Yesterday, Strikeforce announced the biggest and most ambitious MMA tournament since PRIDE faded into a mere memory in 2007. The San Jose based promotion will attempt an eight man tournament featuring seven of the top twenty heavyweights in the world according to the USAT/SBNation Consensus Rankings, including Alistair Overeem, Fedor Emelianenko, and Fabricio Werdum. The idea is self explanatory: turn these amazing athletes loose, watch them go at it, and a crown a champion who has run a pretty impressive gauntlet.
The power of the tournament format is primal. It's what makes the NCAA basketball championship so much more interesting than its football counterpart. There are many who credit much of the UFC's early success to their tournament format as well. The concept is simple, brutal, and brilliant. Watch as your hero faces adversity, see him grow and progress through tough times, ultimately triumphing in the end. But while UFC officials understood the power of the tournament, they learned the risks associated with the format as well.
Many might recall an alternate who hadn't even broken a sweat actually won UFC 3. Like a true ninja, Steve Jennum snuck up on the competition, winning a single bout in the finals to earn the title "Ultimate Fighting Champion." That was a problem easily solved. Going forward alternates were forced to compete in qualifying matches just like the main card competitors. No longer could an alternate enter the deciding bout fresh and injury free.
More problematic was the matchmaking designed to set up money fights. Fourteen years later, little has changed. It's a quandary clearly facing Strikeforce matchmakers today. In 1996, the money match in all of mixed martial arts was Ken Shamrock versus David "Tank" Abbott. The two were the most popular and charismatic stars on the circuit and backstage they absolutely despised each other. After years of yapping, the match finally seemed to be on the table.
The UFC booked an "Ultimate Ultimate 2" kind of an all star game for the promotion's top talent. They set up the brackets of an eight man tournament (sound familiar Strikeforce fans?) so that Shamrock would meet Abbott in the semi-finals, right after each dispatched with perfunctory opening round opponents. I explained the situation in The MMA Encyclopedia:
The two had been itching to fight for some time and the two entourages had gotten into scraps on more than one occasion. The fight seemed set after Shamrock beat Brian Johnston, but with Shamrock, there's always a catastrophe waiting around the corner. He broke his hand on Johnston's head and couldn't face Abbott in the semi-finals. It would be his last fight in the Octagon for six years.
The UFC never got their much beloved Abbott-Shamrock showdown. Injuries got in the way, something you risk anytime you utilize the tournament format in a volatile sport like mixed martial arts. It reminds me quite a bit of this tournament in many ways. The fight the fans want more than any other is Fedor Emelianenko and Alistair Overeem. On paper, it looks good, looks like a match we are likely to see in the semi-finals. But this is MMA - and it's never smart to count your chickens before they hatch. Just ask the UFC and all the fans still dreaming of that epic Shamrock-Abbott battle.