Thursday, July 08, 2010

The MMA files: The Flipped-Script Blues

Scott Coker weighs options post Fedor/Werdum

The fall-out from Fedor’s loss to Werdum has generated more interest than the fight itself. And while Dana White may rightfully gloat over the unqualified success of UFC 116, where his champion redeemed himself by winning a fight that redeemed the UFC’s heavyweight division, he must also take more than a little delight in the problems that plague his competitor, Strikeforce president Scott Coker. Aside from the usual sanctioning complications and money hemorrhaging that new promotions experience, Strikeforce has problems unique to itself. Recently, the company brought MMA middleweight superstar Dan Henderson into the fold in order to remove their home-grown champion, Jake Shields, whose workman like performances and lack of celebrity appeal made him an untenable envoy for a promotion with mainstream ambitions. Shields ended up running through Henderson during their match and he retained his belt. Now he is, ironically, UFC bound, and Strikeforce is stuck with an expensive 0 and 1 fighter and a vacant middleweight championship.

But it was the contracting of Fedor Emelianenko and his subsequent loss that has engendered so much speculation regarding Strikeforce’s plans for itself as a fledgling MMA promotion. The former long-time kick boxing promotion had a great deal of early success when began featuring MMA events in 2006. It set a box office record for an MMA in March of that year when it promoted the Frank Shamrock/Cesar Gracie match in San Jose, the promotion’s hometown. It was also the first MMA promotion to get the sport regulate in the state of California, thus opening a huge market for the sport. But this early success was not immediately followed up with. After the 18,000 – plus attendance of the Shamrock/Gracie card, subsequent events have struggled to approach the 10,000 mark. Buy-rates for PPV events were equally paltry.

One problem was the lack of named talent in the ranks. It is telling that one of the next major headlining event for Strikeforce after Shamrock/Gracie was a heavyweight match between early UFC chancer Tank Abbott, and journeyman Paul Buentello. (Buentello’s victory over Tank was essentially a “qualifier” for a shot at the then-non-existent Strikeforce heavyweight championship.) Another card with and aging and battered Shamrock as headliner against aging but viable kickboxing phenom Cung Le manage to pull a good gate. It was also the inaugural event for Strikeforce on premium cable, as the fights were broadcast live on Showtime. Nonetheless, the issue of depth-of-talent remained a concern. As the UFC witnessed stars, new and old, thriving in nearly every weight class - thus allowing fight makers more flexibility with creating plausible main-events, Strikeforce continued to struggle with its roster of aging stars and itinerate journeymen.

All young promotions go through a period of developing talent, especially as regards the heavyweight division. After all, the aforementioned Tank Abbott was a top contender in the early days of the UFC. The division is hard to keep stable because many fighters are physically better structured for light heavyweight. So you get fighters like Couture and Rashad Evans who can slip between the two. It is not surprising, therefore, that Strikeforce has had not really attracted a lot of big men. To this extent, I suppose one begrudge Strikeforce’s long-time, seldom defending champion, Alistair Overeem's desire to go abroad for several years and fight elsewhere. But once it had Fedor contracted, the question was how can Coker and company build a division that can rival what the UFC has to offer? Strikeforce had its own champion, a popular international star in Overeem. With some Stateside promotion, the good looking Dutchman could become a popular figure in the sport’s mainstream. With Fedor, the had the “uncrowned” king of all heavyweights. For however long he was under their auspices, Strikeforce could be an attractor of new heavyweight talent. They could potentially draw those big, young fighters away from Dana White and company.

The script, therefore, had Overeem returning from the road to defend his title against Brett Rogers and then, eventually, against Fedor. Fedor would probably beat Overeem, but win or lose, the fight had the potential of eclipsing anything Strikeforce had done in the past as far as attendance numbers and viewership were concerned. But for whatever reason, Strikeforce gave Fedor to Werdum, and with one tight triangle choke, made Strikeforce’s script moot. So what do you do if you are Mr. Scott Coker? What revision do you make the narrative?

