Strikeforce: An Old Yeller Story

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In which Chris talks about Strikeforce’s legacy and whether its prolonged demise was inevitable.

MMA fans are a notoriously fickle bunch with a cruelly short and selective memory. Some promotions are elevated beyond reproach due to being killed off before their time while some promotion’s promise and genuine contribution to the MMA diaspora is played down and almost forgotten as their demise is painfully dragged out. Strikeforce is definitely in the latter category. That’s a shame, and a wee trip down memory land will show us why.

Strikeforce transitioned from a kickboxing into an MMA promotion in 2006 and immediately made headway, being the first promotion to run a regulated card in California and breaking the attendance record for an MMA event in the USA which they would continue to hold until UFC 129, five years later.

Building on the cache of former UFC stars like Frank Shamrock and the local celebrity of Cung Le, Strikeforce combined a roster of promising young stars with big names coming through for main events to quickly develop into a significant player in the US scene.

With the likes of future UFC standouts Cain Velasquez and Clay Guida passing through on their way to the big show, alongside mainstays like Gilbert Melendez and Josh Thomson who have become synonymous with Strikeforce as a supporting cast to the likes of Tank Abbot, Vitor Belfort, Alistair Overeem and even Bob Sapp in the main events, Strikeforce adopted the time honoured route of an upstart MMA promotion combining youth with more expensive draws to great effect.

Real progress was made in 2009 when Strikeforce obtained several assets including fighter contracts and a TV deal from the defunct EliteXC organisation. Regularly televised events on Showtime were capitalised upon by adding the developmental ‘Strikeforce: Challengers’ series to their output.

Before the end of the year the promotion had put on the first major MMA event to be headlined by women in the shape of Strikeforce: Carano vs. Cyborg and had secured the contracts of PRIDE veteran and widely regarded ‘greatest fighter of all time’ Fedor Emelianenko (who made his debut with a second round TKO of previously undefeated Brett Rogers in November) and Dan Henderson (who made his debut in 2010.)

All of a sudden, Strikeforce was the de facto #2 promotion in the United States, taking the progressive approach with WMMA, with a heavyweight division that threatened to be more compelling than the UFC’s and was managing to attract fighters that the UFC wanted and even fighters away from the long term dominant promotion.

A little momentum was lost in 2010 as Jake Shields defeated Dan Henderson who was making his Strikeforce debut and then promptly signed with the UFC, Fedor Emelianenko suffered his first proper professional loss at the hands of Fabricio Werdum and the relative lack of depth in the roster was revealed as the likes of KJ Noons and Evangelista Santos were awarded Welterweight title shots.

However, grand plans can overcome adversity and eager to capitalise on the fond memories of PRIDE tournaments, Strikeforce conceived of the Heavyweight Grand Prix. Featuring their heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem, big draw Fedor Emelianenko and mainstays like Fabricio Werdum, Brett Rogers and Antonio Silva alongside a who’s who of the available heavyweight talent, most notably Josh Barnett the Grand Prix showcased the division that most fascinates the public and threatened to drag attention away from the UFC’s big men for the next year at least.

So 2011 started with great hopes, which were almost immediately dashed as marketable names Fedor Emelianenko and Andrei Arlovski crashed out of the opening round of the Heavyweight Grand PrIx. However, this was followed immediately by Dan Henderson, (having rehabilitated himself with a win over old foe Renato Sobral) knocking out Rafael Cavalcante to earn the Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Championship, giving the promotion another truly marketable champion.

Then, all of a sudden it was announced that Zuffa, the parent company of the UFC had purchased the promotion.

Speculation ran wild as to whether Strikeforce would be asset stripped and rolled up, or kept running as a valid ‘middle league’ subservient to the UFC but still designed to be a meaningful brand for MMA fans and fighters alike. The UFC and media partners Showtime insisted that it was the latter, and so it appeared for a while as the Grand Prix continued.

A lacklustre main event between Alistair Overeem and Fabricio Werdum was perhaps the beginning of the rot, a sign from within the company that the fighters weren’t quite ready to risk all for a promotion that might not exist next week.

Quality events headlined by Nick Diaz vs. Paul Daley and a ‘heavyweight’ superfight between Dan Henderson and Fedor Emelianenko – which resulted in Emelianenko’s third successive stoppage loss after going undefeated for a decade – showed that there was life in the brand, but when Alistair Overeem was removed from the Grand Prix semi finals due to injury (which resulted in more than a little brangling between the Strikeforce office and Showtime) it denuded that tournament of a lot of its momentum and meaning.

