Kaufman Deserves Main Event Billing

OP/ED: Kaufman Deserves The Main Event

In the wake of former Strikeforce middleweight champion Jake Shields finally becoming an official employee of the UFC, the time seemed right to discuss what appears to be a reoccurring trend for the San Jose-based outfit.

The organization repeatedly seems to devalue their champions and the belts they possess, and it looks like they’re all set to do it again Friday night.

At the ninth installment of the Strikeforce Challengers series, women’s welterweight champion Sarah Kaufman will defend her title against Roxanne Modafferi. The bout pits the top-ranked 135-pound female in the world against a legitimate Top 5 threat, and comes in as the second-to-last fight of the night; heavyweight prospect Shane Del Rosario headlines opposite Hawaiian Lolohea Mahe at the Everett, Washington event.

Placing one of the six Strikeforce champions in the two-hole should be viewed as an insult to the talents of Kaufman and Modafferi, and diminishes what little juice the title carries in the first place.

If we’re being honest with each other – and I think we are – Women’s MMA isn’t really at the “championship belts” stage of their development quite yet. There are only really a handful of truly skilled female competitors out there; the Kaufmans and Cris Cyborgs of the distaff divisions are few and far between.

It’s hard enough to create interest in the division when you don’t have a deep talent pool to draw from, but since Strikeforce decided to introduce belts into the equation, they need to step up the support and spotlighting of their champion.

Next month in Houston, either Tim Kennedy or Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza will claim the middleweight title Shields left behind when he left for the UFC. Not only will the incoming champion have to battle the constant barrage of questions about not having won the belt from Shields, but the fact that the Cesar Gracie student has moved back down to welterweight with the opposition casts an unfavourable light on the entire 185-pound division. After all, how good could they actually be if a natural 170-pound competitor was able to clean house and leave with the belt around his waist?

Signing Fedor Emelianenko last summer was a major coup and a tremendous opportunity, one that the organization squandered by not being able to immediately match him up with heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem.

Last August, the Emelianenko aura was still firmly intact and a pairing with Overeem could have legitimized the division, regardless of the outcome. A win for “The Last Emperor” would have been viewed as a crowning of the rightful king, while a win for Overeem would have established “The Demolition Man” as a worthy champion, the man who beat the unbeatable Fedor Emelianenko, and made his two-year hiatus from the company easier to accept. But that isn’t how things played out.

Not only did Emelianenko face a somewhat unproven Brett Rogers in his organizational debut, he looked human in the first round before knocking “The Grim” out early in round two. What happened next is what really causes the problems, as Overeem looked far more dominant in dismantling Rogers six months later, and Emelianenko was upset by Fabricio Werdum.

Now, Werdum is injured and awaiting surgery, CEO Scott Coker is talking about an Overeem vs. Emelianenko matchup, and saying that the title doesn’t necessarily have to be at stake in such a contest. Is there any possible scenario that does more to diminish the value of the already devalued heavyweight hardware?

A non-title loss for Overeem leaves him the de facto champion, beaten by a man who was beaten by another man who should have been the next man to challenge for the title. I hope you followed that. Even if the belt was at stake, an Overeem win is no longer all that significant because Werdum already proved that Fedor is fellable, while an Emelianenko triumph puts the belt on a fighter who shouldn’t have been fighting for the title in the first place.

Even the Gilbert Melendez – Shinya Aoki title fight took some value away from the Strikeforce gold, as a win for Aoki would have landed the lightweight strap in the Land of the Rising Sun for most of the year as “The Tobikan Judan” fulfilled his DREAM obligations. Thankfully, Melendez won, earning a little boost for his belt in the process by beating the then #2-ranked lightweight in the world.

That brings us back around to Kaufman, her women’s welterweight title and her matchup with Modafferi this Friday.

In slotting the Adam Zugec trainee’s first title defence in the second position on the card, Strikeforce is announcing to the MMA world that they feel Shane Del Rosario is a more valuable commodity than Kaufman. An untested young heavyweight is a better headlining act than the top 135-pound female fighter in the world, despite the fact that Kaufman has also vanquished all challengers to stand before her, including a collection of quality opponents including Miesha Tate, Shayna Baszler and Takayo Hashi.

Additionally, if a battle between the unbeaten champion and a top-flight challenger for the women’s welterweight championship isn’t good enough to headline a Challengers series event, what chance do they have of ever competing on a major Showtime event? Positioning this pairing behind Del Rosario and Mahe means CBS is certainly out of the question.

The argument will be made that Kaufman’s title victory over Hashi, which was moved into the main event slot of that particular Challengers series card after much Internet uproar, was not the most exciting fight to ever headline a show. Admittedly, it lacked flare and drama; Kaufman clearly outclassed his Japanese opponent, and Hashi had little inclination to engage the Victoria, British Columbia native standing after eating a few stiff punches early in the first round.

But it takes two to tango, and while Kaufman was willing to dance, her opponent chose to sit that song out, and now the champion is being made to play second fiddle as a result. They would never think of doing the same with Nick Diaz, Muhammed Lawal or even Kaufman’s 145-pound counterpart Cris Cyborg, so why leave the women’s welterweight champion to languish in anonymity as second banana?

All she has done is everything Strikeforce has asked of her; she’s won fights, claimed the title and handled herself with poise and professionalism at every turn. For her efforts, she’s stuck in Everett, Washington, warming up the ring for Shane Del Rosario and Lolohea Mahe, watching what little meaning her  women’s welterweight championship has go to waste.

Kaufman can’t headline a Challengers series card, but Dave Bautista might get to debut as the marquee attraction of the company’s first pay-per-view.

Because who needs champions when you’ve got Bautista vs. Bobby Lashley?