Strikeforce Heavyweight Tournament: Rules Tweaks, Title Belts, and Media Criticism

Strikeforce took a double whammy in the last two days after news of the Strikeforce heavyweight tournament dominated the news cycle last week. First, Dana White landed a major coup in convincing ratings-monster Brock Lesnar to sojourn in the Las Vegas desert for six weeks "coaching" the Ultimate Fighter reality show. Today, Scott Coker took the wind out of his own sails, announcing details of the tournament which differ greatly from what had been reported over the last seven days. 

Let's break things down.

  • The only five-round fight will be the final. Earlier in the week, Coker expressed his desire for all of the tournament fights to be scheduled for five rounds. On today's conference call, he announced that all quarter- and semi-final bouts would be three rounds, while the championship fight would be five rounds, claiming that Strikeforce couldn't guarantee that all of the commissions involved would agree up front to sanction five-round non-title fights. ESPN's Josh Gross repudiated the excuse somewhat claiming that California, New Jersey, Missouri, and Tennessee were all fine with the idea, and that Strikeforce hadn't approached them about it. While losing five-round fights pains me, it's much more optimal in my eyes to maintain a symmetrical format throughout the tournament rather than operate one line of the tournament under an altered ruleset. That said...
  • The Strikeforce heavyweight championship will not be on the line. When the five-round fantasy was still alive, it had been reported that Alistair Overeem's heavyweight belt would be on the line through the three rounds of the tournament. That has been nixed. The tournament winner will win an independent Grand Prix title and will earn the right to fight Overeem for the proper heavyweight belt. More on this below.
  • If any fight is ruled a draw, a "fourth judge" will determine who advances. Coker didn't clarify whether this would be a commission- or promotion-appointed official, but Josh Gross just informed me via Twitter that the judge will be Strikeforce-appointed. It's unlikely that any fight will be ruled a draw, but this has "sticky situation" written all over it. More on this below, as well.
  • If a fighter cannot continue in the tournament, a five-person tournament committee will determine a replacement from reserve bouts and eliminated fighters. The committee will be chaired by Strikeforce rules director Cory Schafer. I'm not sure why Strikeforce felt the need to create something like this. A committee adds no more legitimacy to the same decision made by Scott Coker and company.

Thoughts from Jamie Penick, Dave Meltzer, and more on the Strikeforce tournament after the jump.

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The decision to remove Overeem's belt from the proceedings wildly changes the dynamic of the tournament. Jamie Penick from MMA Torch thinks Strikeforce is making a mistake:

With having the title not be on the line, they run the risk of Overeem losing and holding onto the belt despite not being the top fighter in the division on their roster. There's an argument that an Overeem loss in the tournament sets up a big fight for the Strikeforce Title afterward, but that depends on how he loses and who he loses to. Again, if Werdum defeats him in the first round and wins the tournament, he'll be the established best heavyweight in Strikeforce; but in order to be the division's Champion, he'd have to defeat Overeem for a third time. How does that make sense?

And the argument that it's somehow unfair to Overeem and his opponents if they were fighting five round fights while others in the tournament aren't is simply wrong. Overeem is the Champion. He should be defending his title when he fights in the organization, and title fights are five rounders. If this wasn't being pushed as a tournament, he'd be fighting Werdum in a five round fight for the belt. It's that simple.

Penick is correct, but only if you believe in the fairy tale that title belts outside of the UFC really mean anything. I touched on this point last year when I wondered what all the fracas about stripping Overeem of the title was all about. It's clear that Strikeforce doesn't hold a high regard for their belts. They're more concerned with putting on entertaining fights. That's fine with me as I'd rather watch Alistair Overeem fight Fabricio Werdum and Fedor Emelianenko whether or not there's a ten-pound belt of gold up for grabs in the process.

There's also the story of Josh Barnett missing a January 10th deadline to address his application for a fighter's license in California and skipping the upcoming February 4th CSAC hearing on the matter. The commission granted Barnett an extension after he failed to bring counsel with him to a hearing last month, which also featured the appeal of Chael Sonnen. Dave Meltzer would threaten to boot Barnett from the tournament if he was Scott Coker:

(Audio at Figure 4 Weekly Online. Transcribed by Fight Opinion.)

DAVE MELTZER: "You know the whole thing's that happened from start-to-finish makes you question everything because it's like every time, you know it's been a year-plus, I mean there has been hearing after hearing where something didn't happen, right, where once he doesn't show up, you know last time he doesn't bring his lawyer and now he's just not going to be there at all when... You know, at this point, if he doesn't come I think it's pretty clear they're not going to give him a license."

BRYAN ALVAREZ: "No."

DAVE MELTZER: "And if California doesn't give him a license, yeah, sure, you can go commission shop, but that makes Coker and Strikeforce look bad for putting a guy in a tournament that, um, no-showed a hearing, you know, to get reinstated after a steroid test violation and also there's going to be states like, you know, Nevada and New Jersey, you know powerful states where he's not going to be able to fight. So, I almost you know, honest to God if he doesn't go, if I was the promoter, no question, if I was the promoter in this situation, if I'm Coker, I'm telling him, dude, you change your mind and you get to that commission and you ask, I'm sorry I applied late, get me on the docket. Because if you're not on that docket and they don't approve you, I got to kick you out of the tournament. You got to. Because you can't go in there and go, well, you know, what if Josh wins? We can't have the final in San Jose. We can't have the finals in Jersey, we can't have the finals in Vegas."

Uncharacteristically, Cage Side Seats' Derek Suboticki expressed similar, more scathing comments on the topic of the steroid-riddled Barnett on Monday. Barnett's inclusion in the tournament and apparent unwillingness to confront the CSAC in regards to applying for a license force Coker to seek out for friendly commissions who will supply Barnett a license. As Meltzer noted later in the segment, this sort of transparent commission-shopping is reminiscent of the tactics used by Bob Arum in finding a state in which to promote Manny Pacquiao's fight with Antonio Margarito. Pacquiao and Margarito, however, sold a million pay-per-views. It would be very optimistic to think that Barnett adds even one percent of that in viewership to a Showtime event, let alone a full-blown pay-per-view. Removing Barnett at this point seems highly unlikely and would create an even more massive disparity between the two sides of the brackets, but both Suboticki and Meltzer express salient points on the matter.

Finally, some last-minute reporting from Josh Gross in regards to the "fourth judge" concept:

Prior to being asked about it by ESPN.com on Thursday, Lembo was also unaware of Strikeforce's intention to use a fourth judge, independent of the three assigned by whichever regulatory body oversees that event, to determine an advancing fighter in case of a draw.

"Strikeforce could utilize a fourth judge for their own tournament advancement purposes, but the fourth judge would not be an NJSACB judge, and such would not effect the official recorded result," Lembo said.

While a fighter would continue onto the next round of the tournament, his official record would reflect the result as a draw, Strikeforce rules director Cory Schafer confirmed. The fourth judge would score the fight as a whole, similar to Pride Fighting Championships' old scoring method.

The "fourth judge" pill is a little easier to swallow with the knowledge that the advancing fighter will not receive an official win on his record. As I said earlier, however, this has "sticky situation" written all over it.

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