If you're a fight fan cruising the premium cable channels this Friday night in the hopes of either catching some MMA action or the last thirty minutes of "Days of Thunder," you might find yourself feeling a bit confused.
Not about "Days of Thunder." That one's pretty straight-forward, even though never in the history of the world has there existed a neurologist as attractive as Nicole Kidman.
But there on Showtime at 8 pm PT, that's where you'll find a live presentation of Strikeforce: Challengers
. It's on the same network as last weekend's "Heavy Artillery" event, same cage, same basic idea, and yet there's a clear distinction being made.
For reasons that are still unclear to me, Strikeforce would like you to understand that you're not seeing their A-team at work here. Not in the cage and not at the broadcast table (with the exception of Pat Miletich
, who's as good a color commentator as there is in MMA right now).
That's why they call it Challengers, apparently. Just so you aren't confused into thinking that they're bringing you their best. As the official tagline on Strikeforce's website describes it, this is "where champions are born."
Try telling that to main eventer Matt Lindland
, who's 40 years old and on the downward slope of a decorated career. He's not so much trying to give birth to a career, but rather keep it out of the nursing home.
It's not that I don't understand the idea behind Strikeforce's attempt to designate one of its shows as the minor leagues. In a less structured way, that's what the UFC has successfully done with the Spike TV "Fight Night" events. What I don't understand is what Strikeforce ultimately hopes to accomplish with it.
"Fight Night" shows work, at least in theory, like this: you watch less experienced/lower-tier UFC fighters for free on basic cable shows, you get to know and like them in between commercials for video games and body spray, and when the cream of the crop eventually rises up to the pay-per-view level, you're more likely to pony up the cash to see your old pals fight on the big stage.
Only Strikeforce doesn't do pay-per-views (yet), and Challengers airs on the same premium cable channel as the regular events. The only difference is the night (Friday, when apparently no A-level fighter would deign to beat someone up) and the cast of characters.
It's the equivalent of telling your audience that they're getting your second-best product with your second-best service staff (again, Miletich is the bright, shining exception here), only you're going to charge them full price. It makes no sense, especially when we stop and consider that Strikeforce doesn't exactly have the roster depth that the UFC enjoys.
What Strikeforce does have is enough good fighters to keep putting on consistently solid events once a month or so. There's no point in creating a Strikeforce Lite. What, is Strikeforce hoping that fans will be really excited about seeing one of their favorite Challengers fighters get called up to Strikeforce proper? Is there a whole untapped demographic that only watches sports on Friday night?
All Challengers does is dilute the main product and remind fans and fighters that some of these guys they're staying home on a Friday to watch are just barely good enough to be on TV, by the promoter's own tacit admission. It also results in quality fighters like Tyron Woodley
, a former University of Missouri wrestler who would have been a perfect fit for last week's St. Louis fight card, getting relegated to the status of a minor leaguer.
The thing for Strikeforce to do is forget this nonsense and quietly do away with the Challengers brand. The good news is, it's not like anyone will miss it.