First off, it should be understood that Stirkeforce does not care about concerns for "fairness" and title legitimacy. It wants legitimacy for itself as a promotion, which means it has to draw eyes first and foremost. Post-Fedor loss, the matchmaking scenarios it has in front of them are as follows:

  1. Overeem/Werdum (for the belt)
  2. Fedor/Werdum II
  3. Fedor/Antonio Silva (or possibly Ricco Rodriguez… or a similar non-UFC heavyweight)
  4. Overeem/Fedor

Scenario #1 makes sense from a sport's philosophy point of view. Werdum beat the #1 contender. The champion should fight the #1 contender, right? Right, except that match will be a flop for Strikeforce. They haven't built Overeem as a brand. Also, casual and mainstream fans only recognize one heavyweight champion right now, and his name is Brock Lesnar. Names make matches. I don't think this match is really on Coker's radar at all right now.

Scenario #2 has the ethos of "the rematch" and might do as well or slightly better than the first fight. Winner get's Overeem. A good option would be to have Overeem defend his belt against Silva. “Bigfoot” has experienced some laudable wins in the past several years, including a dominating performance over Andrei Arlovski in May. Silva was a nominal world champion, briefly, for EliteXC, the company from which Strikeforce salvaged many fighters. So there is some symmetry there.

For many of the same reasons, Coker could opt for scenario #3 and have Fedor face Silva, the only other plausible heavyweight competition in the promotion. Such an arraignment might make Overeem/Werdum viable as a co-main event. That way, both winners would be on pace to meet each other in four-month’s time (providing neither is injured). Ricco Rodriguez comes up as a possible candidate as both he and Overeem were to meet ostensibly for a match in Japan’s DREAM promotion. The lack of a contract may make the former UFC champion attractive to Strikeforce. But there are dozens of unaligned heavyweights “out there” waiting to be signed, and it may not make much difference to Coker who Fedor faces as long as their names aren’t Arlovski or Rogers. Who’s to say that Coker isn’t also considering Kimbo Slice as a possible acquisition? A Fedor/Kimbo headlining card would certainly draw eyes… as well as derisive howls of ridicule.

I think scenario #4, Fedor versus Overeem for the title, is the only match that guarantees Coker two good-to-excellent outcomes. A win for Fedor – who would still be the likely favorite - would give any rematch with Werdum much stronger gravitas. Fedor would be seeking redemption. Werdum would get his title shot as well as a chance to confirm that his first win wasn’t a fluke. It is would make for great drama and easy promotion.

While all this is going on, Strikeforce’s legal department is working on getting new verbiage into fight contracts that requires a champion to stay in the promotion as long as he is in possession of the promotion’s title. Coker must know, however, that Fedor as champion is untenable for the long haul. He will defend it to beat Werdum, but he isn’t going to stick around and fight… who? Rogers again? Overeem again? Silva? Even if the strategy works and Strikeforce begins to blossom and attract talent, there would simply not be enough time to arrange and promote an outsider for Fedor to fight. The division would be developing, but far from developed.

What needs to be understood at this point in the story is that the ultimate destination for Fedor in the twilight of his career is the UFC. Two dominating wins and a division championship is probably exactly what it is going to take for Dana White to get back in the business of Fedor Emelianenko. Of course, now Zuffa’s hand will be much stronger, and M-1’s much more compromised. Fedor will come to the UFC, but he will come as a fighter, not as an enigma.

Coker must foresee this outcome, too. He can sue Fedor for breach of contract, sure. But Zuffa’s legal team is sure to make this case drip like cold sap through the legal system. There may be a payoff at some point, and Strikeforce may win, but by that point, Fedor will have appeared on The Ultimate Fighter, won the belt at a massive out-door main event, and made the White et al millions.

So why not make hay while the sun shines? Or in this case, while the “Russian Tsar” shines? If he can pull off a duo of Fedor cards before the big man bolts, Coker might just have… well, what will he be left with? Two good gates? Decent ratings? But no star. No dream matches. And this gets to the heart of the real dilemma for Scott Coker: without a solid, loyal fanbase, without regular, weekly TV exposure, and without a stable of viable and attractive fighters, it doesn’t matter what direction you send Fedor. He is one fighter with his own destiny. Strikeforce is a business with a future that must be project far past the exigencies of single fighter, a single match, or a single season of cards.

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