In fact, one can barely consider the novelty of the UFC card without acknowledging the obvious Strikeforce influence. While there are obvious differences between the two events, the two rosters between the organizations can be meaningfully compared. And given that comparisons have to be limited but not out of bounds, the most pressing question is which event had the stronger roster of heavyweights?
It's true the UFC's absolute and comparative advantages here are hard to overstate. However, it's also true the deck is stacked slightly in Strikeforce's favor. We are not measuring or comparing what kind of tournament or what the best possible all-heavyweight main card is the UFC can put together. We are merely comparing Strikeforce's best historical heavyweight event against an excellent but not resource-draining creation by UFC.
There are a few methods to compare rosters, but the most obvious is rankings. Despite debate among the community as to the accuracy or value of fighter rankings, they are the best if very imperfect method of evaluating status and accomplishment.
The first leg of the Grand Prix kicked off in February of 2011. Therefore, let's take at the rankings of the Strikeforce heavyweights on the cusp of the tournament's beginning. According to the USA TODAY/SB Nation Consensus MMA Rankings (a measure of the MMA rankings community aggregate view), they were as follows:
By comparison, here's where the top eight of UFC 146's ten main card fighters rank as of the time of this writing:
What's the major takeaway? The Strikeforce roster is very competitive, but not as top heavy or deep as the upcoming UFC 146 main card. There are more, higher-ranked fighters on UFC 146 than there were at any point in the Grand Prix. That's also true in terms of top ten talent.
One could argue several of the Strikeforce fighters were underrated. But several of them bottomed out in the course of the tourney. Those that succeeded have climbed the ranks. The case for a major recalibration of the February 2011 rankings is a tough sell.
The Strikeforce top eight are competitive, though. Like the top eight of the UFC's main card, Strikeforce's tournament featured four fighters who at some point held a major heavyweight title in MMA (Emelianenko for PRIDE, Overeem for Strikeforce, Barnett and Arlovski for UFC). And two of the UFC main card fighters - Alistair Overeem and Antonio Silva (del Rosario was an alternate) - were a part of the Strikeforce tournament. Due to Overeem's victory over Werdum in the tournament and dominating performance of former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar, today they're in an accumulatively improved rankings position than they were before the tournament started.
It's true and regrettable the Strikeforce tournament is limping to an end. And as aforementioned, it's also true several participants have fallen on hard times. Emelianenko would lose first round to Silva and subsequently to Dan Henderson, ultimately resulting in his dismissal from Strikeforce. Arlovski would lose first round to Kharitonov - his fourth in a row - and would also leave the organization. Brett Rogers, too, would be cut due to his run-in with the law on charges of domestic abuse after being easily bested by Barnett. Given Golden Glory's poor relationship with Zuffa, Kharitonov's MMA future remains uncertain.
Hindsight is always 20/20, though. It's easy today to dismiss Arlovski's or even Emelianenko's inclusion in the tournament as evidence of strong competition. We've witnessed their decline. Trying to appreciate the original February 2011 context is psychically impossible. There were reasons to be skeptical of their merit then, yes, but decline in fight sport is precipitous. And given Strikeforce's limited resources, what they were able to cobble together at the time was rather remarkable. That, too, is a benefit of retrospection.
The tournament's legacy will not be that the best heavyweight in MMA was crowned. Nor will it be a positive referendum on Strikeforce's ability execute on a vision. Instead, it's that permutations on the sort of fights and format Strikeforce lined up are very promotable at the highest level. That's not the success Strikeforce sought in February of 2011, but a rose by any other name smells just as sweet. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
All of this also suggests UFC 146's main card deserves some extra acknowledgement for what it says about those staging the event.
Strikeforce's collection of tournament fight cards relied on the best their division had to offer. It's not as nimble or elegant a feat as constructing a single fight card that can more than rival the tournament's talent. Also consider several ranked UFC heavyweights - Fabricio Werdum, Shane Carwin, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira - are not even part of this upcoming card. There is a disconnect between what the UFC is capable of and what they're doing. Given how well they're doing, it's staggering to consider how much better it could be.
The UFC is significantly more powerful than Strikeforce both then and especially now. Appreciating or acknowledging as isn't a particularly difficult task. One can naturally infer even with a more limited platform they'd be able to create a product to surpass any of their competitors.
As we look back on the Strikeforce experiment, though, we can recognize the UFC 146 card succeeds by poaching several Strikeforce stars and aping what's alluring about the heavyweight tournament: a night(s) of top talent in bouts of both significance and slugging and the promise of more to come. UFC 146 feels as if Zuffa capitalized on what was right about the Strikeforce tournament while shrinking or eliminating that which held the tournament back.
The May 26 fight card is the single best showcase of ranked, heavyweight talent in a single night in MMA history. For that, UFC deserves credit both for having the resources and executing on them. But credit, too, goes to Strikeforce. Although they stumbled along they way, they birthed a clever idea. In more capable hands, that idea turns out to be fun for fans, record-setting for the sport and excellent for the UFC's financial bottom line.