Scott Coker and Strikeforce have certainly had better times. In the fifteen years that Strikeforce has operated, four of those years have been spent successfully promoting mixed martial arts in California. Major events such as Shamrock vs. Gracie, an event that broke an attendance record at the time, fed off the buzz surrounding the sport in the region, and that buzz translated into regional success that vaulted the promotion into talks with major networks.
In the last two years, Strikeforce has not only secured a network deal with CBS, created a home on Showtime, and bought out EliteXC's existing contracts to bolster their roster -- but they've also managed to promote some solid cards that brought great ratings and good revenue. Unfortunately, times are beginning to change once again.
After a lackluster event marred by a post-fight brawl in Nashville, Strikeforce's stock has dropped substantially. While the brawl was the focal point of criticism by some writers and fans, the event's matchmaking has come under fire as being the sole reason why Strikeforce failed so miserably. The most recent conference call with Strikeforce confirmed that sentiment as some of the questioning revolved around matchmaking, more specifically -- the reasoning behind Brett Rogers' ascension into a title contention role after being defeated by Fedor Emelianenko.
Coker finds himself in a continued matchmaking dilemma. He can either create match-ups like that of the Nashville card that fill the demand from purists who want to see quality fights that provide answers to many of the questions that hardcore fans have been asking for years, or he can create entertaining fights that don't necessarily have the importance within the divisional rankings or in the landscape of the sport. They do, however, puts asses in seats and attract casual fans.
The Nashville card did provide hardcore fans with interesting questions, albeit the fights didn't deliver excitement. They did give off a sense that they could turn out to be boring technical battles before the fights took place, but most hardcore fans are attracted to the intricate technical battles. The question as to whether Japan's great submission grappler in Shinya Aoki could compete against a top ten lightweight American wrestler/puncher was answered. Could Muhammed Lawal's wrestling be the kryptonite to Gegard Mousasi's striking and grappling? Did Jake Shields have the skills to compete in the upper echelon of the UFC? We got our answers.
But from a casual fan standpoint, those questions didn't need to be answered. Those fans wanted exciting fights, and Strikeforce's Nashville line-up provided nothing during the broadcast with the exception of an in-cage brawl following the fights.
How does Coker remedy the problem? Strikeforce's Heavy Artillery card is a step in the right direction. Not only does it have a few battles that interest hardcore fans, but it does have the potential to be an explosive card for casuals. While fans have criticized Coker's instinct to match Brett Rogers against Alistair Overeem despite Rogers being defeated by Fedor Emelianenko, the results will more than likely end in spectacular knockout fashion. Andrei Arlovski vs. Antonio Silva, Ronaldo Souza vs. Joey Villasenor, and Roger Gracie vs. Kevin Randleman all have premonitions of being quick affairs as well. They also have foreseeable boredom angles as well, but we'll hope for the best.
Coker is in a hard place. He doesn't have the depth in some of his key divisions to create great fights. The middleweight, welterweight, and lightweight divisions need some infusion of talent, and it's going to be a tough endeavour with promotions like the UFC and Bellator gobbling up talent. Shields' imminent departure doesn't help, and most of his Cesar Gracie stars are setting their sights on the UFC as well. Can Strikeforce survive?
It's tough to say. I don't think Strikeforce will ever break out the numbers to give the UFC a run for their money, but they may be able to, at the very least, produce a Fedor vs. Overeem match-up. After that, they'll have to rely on the talent they've acquired to put on spectacular displays to increase their stock and attract fans.
The UFC is at a major advantage because their dominance in the sport. They not only have a mix of punchers who are willing to entertain for a sizable paycheck and chance to increase their fanbase, but they've got so much depth that even when champions route contenders on their way to a "boring" decision... another match-up is there to please the rest of the crowd rooting for blood and looping power.
They've also established stars through their reality series, and hyped coaching match-ups that weren't necessarily great fights to begin with. The UFC has a multi-faceted attack that gains interest from fans one way or another, and Strikeforce simply doesn't have that marketing department or a partner like Spike TV.
Depth is ultimately the problem, but Strikeforce is going to have massive problems continuing in the future. Another sub-par card on CBS will sink their network deal, and the lack of depth plays right into that reality as they don't have the fighters to create truly interesting fights. Personally, I'm only interested in seeing Overeem vs. Fedor within their heavyweight division, and while I'm a hardcore fan at heart -- it's tough to get excited about Strikeforce's prospects in the future.