forward, and little chance of really capturing fan interest for the time being. Hardcore fans will continue to watch, but fans no new eyes will be turning to Strikeforce events as an example of elite mixed martial arts, and the majority of their roster will remain unknown to casual fans.
The only way to change the situation is for Zuffa to make a decision on the long-term direction of their latest acquisition.
The two possible fates of the organization that emerged at the time of purchase both remain in play today.
The recent defection of Diaz and the inevitable transfer of talent to the UFC points to Strikeforece’s eventual demise. After last night’s event, a clear case can be made for that being the right decision.
Let’s be honest: if the majority of big names in the organization would fall short of being championship contenders in the UFC at this point, continuing to beat up sub-par opposition in Strikeforce isn’t going to get them to that level any faster. Simply put, they need to be facing better competition. In addition to the top of the division guys like Melendez, Overeem and “Jacare” Souza, prospects like Tyron Woodley and Daniel Cormier would benefit more from a shift in scenery as well, as both need more serious challenges than the Strikeforce roster has to offer them at this point.
That being said, the myriad positive reviews the organization has received since Zuffa took over operations show some of the benefits that could come from keeping the company operational as the Triple-A to the UFC’s major leagues.
By all indications, Strikeforce has benefited from Zuffa’s involvement, at least on the execution and organization side of things; their events now run like smaller versions of UFC shows because, well, that’s what they’re becoming. That makes the right choice for the future of the organization even clearer.
Think about it: one of the chief reasons White gave for the acquisition at the time of purchase was a need for more fighters. What better way to cultivate new talent than to run them through a feeder organization you control?
Strikeforce could become a proving ground for the collection of fighters in the lower third of each division, Ultimate Fighter alums who aren’t quite ready for prime time, or guys like Kendall Grove who have run out of options on the biggest stage of them all.
Wouldn’t those athletes benefit more from getting the chance to continue their development or try to rebound under the watchful eye of the UFC? At least then they’d be facing similarly skilled talent, not being sent to the regional circuit where their UFC experience earns them main event exposure against opponents who are often overmatched.
If a fighter continues to struggle in Strikeforce, then you turn them loose, but why not maintain the organization as a means to develop new talent, re-build the confidence of struggling veterans and introduce emerging stars?
People are going to object to his analogy, but the opportunity is similar to the way the WWE (then WWF) used their Saturday afternoon television broadcasts to showcase newcomers who were going to get a push.
Seeing a wrestler week in and week out let you know the company had plans for them in the future and gave you a reason to pay attention, despite the fact that they were beating up Barry Horowitz and The Brooklyn Brawler every other weekend. Eventually, those wrestlers graduated to main event status on those Saturday broadcasts, and then made their way onto a pay-per-views. By the time their turn in the spotlight rolled around, fans knew all about them and were fully invested, something the UFC is lacking with a number of their main card options at this point.
Applied to Strikeforce, a fighter given a push in the minors wouldn’t be such an unknown commodity when they’re called up to the big leagues, especially if they were needed to fill an injury void in a pinch at some point. Instead of bringing in a complete unknown to occupy an opening, a fighter fans have already come to recognize can be given an opportunity.
Building new stars has been one of the UFC’s greatest challenges of late, and having Strikeforce as a minor league circuit could certainly help in that effort. Having a minor league feeder system also gives fighters the chance to experience some of the outside the cage expectations that can be placed on them in the UFC as well.
Regional shows don’t have press conferences, media workouts and grandiose weigh-ins, all of which have become integral pieces of the UFC fight week puzzle. Rick Story admitted at UFC 130 that the new obligations were a little difficult to get used to; breaking from a tried and true routine to answer questions and shadowbox for spectators felt a foreign to the main card neophyte. But future fighters in his position could avoid some of those awkward feelings by going through those paces on the smaller scale.
At the very least, they see the level of professionalism that goes into competing at the highest level and executing those events as well. Schedules are adhered to, commitments are upheld, and action and inaction have rewards and consequences; those are important things for fighters to learn, and the sooner they learn them the better.
We’re probably not going to know the true destiny of Strikeforce for some time. They’ll continue operating as UFC Light for the next little, and Dana White will remain undecided, at least in public.
Over time, the stars of the organization will continue to migrate to the Octagon, and Zuffa will be forced to choose what to do with their latest acquisition.
For what it’s worth, I say keep the company alive.
Restock it with potential stars, TUF cast members not yet ready for the UFC, and veterans in need of a confidence boost. Call up the good and send down those who are struggling, building new stars and re-building old ones in the process.
If Zuffa is not going to keep the brand alive, then they should start bringing the rest of the big names over now; keeping them active against lesser competition in a soon-to-be-dead organization is pointless.
Either way, the company and the fighters need to clearer picture of their future, and the fans wouldn’t mind knowing a little more too.