Hello everyone! I know it has been a while since my last column, but life as a third year law student can be tough. I've received some e-mails asking where I had been and if I was going to continue writing, and I appreciate many of those kind words. So here I am, back in the saddle, with a different kind of column that I normally do. Regular readers know I usually review the major cards that have taken place while giving my own personal take on the fights. This column is going to be different. Sure, I could review the latest Dream event, UFC: Kampmann v. Condit or the Showtime Strikeforce debut...but not today. Instead, I want to talk about a topic I think could dominate MMA over the next few years...
Can Strikeforce actually challenge the UFC?
The new-look Strikeforce debuted on Showtime this past Saturday with a few big names and some interesting fights. Headlined by Frank Shamrock v. Nick Diaz in San Jose, the card drew 15,000+ fans. No surprise there was Shamrock is a San Jose legend, Diaz hails not far away in Stockton and Strikeforce always draws well in San Jose. The result though, is probably not what Scott Coker and company was hoping for. Diaz handled Shamrock with ease, stopping the former King of Pancrase and UFC Middleweight Champion in the second round. Shamrock, along with current Strikeforce Middleweight Champion Cung Le, are the stars of the promotion. A re-match had already been planned between the two stars. So while losing to Le isn't a huge problem for Strikeforce, the loss to Diaz presents a problem. Shamrock in no way deserves to fight Le again, while this win doesn't prove a lot for Diaz. He beat an aging pioneer of MMA who has little left of the skill-set that once allowed him to withstand an onslaught from Tito Ortiz and allowed him to capture many victories in Japan.
Frank Shamrock is charismatic and a proven draw. The name alone is worth a bunch of tickets sold. Can we say the same for Diaz? Can Nick Diaz carry this promotion? I don't think so, but I may be wrong. At what weight does Diaz fight at? We know Strikeforce will not be continuing the ridiculous 160-pound division EXC built specifically for Diaz so that weight is out. Sure he won at 180 pounds, looking bigger than Shamrock, but does Diaz really stand a chance in a re-match with Robbie Lawler? We know he won't be fighting teammate Jake Shields anytime soon, and the 170-pound division in Strikeforce is very weak beyond that. Diaz can't make 155, so I'm not sure where he goes from here. Diaz is certainly a polarizing figure, one that draws a love/hate opinion from almost all MMA fans. Diaz has a ton of talent, nobody can deny that. He is young and has been in the world with the best, but is he a poster boy? I've recently heard comparisons of Diaz to Tito Ortiz, and how both draw a ton of heat and have fans on both sides of the coin. This is true. But there are key differences. 1) Ortiz is a proven draw...check the PPV numbers for his fights with Ken Shamrock and Chuck Liddell. 2) For all the crap Ortiz talks pre-fight, its more like Frank Shamrock crap-talk than what Diaz does...Ortiz is trying to sell PPV buys, it rarely, if ever, is that personal. Diaz often really dislikes his opponent, often acts like a real punk and talks too much crap, both in and out of the cage. 3) Ortiz is not an admitted pothead who had his best victory taken away for being high...Diaz is guilty as charged here. This raises a lot of ire among fans, including mine. 4) Ortiz fights in the glamour division of MMA, and this should not be understated. While the top talent resides with the UFC currently, LHW is still the glamour division of MMA like Heavyweight was for boxing for many years. Diaz, while he has the ability to fight in multiple weight classes, does not fight there. In the end, Nick Diaz put a damper on Strikeforce's plans to put on Shamrock/Le II. With that, he has taken some luster off one of Strikeforce's big names and destroyed a big main event. However, all is not lost for Strikeforce.
Scott Coker knows how to do business. This guy has quietly built a solid promotion, doing it the right way. Strikeforce was, and still is, very much a regional promotion. It draws very well in California and is looking to expand, but they are not about to put on a fight in Vegas. They bought the important assets of EXC and brought over many of the key fighters under contract there. Two big names still remain...Kevin "Kimbo Slice" Ferguson and Gina Carano. I don't expect Coker to get railroaded by their demands, and he shouldn't. Strikeforce does not need these two names to succeed like EXC did. They would just be icing on the cake. Ferguson has already said he wants to box, and while Carano is incredibly popular and gorgeous, I find only one fight to be interesting for her. What Coker does need to do is expand his roster...here are some important things he needs to do:
1) Sign Tito Ortiz immediately. Ortiz is going to command big money, but he is worth it. The man sells tickets, brings fans to the arena and will be able to carry a Strikeforce PPV, especially if his opponent is a name. The money he receives may piss a lot of people off, but its going to shed a lot of light on the promotion, something Strikeforce is going to need to compete with the UFC. Ortiz/Shamrock II makes perfect sense right now. I don't see any way Shamrock defeats Ortiz, and that is perfect. Tito needs a win over a name, and this fight will draw on PPV, trust me. Shamrock is washed up, this I am convinced of after watching him get pummeled by Diaz, and Ortiz may still have something left in the tank, depending on how this surgery really affected his back.
