Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker explained to MMA Fighting's Ariel Helwani on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour that simply putting together the tournament was a trial in and of itself, but the labor was made easier by one thing: the fighters' desire to get in the cage and mix it up.
"You're dealing with eight managers, from eight different camps, wanting eight different things," Coker told Helwani. "But in the end, everybody wanted to fight in the tournament, and they said, 'Sign me up.' From Fedor [Emelianenko] to Alistair [Overeem] to, you know, Andrei [Arlovski], they all wanted to be in the tournament, because in the old days, let's say, in Pride, the tournament was very, very popular. I think this is kind of a throwback to that era."
One notable departure from the set-ups typical in the Pride tournaments, however, is the recently announced match-ups for the first round of Strikeforce's ambitious heavyweight tournament. Right off the bat champion Alistair Overeem is slated to take on top contender Fabricio Werdum, with the winner meeting the winner of a bout between MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko and Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva.
Coker said the decision to match so many big names against each other right away was motivated partially by timing – Emelianenko, according to Coker, "wants to fight yesterday" – but also partially by a desire to make sure the peculiarities of the tournament don't get in the way of making the most exciting fights possible.
"Very rarely in a tournament does it ever work out where the last two guys are the guys everyone wants to see fight," said Coker. "So I said to my guys, 'What about this scenario: let them fight in the semi-finals, and let them get it on, and whoever wins moves forward.' ...Let's say Fedor does get past 'Bigfoot' and then Alistair wins that fight, then we're guaranteed to see a big fight."
But the question remains, if the later rounds of the tournament produce the best-case matchmaking scenarios, will Strikeforce continue to offer those events on Showtime, or could a jump to pay-per-view be in the works?
On that score Coker opted to play it close to the vest, remarking, "We're going to put the first two [rounds] on Showtime...and then we're going to take it from there. I'll tell you, it's something that definitely, I would buy it on pay-per-view."
Coker said he hadn't spoken with anyone at CBS about using the tournament for a return to the network, and added that a media conference call on Thursday would iron out some of the rules and 'what-ifs' for the tournament.
Among the chief concerns is whether the Strikeforce heavyweight title will be up for grabs throughout the tournament. Under the unified rules, title fights are slated for five rounds while all other bouts are limited to three-round affairs. Coker said he hopes to get every bout in the tournament scheduled for five rounds in the interest of fairness, but it's unclear at the moment which athletic commissions might allow it.
As Coker explained, "It's not fair because you have a guy in your tournament who's fighting a five-round fight, and everybody else is fighting three-round fights. And you know the championship rounds, rounds four and five, somebody could get hurt and it's not fair. It's an unfair situation."
Recent signee Josh Barnett, who has yet to fight for Strikeforce but is scheduled to compete in the tournament, presents another potential dilemma. He was denied a license in California in 2009 due to a positive steroid test, and subsequent efforts to get reinstated there have led only to a string of continuances.
As a result, Coker said, many state commissions are reluctant to allow Barnett to fight in Strikeforce's tournament while his issues with the California State Athletic Commission remain unresolved.
"That was the attitude in some states, but we have about six commissions that said, 'Look, have him come in and test, and if it's clean we'll let him fight,'" said Coker. "...The thing with California, that's between Josh and the athletic commission. ...Six weeks ago he went to the [CSAC] offices and took a test, which was clean, so why not let the guy fight? For me, I'm not going to judge him on his past. I'm going to judge him on what he does for us as a company today. And we're just going to move forward. I think Josh has moved forward. I think people should just move forward."
As far as the time-frame for completing the tournament, Coker estimated it would wrap up by September or October of 2011, saying there was "no chance" it will continue into 2012 – even if it means that the organization might have to replace fighters who are sidelined with injuries for extended periods of time.
"Let's face it, if you have to wait a month or six weeks for Fedor, two months, you're going to do it," Coker said. "If you have to wait a year and he has to have knee surgery or shoulder surgery, you might not wait for him. But we're going to do our best to keep the fighters in there that we're announcing, and we're going to try to be patient with their injuries if it does happen."
The first batch of tournament bouts is slated for February 12 at the Izod Center in New Jersey, with the date and venue of the second batch still to be decided.
Coker also confirmed alternate bouts between Shane del Rosario and Lavar Johnson, as well as another between Valentijn Overeem and Ray Sefo. A third alternate bout is also set to be announced soon, though Coker would only say that it will not feature former Olympian Daniel Cormier.
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