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As UFC and Strikeforce Team Up, It's Far From Business as Usual

CHULA VISTA, Calif. – If there was any doubt that change was in the air, it vanished the moment two UFC PR reps walked into Wednesday's open workouts both drinking giant cans of Rockstar – the official energy drink of Strikeforce.

Two months ago this would have been an unthinkable incursion into enemy territory for a Zuffa employee, and one fueled by heresy in a can. Now it's the new normal.

It seems minor at first, but sometimes it's the little things that signal the start of a big change. As Strikeforce counts down the final days until its first major event under the ownership of Zuffa -- the UFC's parent company -- change is evident in dozens of small ways. If you think the subtle differences are lost on the fighters, think again.

"Things are more organized. They run better," said former Strikeforce light heavyweight champ Gegard Mousasi, who lounged in one corner of the gym on Wednesday afternoon after a little light work to prepare for his bout with former UFC fighter Keith Jardine. "You can already see small differences from the UFC people. As a fighter, I like things like buses going to and from the shops. Small things, but it makes a difference."

For instance, take the open workouts themselves. For the UFC, it's a mainstay of the fight week PR schedule, something you can mark on your calendar the moment you know the date of the next event. Fighters come in like clockwork, go through the motions of hitting pads or choking out sparring partners for the cameras, and then they do the media rounds and get out before they have to share much mat time with their opponents.

It's an orderly, predictable march, whereas Strikeforce's open workouts – if they happen at all – tend to sprawl out all at once like flood waters that have just barely crested the banks of a river.

It's not just the media that notices differences like these. Even lightweight champ Gilbert Melendez remarked upon the new sensation of having Zuffa hovering over the fight week activities while Strikeforce's staff mostly faded into the background.

"It's a lot more structure right now," said Melendez. "People mean business."

It's more than just having a firmer schedule to go by on fight week, Melendez pointed out. Now he has "the marketing machine of the UFC behind [him]," and the difference is palpable.

"More than anything, I've just seen it more on the internet and in the media and Twitter responses and stuff like that," Melendez said.

Fellow Strikeforce lightweight Lyle Beerbohm, who showed up to the workouts in a pair of colorful shorts that made UFC director of communications Dave Sholler remark that he finally understood why Beerbohm went by the nickname "Fancy Pants," echoed the sentiment.

"It's definitely different," Beerbohm said. "It's a good difference. You can tell there's more stuff going on, more press, all that. It's nice."

Of course, even the UFC's experienced PR team isn't perfect. Strikeforce welterweight champ Nick Diaz, who was scheduled to lead off Wednesday afternoon's workouts at the Alliance MMA gym, never showed up at all. All day long there were rumors of Diaz, but never Diaz himself.

Just the fact that Zuffa managed to get him on a media conference last week was impressive enough, but when it comes to getting the notoriously media shy Diaz to turn up on time and talk into a camera just days before his fight, even the best PR staff has limits.

But while the increased structure and media attention are certainly the perks of the Strikeforce sale, fighters are aware that they come at a price.

"Some of the fighters are a little worried about a monopoly or whatever," said Melendez. "But it just forces us to work a little bit harder. You've got to stay sharp on your game. There's a flood of fighters in the game, but there's a high demand for some real talent out there. I feel like you've got to work hard to be that talent."

Melendez added that he hopes "Strikeforce stays Strikeforce," in part because he's the man currently wearing the promotion's 155-pound belt, and also because he recently signed a new contract that he's pleased with.

"Now I get the best of both worlds," he said. "For me, it worked out for my benefit. Obviously it's a little more cutthroat...I was a big fish in a small pond, and now I'm a pretty good-sized fish in the ocean. That means I've got to perform, got to deliver, and I think I'll fit in really well."

The hardest part for many of the fighters is the uncertainty of the situation. While UFC president Dana White said it would be "business as usual" at Strikeforce after the sale, all it takes is one cursory glance around this week to tell that's not the case. It makes it difficult for fighters to tell whether their goal should be to climb the Strikeforce ladder, or whether they should be focused on auditioning for the UFC with each outing.

"I hear rumors a lot," said Mousasi, who returns to the Strikeforce cage on Saturday night for the first time since losing his title to Mo Lawal last April. "It's definitely more pressure now. There's basically one major organization, so you know, don't screw up? That's pretty much it."

In the fight game, that's easier said than done. What's a positive change for some could easily turn out to be disastrous to others. In the end, at least according to Mousasi, it boils down to a very simple equation.

"You have to win, that's all. Just win your fights. If you're good, you'll make it."

That's the hope, anyway. For fighters, it's the only part of the game that never changes.

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