Can Scott Coker Leapfrog the UFC With Strikeforce Heavyweight Tournament?

Photo by Esther Lin for Showtime Sports.

Yesterday the long rumored cat came out of the bag. Strikeforce re-signed Fedor Emelianenko and very quickly the details of their planned heavyweight tournament began to emerge. We learned the brackets quickly, now some of Strikeforce's plans for resolving the stickier problems involved in pulling it off are beginning to emerge.

The two biggest questions fans had yesterday involved Strikeforce champ Alistair Overeem's participation in the tournament proper. Will his title be at stake in every round of the tournament? If so, will some of the fights be five rounders and others three rounders? Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker spoke to Mike Chiappetta and here's what he is thinking:

Chiappetta: Is this a stand-alone tournament, where the winner is called the Grand Prix champion, or is the winner the Strikeforce heavyweight champion?

Coker: Right now, Alistair Overeem is the Strikeforce heavyweight champion. That's something we can answer tomorrow, because what we're trying to do is clear it with the commissions to allow the fighters to fight more than three rounds outside of the title. The rules of MMA now say a five-round fight has to be a championship fight, and so we're working on that. Hopefully we'll have an answer soon on that.

Then there's Josh Barnett who was denied a license to fight by California after he failed a drug test while applying for a license in 2009. He has not yet been relicensed by that commission. Coker addresses the topic:

Chiappetta: Is there any concern about Josh Barnett getting a license?

Coker: Not at all. We've talked to four athletic commissions that will license him with a clean test. We feel confident that won't be an issue. Keep in mind Josh Barnett went to Sacramento six weeks ago, took a test and was clean. He hasn't fought for a year-and-a-half in America. He still has issues in California, so his fight won't be in California, but Josh has moved on, and we're moving on, too. He's been out of the fight business in America for 18 months. I think he's served his time.

Sherdog has more on Barnett's licensing issues:

...Coker stated that he had contacted multiple state commissions who said that they would license Barnett if the fighter were to furnish a negative drug test, similar to what he gave the CSAC prior to his Dec. 2 hearing.

Two states Barnett likely will not be fighting in, aside from California, are Nevada and New Jersey.

"Nevada isn't on that list," Coker told Sherdog.com. "Let him go appeal to any state that has a commission. Josh has some work to do in California. But he's paid his dues. Let him make a living and go to work. But I don't think he's going to be fighting in California."

Essentially Strikeforce will be venue shopping for Barnett's fights. There are several fighters who are rumored to be unwilling/unable to return to California, but Barnett is the first to openly do this. One of the quirks of a federal system with more than 50 regulatory bodies (counting Canada). In boxing, Antonio Margarito had to fight Manny Pacquiao in Texas because he couldn't get licensed in Nevada after getting caught loading his wraps. 

Other news to come out yesterday include Coker saying the April event in Columbus will not include any tournament fights but the following event would. Barring injuries he hopes to complete the tournament by fall of 2011.

This is a bold play by Coker after a bad 2010. If Strikeforce can pull off this tournament in 2011 and a winner emerges having swept this field of contenders, there is a very high likelihood that the Strikeforce champ will emerge as the world's #1 heavyweight.

The sudden collapse of the UFC's heavyweight division, which was briefly the world's best in 2010 for the first time in the promotion's history since 2000, has created a huge opening for Strikeforce.

With injuries to UFC champ Cain Velasquez, contender Shane Carwin, and Brock Lesnar's return up in the air, the field is wide open for Strikeforce to take the lead at heavyweight. 

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