Now say one of the biggest favorites from the less star-studded part of the tournament bracket doesn't have a license to fight in the state where your organization is based. Say that same licensing problem puts him at odds with many of the more reputable state athletic commissions around the U.S.
What do you do?
If you said, 'Flee the country,' I have some bad news for you. That's not only the wrong answer, but it's quite possibly the worst answer. It's also the answer that Strikeforce seems to be considering, judging by CEO Scott Coker's remarks to MMA Junkie recently.
Explaining that the Strikeforce tournament is "a world grand prix tournament," Coker said the organization was considering holding some of the events in Ontario, Canada or Japan. And why not? With several fighters in the tournament who are proven draws in the Land of the Rising Sun, you could see why Strikeforce might think Tokyo sounds better and better as a host city.
But Coker's not eyeing Japan just because he's always wanted to see the Strikeforce pyrotechnic display go off inside the Saitama Super Arena, and we all know it.
The problem is Josh Barnett. With no license to fight in California after the failed steroid test that helped derail Affliction's MMA experiment, and with very little apparent interest in doing the things he needs to do to get himself in the clear with most U.S. commissions, he's starting to look like a potential liability for Strikeforce. He brings considerable talent and charisma to the organization, but he also brings a question of legitimacy.
Think of it this way: with Barnett on the easier side of the bracket, there's an excellent chance that he could fight his way into the tournament finals. But if Strikeforce has to schedule all his fights around his licensing issues – either in Japan or somewhere in North America where the commissions aren't picky about a fighter's outstanding problems in other states – what does that do to the claim that the tournament winner will be the world's best heavyweight?
How seriously can we take this Grand Prix if it is legally barred from taking place in one of the more reputable states for MMA competitions?
The key for Strikeforce in this endeavor is going to be transparency. Wherever there is even the appearance of potential impropriety, it's got to be rooted out. When you take a tournament that features several fighters with either positive steroid tests or ubiquitous steroid accusations hanging over their heads, and you combine it with things like an "independent" fourth judge to break potential ties and a Strikeforce commission to choose injury replacements, what you have is prime fodder for conspiracy theorists.
What Strikeforce needs here is more regulation and oversight, not less. It needs to show that everything about this tournament is as clean and fair as humanly possible, so that the eventual winner can rightly lay claim to being the world's best heavyweight.
In other words, Strikeforce needs to make like the UFC once did and run towards regulation rather than away from it. Hunting for friendly commissions (or effectively lawless foreign territories) might seem like an easy short-term fix, but in the end it's counter-productive.
Just imagine for a moment what would happen if Strikeforce got its dream tournament final bout between Fedor Emelianenko and Barnett, and yet had to relegate the event to the modern-day regulatory equivalent of an offshore barge?
If the Strikeforce tournament is going to determine the world's best heavyweight – and it certainly could – then all those heavyweights need to be licensed fighters in good standing with the relevant commissions. If that means Coker needs to tell Barnett to either step up or bow out when his next day in court with the California State Athletic Commission rolls around, so be it.
If this tournament is important enough to bring together several of the world's top heavyweights, then it's also important enough to be done the right way. And how do you know if you're doing it the right way? For starters, you don't have to search too hard to find a regulatory body willing to let you do it.
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