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Strikeforce Tournament Could Crown MMA's Top Heavyweight

There's no such thing as "the heavyweight champion of the world" in mixed martial arts. That's a title that various promoters can bestow on their fighters, but the reality is that the promotions have their own heavyweight champions. If those champions won't fight each other, then we never really know, for sure, who the champ is.

But there is usually a consensus opinion among MMA fans and the MMA media about who the top heavyweight is. For years, the top heavyweight was Fedor Emelianenko, which meant that the No. 1 heavyweight resided outside the UFC. The combination of Fedor's loss to Fabricio Werdum and Cain Velasquez's victory over Brock Lesnar, however, solidified Velasquez, in the eyes of most observers, as the No. 1 heavyweight.

None of the fighters participating in Strikeforce's eight-man heavyweight tournament will get the opportunity to wrest control of the mythical heavyweight crown away from Velasquez inside the cage. But the tournament will give the winner a lot of ammunition for an argument that he is, in fact, the best. And the tournament gives Strikeforce its best chance of making a legitimate case that its champion -- and not the UFC's -- is the best heavyweight.

A big reason for that is the injury suffered by Velasquez in his fight with Lesnar, which will almost certainly limit the UFC to one heavyweight championship fight this year. UFC President Dana White is fond of saying that in order to be the best, you have to fight high-quality competition three times a year. None of the UFC's top heavyweights will do that in 2011, but if the Strikeforce tournament goes according to plan, its winner will.

I suppose this is a good place to make clear that I remain skeptical that the Strikeforce tournament will go according to plan. There are so many moving parts that could go wrong: Maybe Fedor will win a fight and then want to renegotiate his contract, as he's done before. Maybe Josh Barnett or Antonio Silva will win a fight and then get suspended over a failed drug test, as they've done before. Maybe a winner of a first-round fight will suffer an injury, as is always a risk in any tournament.

But if I'm wrong (and I sure hope I'm wrong), and if Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker is right when he says confidently that "We'll be done before the end of the year," there will be a lot of momentum for the winner of the tournament to be considered the No. 1 heavyweight in MMA.
[If the tournament concludes before end of 2011], there will be a lot of momentum for the winner of the tournament to be considered the No. 1 heavyweight in MMA.
-- MDS

The fighter who could have the strongest case when it's all said and done is probably Alistair Overeem. No one doubts that Overeem is enormously talented, but there are some doubts about the quality of MMA competition he's faced. Those doubts could be erased if Overeem were to beat Werdum in the first round of the tournament and then beat Fedor in the second round and, maybe, Barnett in the final. If Overeem got through that murderer's row, I'd have a hard time not declaring him the best heavyweight in the sport.

I'd also have a hard time not declaring Fedor the best heavyweight in the sport if he were to beat Silva in the first round, then either avenge his loss to Werdum or beat Overeem in the semifinal, and then win the final as well. Fedor has been the No. 1 heavyweight in the world for most of the last decade, and if he were to win three fights against top competition in one calendar year, it would be difficult to deny him that title again.

Werdum is a trickier case because of the way he left the UFC, after suffering a first-round knockout loss to Junior dos Santos. For some MMA observers, that loss will keep Werdum below dos Santos on the MMA rankings. But if Werdum were to win this tournament, he'd be on a six-fight winning streak with victories over Mike Kyle, Silva, Fedor and Overeem, and then maybe Fedor again and Barnett. That would be about as impressive a six-fight run as any heavyweight has ever had.

And then there's Barnett. MMA fans have grown disgusted with Barnett because of his repeated positive steroid tests, including the one in 2009 that derailed his scheduled fight with Fedor. But let's not forget that if Barnett had fought Fedor and beaten him, he would have been universally acclaimed as the No. 1 heavyweight in MMA. If Barnett beats Brett Rogers, then beats either Andrei Arlovski or Sergei Kharitonov, and then beats Fedor, and if he produces a clean urine sample before and after each of those fights, he'll have as strong a case that he's No. 1 in 2011 as he would have had in 2009.

Strikeforce's heavyweights are getting together for a tournament at a good time for them to compare themselves to the top heavyweights in the UFC. With Velasquez, Shane Carwin and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira injured, Lesnar and Roy Nelson having uncertain futures and dos Santos and Frank Mir on the sidelines for a surprisingly long time, the top of the UFC's heavyweight division is stagnating just as the Strikeforce heavyweight division is surging.

If that surge continues, and if for the next 10 months we get a bunch of great heavyweight fights, the Strikeforce heavyweight champion will have a legitimate claim to being the best in the world.

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