Assessing Strikeforce's Chances to Make a Go of Promoting Fedor Emelianenko

Picture_15_medium Dave Meltzer breaks it down. After pointing out that Fedor will be marketed as the No. 1 heavyweight and the legitimate champion in the world as long as he doesn't lose, Meltzer concedes that none of the three likely opponents for Fedor on the Strikeforce roster will create the kind of hype needed to draw general public interest, much less sell a PPV. But he goes on to make the long-term case:

But there are several more factors in the long-term. Strikeforce’s television contract includes options with CBS, which is in the same Viacom corporate umbrella as Showtime. If Emelianenko’s second fight is on CBS in a prime-time slot, he will get a measure of exposure in this country the likes of which he’s never come close to receiving. There is value in being considered by most as the best heavyweight, and of a second MMA organization having someone of his stature on its major events.

Both sides can benefit long-term from the visibility, and quite frankly, two years down the line, if Emelianenko has built up his name to the average sports fan in the U.S. during that period, there would be more interest, past just the hardcore audience, in seeing him face whomever the UFC champion is at the time. It could give him significantly more leverage with the UFC than he has now.


Ultimately, for the deal to pay off, Emelianenko will have to keep winning, and either draw strong network ratings or become a pay-per-view attraction. Emelianenko has been a star in Japan for six years, headlining numerous big shows, but has never been a strong television ratings draw in that country. ...

Last year’s Elite XC-on-CBS experiment showed that when it came to drawing network ratings, an interesting character (Kimbo Slice) and a pretty face (Gina Carano) drew eyeballs. The promise of a great fight (Robbie Lawler-Scott Smith II after a great first fight) or seeing a highly ranked fighter (Jake Shields) flopped in prime time.

Can Emelianenko be marketed to draw people who otherwise wouldn’t watch MMA on television like Slice and Carano did? Pay-per-view requires not only Emelianenko’s presence, but also a strong opponent that people believe will be a challenge, as well as strong promotion and a strong storyline. It’s imperative Emelianenko doesn’t lose in the interim, which would kill the most important thing he can be sold as to the big audience, which is that he is the real world champion.

As much as people have criticized Strikeforce for making the move to sign Fedor, they really had no choice. In order for their deal with Showtime to really be viable, they need to put together a breakout show that can get them on CBS. Having Gina Carano headline their August 15 event is part of that strategy. Carano was an excellent ratings draw at all of her EliteXC fights.

But you can't build a fighting promotion around one headliner. With Frank Shamrock clearly slipping and Cung Le preoccupied with his movie career, Strikeforce was desperate for a marquee name who could headline a CBS broadcast.

Quietly staying on Showtime and gradually improving their ratings isn't an option. CBS/Showtime are interested in MMA because they are looking for breakout programming. Even though it ultimately ended in disaster, as long as Gary Shaw and EliteXC managed to protect Kimbo Slice, it was a win for the network, if not the promotion. Kimbo and Gina delivered great ratings.

CBS wants more of that from their 2.0 try at MMA. But this time they want the promotion to be built on a solid footing. One that won't drop from a jab in 0:14. Strikeforce is under a great deal of pressure to step up their game.

They spent months negotiating with Tito Ortiz and presumably building plans to market shows around the UFC legend. But ultimately, Dana White moved in and re-signed Tito. If anything was the trigger to the current UFC vs Strikeforce hostilities, it was the UFC signing Tito.

Once the option of building network shows around Tito was removed, they really had no option but to at least put in a bid for Fedor. Luckily for them, Dana White's smack talking seems to have permanently alienated Fedor. Here's an open letter Fedor wrote Dana white in February 2008:

Numerous times have I read mister White's statements on Internet concerning myself. In my opinion, allowing yourself to say those things is not a sign of a gentleman or a grown man at all! If he candidly wants to prove himself right then let my fight with Randy happen or let me face the reigning UFC champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. In the future I wouldn't want to hear those statements in my address ever again and I won't tolerate that.

As I've repeatedly elaborated, my take on the UFC/M-1 negotiations is that M-1 wasn't going to make a deal with the UFC under any circumstances. Dana's habit of bad mouthing fighters has alienated Fedor. His most recent eruption after the Strikeforce deal was announced didn't do anyone any good.

Dana can counter program Strikeforce all he wants (which he was probably going to be forced to do anyway) and it's highly likely that Strikeforce and Showtime/CBS will fail in what they're trying to do. But the reality is this, had Dana White not made an enemy of Fedor in the original PRIDE acquisition and continued to make it worse with 18 months of epic (and pointless) smack talking, the UFC could have signed the greatest MMA fighter in history and the unquestioned #1 heavyweight in the world last week.

That would have been game over for Strikeforce (and DREAM) or anyone else looking to break into the top levels of MMA. Instead the MMA wars will continue. Sure the UFC is the odds on favorite to win, but fighting wars you could have avoided is a real bad long term strategy.

The coalition of Fedor/Strikeforce/DREAM/CBS/EA Sports could be a very formidable combination. If Strikeforce manages to put on one successful CBS show headlined by Fedor, there are a number of heavyweights on the UFC roster whose contracts will be over in 18 months. Fedor vs Randy Couture on CBS in late 2010? Fedor vs Chuck Liddell? I certainly wouldn't even put it past Brock Lesnar to screw over the UFC if he gets the chance. He's jumped ship before.

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