2) Continue to cross-promote, especially with Japan (DREAM). Strikeforce already has a working relationship with DREAM...they've sent Andre Galvao to compete in the WW Grand Prix and he will be returning upon completion. In addition, they've had Mitsuhiro Ishida fight under their banner as well as Kazuo Misaki (Sengoku Fighter). Continue to send your talent over and have them send talent over in return. Who wouldn't want to see Josh Thomson v. Joachim Hansen, Nick Diaz v. Hayato Sakurai (once-rumored to be for the WW title) or Gegard Mousasi v. Cung Le. Cross-Promotion is an important part of growing in MMA, and Strikeforce knows that well. Also continue to work with Affliction (more on them later) and unify MMA on all fronts.
3) Pay for talent, but do not overpay (Ortiz excluded). Strikeforce recently signed Fabricio Werdum (tremendous signing) and should continue to keep signing fighters. Yes, Werdum suffered a flash KO in his last UFC fight, but the guy is a top 10 HW. However, do not go out and pay for everyone. You can see the trouble Affliction is in right now. They're paying huge amounts of money and paying for it. Affliction is the big wild-card right now. A promotion that is seriously in trouble, built around 5 fighters. Do not follow this business model, it can only turn out poorly. Strikeforce won't be able to afford Fedor Emelianenko, but they also don't need him to succeed right now. If they build properly, in a few years, they can afford him...but paying that much money for him, or guys like Arlovski and Barnett would be a mistake, one I don't see Scott Coker making.
4) Knock off the catch-weight bouts. Much has been discussed about Shamrock/Diaz, enough that I need not repeat it here. However, it appears now that Jake Shields v. Robbie Lawler is going to be a bout at 182 pounds. Really? Why? Make the bought at 185. Shields constantly talks about how he wants to test himself, and if he is that adamant about it, let him fight Lawler at 185. This way, it means something in the divisional rankings. A bout at 182 makes no sense. Strikeforce only has one catch-weight bought I want to see in the near future, and that is Ortiz/Shamrock II. Schedule that fight for 200 pounds, and after that...enough is enough!
5) Keep your current booth in tact. Gus Johnson is just tremendous. The man makes paint drying sound exciting. Mauro Ranallo is something I've always liked and respected. However, I really enjoyed Pat Miletich. His commentary was insightful and he came off very smooth during the telecast. Let this crew gel together and I think they can really be one of the best out there.
6) Go out and get yourself a deal with Sports Illustrated for SI to be your official content partner. What better way to get some national exposure. Josh Gross, SI's top writer, is someone UFC President Dana White hates, with a very vague back story there. Go out and make this happen. Get Gross to start covering your events more and more, and get your name in the magazine. Everyone already knows the UFC, but if you pair yourself up with SI, you can really get the company to grow.
7) If you're going to main event a Cris "Cyborg" Santos/Gina Carano fight, do it on ShoMMA and not on a big card. While I personally would love to see this, I don't see this sitting well with fans. It should be an enjoyable fight, but not main event worthy. It is a fight for hardcore MMA fans only, not one the casual fan is going to want to see as a main event. First thing first though, get Carano signed. She surely is a face that can appeal to the casual fan.
The potential for Strikeforce to succeed is there. The UFC has had no true opposition since they bought Pride just over two years ago. I don't see Strikeforce becoming Pride anytime soon, but if they can follow some of this advice, and keep practicing their successful business model, they will be fine. MMA in Japan is in trouble right now, and neither DREAM nor Sengoku is going to challenge the UFC seriously anytime soon. Affliction is not going to be around much longer, and beyond that...what else is there? Not much. The UFC is without question the top dog, and that isn't going to change anytime soon. However, Strikeforce gives fighters an alternative. They allow fighters to be sponsored by Affliction and FullTilt, things the UFC does not. Their pay not be totally comparable, but in time I believe it could be. I truly hope Strikeforce succeeds, because the UFC needs competition. The UFC was at its best when Pride was giving it a run....and if Strikeforce can slowly build to that level, it is only going to benefit the fighters and the fans.
Please let me know your thoughts on Strikeforce, what you thought of their first card on Showtime and whether they can compete with the UFC.