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Strikeforce Tournament Goes From Major Success to Major Disappointment

<! mediaid=4305226 Gregory Payan, AP: img border="1" hspace="4" vspace="4" alt="Antonio Silva ground and pounds Fedor Emelianenko." align="right" src="" />Think back to how you felt about Strikeforce five months ago. If you're anything like me, you had just been thrilled by the first two fights of the opening round of the promotion's Heavyweight Grand Prix, you were in a lather for the next two fights of the Grand Prix's first round, and you were excited about the potential for this tournament to play out in such a way that it would crown a winner worthy of being called a heavyweight champion.

Fast forward to Monday's news that Alistair Overeem has dropped out of the Heavyweight Grand Prix, and what we're left with is a major disappointment as MMA fans: Strikeforce sold us on a heavyweight tournament it won't be able to deliver.

So much has changed since those first two tournament fights, when Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva upset Fedor Emelianenko and Sergei Kharitonov knocked out Andrei Arlovski. For starters, the next two tournament fights were delayed, killing a lot of the momentum that Strikeforce had built up. We were promised Overeem vs. Fabricio Werdum and Josh Barnett vs. Brett Rogers in April, and we ended up having to wait until June.

Then UFC parent company Zuffa bought Strikeforce, and that changed the dynamic around the Heavyweight Grand Prix: The tournament now felt less like an opportunity for Strikeforce's champion to stake his claim as the No.1 heavyweight in the world, and more like an opportunity for Strikeforce's champion to get a shot at the UFC champion. A heavyweight champion vs. heavyweight champion fight would still be great, of course, and I still hope it happens some time in 2012. But the Strikeforce Grand Prix doesn't feel as special when the final will be more like a No. 1 contender fight than a title fight.

Then, when Overeem-Werdum and Barnett-Rogers finally happened, two months too late, both fights were disappointing. Overeem won a unanimous decision in a fight without much action: Overeem didn't look like the devastating fighter we had come to expect, and Werdum didn't look like any kind of fighter at all. Barnett vs. Rogers was even worse: Rogers looked like a white belt and Barnett submitted him while barely breaking a sweat.

And finally, on Monday, Overeem appeared on The MMA Hour and said he wasn't happy with Zuffa and wouldn't agree to their demand that he fight Bigfoot on September 10. Shortly after that, Zuffa said the tournament would move on without Overeem.

I'm not interested in taking sides in what appears to be a dispute between the Zuffa brass and Overeem, but it's hard not to be disappointed in Overeem for declining to fight. One of the reasons I've always liked Overeem as a fighter is he has seemed so willing to fight anyone, at any time, in any place: In 2009 he had four kickboxing fights and three MMA fights, and in 2010 he had five kickboxing fights and two MMA fights. But so far in 2011 he's had zero kickboxing fights and one MMA fight, and now he says he can't be ready to fight Bigfoot by September. What happened to the Overeem who was willing to take seven fights a year?

I hope what has happened to the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix doesn't turn MMA fans off to tournaments entirely. When done right, tournaments can still be a lot of fun. Bellator routinely puts together tournaments that work out well. But Bellator uses hungry young fighters who aren't going to drop out if they don't absolutely have to, and when fighters do drop out, Bellator acts fast to replace them and keep the tournament going. What the problems with the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix should teach us is that tournaments need to be run with precision, not that tournaments can't work.

This week's problems are largely a result of that stupid decision of the pre-Zuffa Strikeforce to move the Overeem-Werdum and Barnett-Rogers fights from April to June. That decision was incredibly unfair to Bigfoot and Kharitonov, as it would force them to wait far too long for the tournament semifinals. (Kharitonov has actually participated in boxing and kickboxing fights overseas while he waits for Barnett, which you can't blame him for, although if he had suffered an injury in one of those fights it would have opened up another can of worms.)

Bigfoot now draws Daniel Cormier in the semifinals of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix. With all due respect to Cormier, who's an excellent wrestler and is becoming a good MMA fighter, he's not in Overeem's league. Bigfoot-Overeem would have been the second-best heavyweight fight of the rest of the year, behind only Cain Velasquez vs. Junior dos Santos. Bigfoot-Cormier is an interesting fight, but nothing special.

In fact, there's really nothing special about any of the remaining tournament fights. No matter who wins -- Silva, Cormier, Kharitonov, Barnett or some other replacement fighter who has to fill in when one of those four drops out -- the tournament champion is going to have a major asterisk next to his name.

That's because Overeem was the real marquee star in this tournament, the Strikeforce heavyweight champion and the guy who had the best chance to make a real claim that he's the best heavyweight in all of MMA. Now Overeem is out, and the rest of the tournament feels like a letdown.

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