(Overeem and Werdum will meet in the opening round. Despite the flack the brackets have gotten, the tournament's ultimate goal will be partially realized in the first round)
As 2010 came to a close, there was a lot of talk about the failures of Strikeforce to assert themselves or make the matches they needed to. While I felt a lot of that was overreaction to a six month staging period or holding pattern, if there was one criticism of Strikeforce since the aquisition of Fedor Emelianenko in 2009, it was the fact they had not merged their HW crown, something which has been notoriously meaningless. Like Kid Nate recently pointed out, I've long argued that no one in their division seemed to care about winning or fighting for this title at all. Werdum said he would rather grant Fedor his rematch than fight the champion in a five round title fight. Overeem in his post Dream interviews and speech said in 2010 he won three titles in three promotions, referencing his K-1, Dream and Strikeforce title wins. Problem is, as Coker in his videoblog actually had to bring to Overeem's attention, he was already the Strikeforce champion in the first place. And it has been no secret that Fedor and M-1 couldn't give a shit less about the SF trinket, and their business decisions have long reflected that. The only title that mattered was the Lineal MMA HW championship and M-1 and Fedor knew that regardless of whoever held the Strikeforce title, the real champion was Emelianenko.
For those that don't know what Lineal Titile means, it is a term borrowed from boxing. Wikipedia defines the term as ;
In professional boxing, the lineal championship of a weight class is a notional world championship title. It is initially held at some moment in time by a boxer universally acclaimed as the best in the class. Another boxer can win the lineal championship only by defeating the reigning lineal champion in the ring. The lineal champion is described as "the man who beat the man".
And for those that don't understand what the MMA lineal title is, here is the table that shows how the UFC/Pride title ended up in Strikeforce, Dave Meltzer breaks it down ;
While Brock Lesnar(now Cain Velasquez - the Bieb) holds that championship today, the linear title scenario isn’t as cut-and-dried. The UFC belt passed from Coleman to Maurice Smith to Randy Couture, all in 1997. Couture then had money issues with the original UFC ownership group, left the company without being defeated, and went to Japan.
The linear title left UFC with Couture, who lost via armbar to Enson Inoue in a Vale Tudo fight in Tokyo on October 25, 1998. Inoue then lost to Mark Kerr in the PRIDE organization. Kerr then lost to Kazuyuki Fujita on May 1, 2000, and that’s where things get really interesting.
Fujita battered Kerr to win a decision in a major upset. It was the first match for both men in an eight-man, one-night event that was billed to crown the best fighter in the sport, the original PRIDE Grand Prix tournament.
Fujita suffered a knee injury in the Kerr fight from ramming his knee into Kerr’s head so many times. He came to the ring for his second fight, in order to collect his paycheck, and as soon as the bell rang, his corner threw in the towel in a match with Coleman, so technically, he competed and lost. Coleman went on to win the tournament, and the linear title stayed with PRIDE until the closing of the organization in 2007.
Coleman’s next loss was to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, who later became PRIDE’s first world heavyweight champion. Nogueira held both the linear and PRIDE titles until losing to Fedor Emelianenko via decision on March 16, 2003.
Nobody beat Emelianenko until June 26, 2010, in San Jose, when Fabricio Werdum submitted him with an armbar in 1:09 in a Strikeforce match. So while Lesnar holds the most publicized version of a world title, Werdum actually holds the linear claim that traces back to Shamrock.
If that isn't enough, Couture also lost two more "lineal"(meaningless ones) titles(one to Valentijn Overeem, and one to Josh Barnett in the UFC) that also made their way to Nog and then to Fedor. This is why for many fans it is hard to take a fourth title won from a Couture-Nog tree that serious. In 2008 Couture and Nog held two pieces of the UFC title(If that isn't enough, both won from Tim Sylvia, who Fedor then obliterated in a much more impressive fashion immediately after), which were later merged by Mir and Lesnar. This title now rests with Cain. Werdum already has three other titles won from younger and better versions of these fighters. The only reason the UFC title has any significance at all is because of the fact it's the UFC title. But to borrow again from the boxing tradition, the UFC title is just that, a title, and not a true Championship.
A lesson Strikeforce had to learn the hard way was never to book fights based on who you think may win. This is something the UFC also learned in the past. While the loss by Emelianenko has been parlayed into an even more interesting tournament and greated more legitimate players, the loss to Werdum really mucked things up for Strikeforce in the short term last year as it prevented the blockbuster Fedor vs Overeem PPV from happening as planned, which would have unified all the titles into the Strikeforce title, making the Strikeforce Heavyweight Champion the legitimate UFC/Pride(Wamma/EliteXC/IFL/Iron Ring) HW champion. This tournament will do that.
With Strikeforce there has been a lot of confusion in the HW division. Right now, Strikeforce cannot in good faith argue that their HW champion is even their best or highest ranked HW, much less the best HW in the sport. As I pointed out in an earlier piece, the winner of this tournament will also have had to navigate a field containing the very best in kickboxing and grappling in the world today, with both the reigning K1 and ADCC champions being part of the draw. After this tournament concludes, they will be able to. In addition to the accolades the winner of the tournament will inherit, they will also have faced a murderers row of legitimate, top quality heavyweights, once and for all putting to bed the criticism that the Lineal Champion hasn't been facing the type of competition to deserve that ranking.
There is also the argument the lineal title doesn't mean anything. For some fans, I guess all they care about is the UFC title, but if you ask Cain, Overeem, Werdum, Fedor, or Couture when he was champion, they would disagree. Dana White also disagrees. There is a reason he threw buckets of cash at Fedor and obsessed over Fedor as he did. This was the reason the UFC bought Pride in the first place. This is the reason they purchased the Affliction contracts. The legitimacy of requiring all the lineal titles is something the UFC has made a goal. While not implicitly stated, it has been obvious through their actions. Beyond that, Lineal titles are of significance even in the realm of Pro-wrestling. The Montreal Screwjob where Brett Hart was famously double crossed in his last match was predicated on protecting the WWE Lineal Title from traveling to the WCW.
In a conversation with BloodyElbow's Mike Fagan, he told me he still wouldn't concede the Strikeforce title will gain legitimacy through this tournament. I disagree vehemently. Strikeforce is the one holding this Grand Prix(Yes Batman, this is a Grand Prix). Strikeforce is the one holding and arranging this tournament and will be the organization where the tournament winner will continue to defend the title. The Strikeforce title will become the lineal title with this tournament unification. This is indeed the game changer SF has been looking for.
(Mark Coleman celebrating his win in Pride's original Openweight GP)
This tournament is a direct analogy to the original Pride GP which crowned Mark Coleman as the lineal champion, and announced Pride as the major league player they became. There is a reason for Dana White's silence. He knows what this tournament signifies. Expect a major counter attack. Strikeforce has done what the UFC has failed to do - make their HW champion the true champion of the sport. While Strikeforce may not be perfect, they're one of the big boys now. Are they on the UFC's level entirely? No. They have not the history nor the depth in all divisions, but are they a Major League show? Absolutely. Is there any reason we as fans should expect an upstart to have the history, depth or significance of the UFC? Would that be realistic? Should we hold it against Strikeforce?
There has also been criticism of the way the brackets have been laid out, but when examined, it's obvious that Strikeforce has made the right decision, as the titles will be unified in the opening round, and then further legitimized as the rest of the tournament unfolds. Scott Coker has atoned for his promotion's short comings and hit a grand slam home run. From this point on, any denials of Strikeforce's relevance to MMA can only be seen as either uneducated fanboyism or deliberate intellectual dishonesty.