Strikeforce Has the Ingredients to Challenge the Zuffa Empire
The UFC is to mixed martial arts promotions as Major League Baseball is to America’s pastime – everyone else is just living in the minors. But that comparison can only be made after years and years of struggle to get off the ground, and following a 2001 purchase made my Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta to take over.
By late 2006, Zuffa had acquired World Extreme Cagefighting, and they had the ability to do that after riding a $222+ million year. Next was Pride, which brought the sport full-circle and introduced the Zuffa/UFC brand overseas while opening the door to top-flight fighters such as Mauricio Rua and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.
Despite the backing of impactful businessmen such as Donald Trump, Affliction folded in the midst of a failed performance-enhancing drug test by one of its largest stars Josh Barnett, and only existed long enough to put together two events.
Following a rift between the clothing sector of Affliction Entertainment and the UFC, the brand was banned from the Octagon after rumors developed that Affliction was planning to set out on its own. And even with the prized possession that is Fedor Emelianenko, they didn’t have the ability to absorb the loss of a huge main event just days before it was scheduled to take place. Once again, Zuffa stood on the mountaintop alone, looking down at those failing to even touch its feet.
However, over the past few months it has become clear that there is one promotion that will not go away quietly, and that has the working parts to throw a wrench into the machine that is Zuffa. Turning their focus to MMA in 2006, Strikeforce has slowly worked its way into the picture utilizing two main proponents, making them an exciting, entertaining, and now a must-watch event.
The names are all there, and not just names that only the hardcore fan will recognize, but some of the biggest in the business. Whenever you can say you have “The Last Emperor” Fedor Emelianenko under contract, you can expect to carry some weight. After the collapse of Affliction, a bidding war and negotiations battle between the UFC and Strikeforce erupted, one that was heavily publicized and ripe with rumors. Ultimately, Fedor signed with Strikeforce, and did not disappoint in November when he got a TKO win over Brett Rogers.
But it’s not just Fedor. Most recently, the UFC let Dan Henderson, former Pride champion and top middleweight contender in the sport, slip through the cracks, and Strikeforce stepped up to sweep him in (and pay him). A likeable fighter who can attract a large audience, Henderson now pairs with the already locked up Jake Shields, and the new kids on the block now control two of the top ten 185-ers on the planet. Additionally, they possess Fabricio Werdum, Alistair Overeem, and Jason “Mayhem” Miller, who can get just about anyone to watch with his pre-fight entrance and post-fight antics. Gegard Mousasi is also widely considered on par with Forrest Griffin and “Little Nog” in the light heavyweight division.
Strikeforce has also made an allegiance to a sector of MMA that Zuffa has left completely untapped – the ladies. In August of 2009, the promotion put its newly created women’s title up for grabs at Carano vs. Cyborg, and opened up a new dimension of national competition in the sport. While there are those out there that consider these bouts to be the WNBA of MMA, there is no doubt the fights are at the very least entertaining, and pack with them a whole different type of viewing experience. And if the fights aren’t enough, the general sex appeal of Gina Carano recognized by those in the industry alone could draw viewers.
Zuffa has done a very good job of securing successful, dedicated television partners that give the fighters and events tons of spotlight across cable and satellite lineups. Spike and Versus have treated the sport kindly and promoted it to new levels, but when Strikeforce was able to land a partnership with CBS, a brand new market revealed itself to MMA in its attempt to become a mainstream sport. Over the course of the two-hour runtime, Fedor vs. Rogers, the first Strikeforce event to air on CBS, drew close to 25 million viewers worldwide. And with more events to air on the national broadcast network in the future, not only will MMA as a sport reap the benefits, but as you can imagine, so will Strikeforce.
Yet, perhaps most importantly, Strikeforce doesn’t seem to be intimidated by the power of Zuffa. The promotion is content to let the UFC try as they might to sign the big name fighters, and be there to catch them when they are unable. Dan Henderson is a prime example of this. The UFC often suffers from overextension, in the way that they have so many big stars they often disregard the terrific talent that is there on the tier below the upper crust. Strikeforce is going to be there to sweep up those pieces and continue to put on entertaining events. Within Strikeforce now is a solid yet potent lineup of very good mixed martial artists, and while the UFC needs to wait months and months on end to throw Georges St.-Pierre on another main card, Strikeforce can deliver tremendous cards such as we saw at Fedor vs. Rogers. They aren’t under the pressure or the limelight.
Does Zuffa still rule the roost? Absolutely. But is it fair to dismiss Strikeforce as another promotion who is currently just treading water soon to be swept away by the tidal wave of the UFC and WEC? No, and that’s naïve. They have earned the respect, put together the collection of fighters, and conducted their business in a way that no one can write them off. And as they continue to hang around and sit on the backburner, they are only constructing an even stronger case as to why they deserve your attention.