Strikeforce Establishes Itself as a Formidable Number 2 in MMA

Strikeforce welterweight champ Nick Diaz. Photo by Esther Lin for Showtime Sports.

Saturday's Strikeforce Diaz vs Cyborg event on Showtime featured four entertaining fights, but more importantly it kicked off a big 2011 for Scott Coker's promotion. 

Unlike most of the UFC's would be competitors in the U.S. -- I'm thinking of failed promotions like Affliction, EliteXC, the IFL, and the WFA -- Strikeforce is not looking at a make or break financial crisis with each event. Their deal with Showtime and the $30 million in revenue (not profits) they posted in 2010 will keep the wolf away from the door.  

With the seeming fall of FEG, the Japanese parent company of Dream and K-1, Strikeforce now stands alone in the world as a major challenger to the UFC. 

Although they're not really a competitor as much as a supplementary supply of MMA. It's only when they compete for fighters that they cross swords with the UFC. If they move to PPV that will be a different matter. 

Nick Diaz improved his performance as a headliner draw for live ticket sales in Sacramento. Diaz vs Cyborg was seen live by more than 9,000 fans. This is up from 7,559 for Diaz vs KJ Noons 2 last October.

After the fight, Diaz seemed more  talking up his pro boxing debut than in potential challengers for his welterweight belt. Diaz' contract with Strikeforce allows him to take one pro boxing bout on Showtime this year. Potential opponents include Fernando Vargas or Ricardo Mayorga. Vargas is already ratcheting up the smack talk with Diaz. Diaz' manager Cesar Gracie sees that fight coming in August. 

Diaz and Coker talked about Diaz' upcoming busy 2011 after the fight and Josh Gross wrote it down:

"I'll fight Fernando Vargas," Diaz said. "I'm not afraid to box him."

Whether Diaz does or doesn't, Coker said the fighter will be busy in 2011.

"All three of those fights that he really wants this year, I think he'll get them," Coker said. "One of them is Daley. I think 'Mayhem' Miller will happen. And I think Tyron Woodley will happen towards the end of the year, or maybe beginning of next year."

Strikeforce also announced that their light heavyweight champ Rafael Cavalcante aka Feijao will defend his title against Dan Henderson on March 5th in Columbus, Ohio. This will be an interesting experiment for Strikeforce as it will take place during Columbus' annual Arnold Sports Festival which has in the past proven to be a very good weekend for the UFC.

Strikeforce's 205lb division is strong at the top with Feijao, Henderson, Gegard Mousasi and Muhammed Lawal, aka King Mo but there is considerable fall off after those four. Roger Gracie showed Saturday that he can beat legit competition by choking out Trevor Prangley and making it look easy. There is talk that Renato Sobral, aka Babalu could be next for Gracie. Babalu would be an immense leap in competition for the elite grappler but stylistically makes sense since Sobral relies on his submission game for most of his wins and Gracie would have a big edge on the ground. 

In the middleweight ranks, Jacare aka Ronaldo Souza doesn't seem interested in a third bout with Jason Miller, aka Mayhem. But it's not clear who else there is for Souza to face in the suddenly thin 185lb Strikeforce ranks. Miller had been expected to face Tim Kennedy but now it looks like Luke Rockhold will fight Kennedy on the Columbus card in February. 

If Rockhold wins in spectacular fashion, Jacare will have a new and formidable challenger in the 7-1 Rockhold. Likewise Kennedy will make a strong case for a rematch with a win. 

In the lightweight division, Coker is talking about importing Japanese ace Tatsuya Kawajiri to face champ Gilbert Melendez. This is good matchmaking from a competitive angle but is weak promotionally as Kawajiri is unknown to American fans. Coker will also be sending over some of his lightweights to a proposed Japanese lightweight tournament that would air on HDNet in the States. That tourny will kick off in May.

We haven't even talked about Coker's big play -- the Heavyweight Grand Prix. That's the big one as it could easily set up a return to CBS and possibly a debut PPV for Strikeforce. If they can pull off a profitable PPV that's when they cross the line into bona fide UFC competitor. In the meantime they remain a very very strong second. 


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