At the same time, marketable Strikeforce fighters were gradually being moved to the UFC with Welterweight champion Nick Diaz making his UFC debut in October and being swiftly followed by Light Heavyweight champion Dan Henderson, Heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem and marketable motormouth Jason Miller.

The Heavyweight Grand Prix limped to its conclusion, eventually being won by Daniel Cormier – the alternate who replaced Overeem – and the remaining champions tried their best in the face of a denuded roster with Gilbert Melendez and Luke Rockhold (who had won the Middleweight belt vacated by Jake Shields) holding onto their belts and Ronda Rousey claiming the Women’s 135lb title from Miesha Tate but setbacks like marketable stars Mo Lawal and Cristiane Santos failing drugs tests, the gradual creep of fighters to the UFC going un replaced meant that anything good which happened in Strikeforce became mired in an all consuming sense of futility.

Eventually, by the second half of 2012 it was clear that Strikeforce couldn’t survive as back to back events were cancelled due to injury call offs to key fighters.

Even the final card set for this Saturday had been seriously affected by injuries – or possibly by the sense that big name fighters who could expect to be going to the UFC once this is all over don’t want to risk that chance to an upset or injury now – with several title matches intended for the show which was to have been grandly subtitled “Strikeforce: Champions” having been scrubbed.
Even those fighters who have stayed the course have been fed less than compelling matches. Daniel Cormier and Josh Barnett – the two fighters so benefitted most from the Heavyweight Grand Prix – have final Strikeforce matches against opposition that may well be sitting on lengthy win streaks but are best described as ‘journeymen.’

I for one, will be glad when this is all over.

Zuffa mouthpiece Dana White had apologised to the Strikeforce roster for the way everything came apart, but it’s worth asking if it could have been another way?

For my part, as soon as the UFC started cherry picking the best of the Strikeforce talent, the writing was on the wall. A promotion which loses almost all of its champions in the space of months and doesn’t make any attempt to replace that talent is in deep quicksand.

Strikeforce could have been used as a way for Zuffa to test out the Flyweight division, the concept of WMMA as a drawing part of your card – Invicta has shown that there is a depth of talent and interest to make that a worthwhile project – and even as a place for popular UFC fighters on a slide to rehabilitate themselves or pass on some cache to fighters on the way up.

Instead for whatever reason, Zuffa almost completely asset stripped Strikeforce (there are a few fighters still notionally under SF contract that could be more than filler in the UFC, but Ill come to that later in the week) and allowed it to whither on the vine.

That’s a shame, but they’ve always shown that the UFC is the be all and end all for them and the likelihood of Zuffa maintaining Strikeforce as a sort of WEC version 2.0 was always slim.

So what’s the point of this article?

It’s that we should remember Strikeforce fondly.

They showed that a new, domestic promotion can scare the UFC, that the Grand Prix format still excites people, that women can headline a major MMA card in the USA. That even at its most successful point, the UFC didn’t have everything nailed down (and that despite buying and absorbing Strikeforce, they still don’t.)

That’s all wildly positive stuff, and is well worth remembering.

Strikeforce also reinforced several lessons that every up and coming MMA promotion should remember…

Never commit to a TV deal that ends up being more restrictive than it is empowering, always remember that your titles need to matter, always book with an eye on a sustainable future rather than just concentrating on the event at hand, always put on the best show you can and have confidence in your product.

Those lessons appear to have been well learned by Strikeforce office alum Shannon Knapp as she embarks on building Invicta FC. That’s another thing we need to remember Strikeforce fondly for – it prized open the door that Invicta have been able to slip through.

Sure, Strikeforce had its unfortunate incidents, from the Nashville Brawl to Brett Rogers being given a title shot coming off a KO loss. The likes of Gilbert Melendez Nd Luke Rockhold may well feel like they’ve had a year of their career wasted in purgatory but none of that really devalues what the promotion did achieve in its relatively short run.

So, as we bid farewell to yet another MMA promotion which has been ground down by the machine, take a moment to remember the highs, the achievements – the bits where Old Yeller was our beloved dog. Try not to dwell on what happened when he went rabid, but learn the lessons so it doesn’t happen again.

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